The First World War launched Canada towards full nationhood


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 full nationhood.

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. Then 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, 1919.

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 per cent 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 served.

Next Installment: Canada’s Second World War

The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.

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