Canada was not even an
independent nation when it fought its costliest war ever, the
First World War, which for Canada began on August 4, 1914. When
the war ended on November 11, 1918, Canada’s soldiers — indeed
Canada’s entire war effort — gained a vital step on the road to
When Britain declared war on the German and Austro-Hungarian
Empires on August 4, 1914, the Dominion of Canada was a colony
of Britain. Canada had no power over its own foreign affairs.
Thus Canada, with its population of 7.8 million, was
automatically at war too. The country had no air force, a very
small navy, and a tiny army of about 3,000 officers and men.
There were some 60,000 reservists, or part-time soldiers, across
Canada. Most were poorly trained and badly equipped.
The war pitted the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary
against Britain, France, Russia and soon Italy. The Conservative
prime minister Sir Robert Laird Borden strongly supported
Britain and by the end of 1915 wanted a large (for Canada) army
of 500,000 men. This was a major challenge for a country with
such a small population. Yet in 1914 a very large part of the
English-speaking population of Canada was either British-born or
one or two generations removed from Britain. For many young men,
therefore, the call to war was a call to defend the Empire. The
economy was also in deep recession and many men joined the army
because they had no jobs.
The first group of soldiers sailed for Britain in early October
1914. Their first major battle was at Ypres in Belgium in April
1915. They defended the lines north of the city against heavy
German attacks, including the first use of poison gas in the
war. The Canadians were forced to withdraw but helped to set up
new defences, and the Canadian First Division suffered more than
6,000 casualties in just a few days.
The Canadian Army in Belgium and France grew to four divisions —
about 100,000 fighting men. After Ypres, it fought costly
battles with little success at places such as Festubert and St.
Eloi in 1915 and the Somme in 1916. In early 1917 Borden sailed
for England to attend the Imperial War Conference and pledged to
continue Canada’s strong war effort. He realized that high
casualties at the front and dropping numbers of volunteers at
home were shrinking the army. On his return to Canada at the end
of April 1917 he announced conscription or compulsory service.
This became law on August 29, 1917 over the bitter opposition of
former Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and much of
Quebec. Borden then formed a Union government with
pro-conscription Liberals and won a major victory in the federal
election of December 17, 1917.
Canada made a very small contribution to the Allied war effort
at sea, but in the air, many Canadian airmen played an important
part in the war. Flying with the Royal Flying Corps and the
Royal Naval Air Service, Canadians such as W.A. “Billy” Bishop,
Raymond Collishaw and William Barker achieved fame as leading
aces, shooting down hundreds of enemy planes.
At the front, the Canadian Corps — as the four division army was
called — won a smashing victory at Vimy Ridge in France at
Easter 1917. Using close cooperation between artillery and
infantry, very good planning, and exceptional preparation, the
Canadians captured the Ridge in a four day battle. The Canadians
had become very good soldiers, and in June 1917, a Canadian —
Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie — was named to command the
Canadian Corps. Currie led the Corps in the grinding and very
costly battle of Passchendaele in October, 1917 and the Battle
of Amiens that began August 8, 1918.
Amiens was a major attack by British Empire forces. Led by the
Australian and Canadian Corps, it punched huge holes in the
German defences. One prominent German general called it “the
black day of the German army”. One hundred days of very heavy
fighting followed, with many more casualties for the British,
Australian and Canadian forces but many victories also. The
German army began to collapse. In Berlin, a new government took
power and sued for peace. A ceasefire went into effect on
November 11, 1918 and negotiations began with the Central Powers
that led to the Treaty of Versailles ending the war on June 28,
Canada achieved the beginnings of full independence as a result
of its immense contribution to the war. More than 619,000
Canadians served, almost 10 percent of the entire population.
Borden gained the right to sign the Versailles Treaty on behalf
of Canada, and Canada gained a seat in the newly created League
of Nations. In Imperial Conferences in the 1920s Canada and the
other self-governing dominions (Australia, South Africa, and New
Zealand) won complete independence, mainly as a result of their
contribution to the victory over the Central Powers. But the
cost was high. The nation split over conscription and 60,000 men
were killed in action and 172,000 wounded out of those who
Next Instalment: Canada’s Second World War
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