World War I: Canada


Figure 1.--Here we see an unidentified Canadian boy. We have no way of knowing, but almost surely it was taken during the World war I. His father might well have been in the Army. The boy here wears a perfect Canadian Army uniform.

Canada like America had no treaties with European countries. Canada was, however, not an independent country. Thus Britain’s declaration of war on Germany meant that Canada was also at war. Germany's plan was a quick victory against France following the Schliffen Plan (August 1914). France's victory at the Marne meant that there would be no quick German victory. This gave the Allies time to marshal their resources and for Britain this included the resources of the Dominions. While Britain declared war, the Canadian Government controlled the level of the country's participation. Canadians, at least English-speaking Canadians, like Europeans were enthusiastic about the war. Few had a realistic idea of modern war. Many English speaking Canadians volunteered. Few French-Canadiand did so. The Canadian recruits were trained at Valcartier, Québec. Canada sent its first troops to Britain (October 3, 1914). The first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) totaled 32,000 men. The CEF was deployed with the British on the Western Front in France and the small area of Belgium the Allies still held. The War by this time the Canadians arrived was settling into the terrible trench warfare for which it is known. The Canadian 1st Division fought its first major engagement suring the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium (April 15, 1915). It was here the Germans introduced poison gas. After months of grueling warfare, the Canadians fought on the Somme with the British (1916). The Canadians gradually expanded their force and totaled 4 divisions (October 1916). They were organized as the Canadian Corps and included four infantry divisions supported by artillery, cavalry, engineer, and auxiliary units. The single most important Canadian operation of the War was the capture of Vimy Ridge (April 1917). The Canadians Corps was involved in a larger British offensive near Arras (April 1917). It was the first operation conducted entirely by the Canandian Corps. The Canadians crossed no-man's land and stormed the German positions. They took all most all of the German positions (April 9). Battlefield losses resulted in the need for more men on the Western front. Britain for the first time in its long history instituted conscription. The Canadian Government followed suit (1917). Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden belierced that the CEF could be based on volunteer recruitment. After receiving large numbers of voluntters (1914), but volunteers had declined substantially by the end of 1915. Prime-minister Borden announced a plan to deploy 500,000 men overseas (January 1916). A force of this size could not be fielded on a volunteer basis. Canada at the time had a populatiion of only 8 million. The Government passed the Military Service Act (August 1917). The issue of conscription sharply divided Canadians.

Constitutional Status

Canada itself did not actually declare war on Germany. Canada like America had no treaties with European countries. Canada was, however, not a fully independent country. Thus Britain’s declaration of war on Germany meant that Canada was also at war. The same was the case of the other Dominions.

Outbreak of War (August 1914)

Austria-Hungary was determined to punish Serbia for the assaination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia was committed to defend the Serbs--fellow Slavs. Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas exchanged telegrams, but ther personal relationship could not restrain the developing tragedy. The Tsar ordered a mobilization. France also began to mobilize its troops. Russia had the largest army in Europe and once moibilized posed a forbidable danger to Germany. Germany thus felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The strike at France followed the Schlieffen Plan which meant invading Belgium. German armies crossed the Belgian birder (Aufudy 4). This brought Britain, which had treaty obligations to Belgium, into the War. Britain may have entered the War with out Germany invasion of Belgium, but the invasion provided both the causus bellum and popular support for war. Germany's decession to support Austria's desire to punish Serbia turned a Balkans crisis into a major European war. Germany probably would have prevailed in a war with France and Russia. The invasion of Belgium provided tactical advantages, but at the cost of brining Britain and the Empire with its immenense military and material resources into the War.

The Empire

The French sucess in stopping the Germans on the Marne meant that the British would have time to marshall the resources of the Empire. This meant that Canada and the other Domininions would play an important role in the War. While the Dominions had relatively small populations, ewhen added together, the population was not inconsequential. And along with that of the Empire, the resources were substantial. The Germans, confident of a quick victory, failed to take this into saccount--a mistake another generatin weould make again .

Canadian Expeditionary Force (October 1914)

Canada before the outbreak of war did not really have an army. The arms race in Europe had not affected either America or Canada. Canada in 1914 had an army of 3,110 men with a few old machine-guns and artillery pieces. The militia system in no way prepared men for modern combat. The German military assessment before the War was that the Dominions would not capable of playing an important role in a uropean war. The Canadian recruits were trained at Valcartier, Québec. Canada sent its first troops to Britain (October 3, 1914). The first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) totaled 32,000 men. Newfoundland which at the time was a separate British colony contributed 500 men. As the Canadian units continued to arrive arrived in France, they were formed into the different divisions of the Canadian Corps which was organized as part of the British Army. The Canadian Corps eventually fielded four front line divisions Many of the early volunteers were British-born immigrants. Most of the CEF was composed of English-speaking volunteers. Recruiting proved especilly difficult among French-Canadian Canadians, although some did volunteer. French Canadians largely saw the War as an English war and few exhibited much desire to fight to defend France. There was one French-speaking battalion, the 22nd or 'Van Doos'.

Military Training Camps

The Imperial German Army like the Prussian Army before it was notable for maintaing a potent standing army whivh could quickly be reforced with a trained reservecand rushed to the front by the country's effucent rail service. Thus Germany's best chabce to win the War was at the onset in August and September 1914. The French Miracle on the Marne (September 6, 1914). This gave the British and the Dominions time to train men and rush them to France. The small Cananadian Army had very few camps and other facilities before the War. Thus to prepare a sizeable combat force, camps had to be opened to train soldiers. Major General Sam Hughes was appointed to command the Cananian Army since 1911. He oversaw the expansion and building program. One of the most important of these camps was Camp Valcartier. Valcartier was a town located 18 miles north of Quebec City. The location was selected by the Army shortly after the outbreak of the War (1914). The camp was open so quickly that families were still living thee when the troops began arriving and the training commenced. Troops began arriving very quickly (August 24, 19l4). Eventually about 33,000 men were trained here. Eventually the Camp consisted of roads, water mains, railway sidings, stores, showers and movies for the troops. The training facilities included 3 miles of rifle range as well as extensive training grounds for heavy artillery and cavalry. The Camp was emptied after the Armistice (November 1918), but was used by the Army for summer training exercises. During the Great Depression of the 1930s it was reopened as a relief camp. And then opened again with the outbreak of World war II (1939). It became a permanent camp and is now called Base Valcartier.

Western Front: Trench Warfare

The CEF was deployed with the British on the Western Front in France and the small area of Belgium the Allies still held. The War by this time was settling into the terrible trench warfare for which it is known. World War I resulted in a revolution in infantry tactics which fundamentally altered how wars were fought. The armies which clashed in August 1914 operated on essentially 19th century doctrines, large units of riflemen were screened by cavalry and supported by artillery. Commanders expecting a decisive engagements to settle the war rapidly. Sweeping manuevers exposed the calvary and infanntry to the killing power of modern weapons. Modern weapons, especially artillery and machine guns as well as accurate rapid-fire rifles proved devestating, especially when used against the tactics field commanders employed in the initial phases of the War. Field operations by 1916 had, after the loss of millions, been fundamentally changed. The professional armies of 1914 were devestatee and were replaced by conscripted replacenments. What began as a rapid war of movement soon settled down to static trench warfare and became a brutal war of attrition. Both the Germans and French and British began digging trenches to stay alive. Eventually parallel trench systems streached from the Swiss border to the English Channel. There were about 40,000 kilometers of trenches on the Western Front alone. Living conditions in the trenches were dreadfull, but they did offer protection. [Bull] The British developed the tank which helped to breach the German trench lines, but it would be the Germans in World War II tha would put this weapon to effective use.

Ypres (April 1915)

The Canadian 1st Division fought its first major engagement suring the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium (April 15, 1915). It was here the Germans introduced poison gas.

The Somme (1916)

After months of grueling warfare, the Canadians fought on the Somme with the British (1916). The losses were enormous. The British and Cabadians, however, learned important lessons at the Somme. The lessons would be put to good use in thecfinal Allied offensive which won the War.

The Canadian Corps

The Canadians gradually expanded their force and totaled 4 divisions (October 1916). They were organized as the Canadian Corps and included four infantry divisions supported by artillery, cavalry, engineer, and auxiliary units. The Canadian Corps consuisted of about 80,000 men.

Vimy Ridge (April 1917)

The single most important Canadian operation of the War was the capture of Vimy Ridge (April 1917). The Canadians Corps was involved in a larger British offensive near Arras (April 1917). The Canadian were ordered to take 7-km long Vimy Ridge. It was part of the heavily fortied German trench system. It was the first operation conducted entirely by the Canandian Corps. The Canadians crossed no-man's land and stormed the German positions. Thgey took all most all of the German positions (April 9). The last two positions fell (April 12). The human cost in World war I battles was dreadful. The Canadians at Vemy Ridge lost 3,598 killed and over 7,000 wounded.

Home Front

While Canada like te other Dominions were automatically drawn into the War when Britain declared war on Germany, Canadians like most Europeans were at first enthusiastic. Few had a realistic idea of modern war. The country mobilized to support the war effort and their soldiers at the front. The Red Cross played an important ole. Britain declared war, but the Canadian Government through its Parliament controlled the level of participation. There were differences of opinions about the War. Most English speaking Canadians believed that Britain was right and that Germany and Austria-Hungary were tyranies waging an aggressive war. The most enthusiastic were those with the closest ties with Britain. This was especially true of recent immigrants with family in Britain. The least enthusiastic were French Canadians. Although France was the country most threatened, few French Canadians had family ties to France. Most saw it as a British war and wanted no part in it. Many English speaking Canadians volunteered. Few French-Canadiand did so. As the War comtinued, the need for man power at the front increased and conscription became a major political issue. French Canadians in particular were opposed to subscription. Canada's vast agricultural production made an importsant contribution to the Allied war effort.

Conscription

Battlefield losses resulted in the need for more men on the Western front. Britain for the first time in its long history instituted conscription. The Canadian Government followed suit (1917). Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden belierced that the CEF could be based on volunteer recruitment. After receiving large numbers of voluntters (1914), but volunteers had declined substantially by the end of 1915. Primeminister Borden announced a plan to deploy 500,000 men overseas (January 1916). A force of this size could not be fielded on a volunteer basis. Canada at the time had a populatiion of only 8 million. The Government passed the Military Service Act (August 1917). French Canadians stronly opposed conscription for a war in which they did not believe. Other groups opposed conscription including farm and labor groups. The issue of conscription sharply divided Canadians.

Passchendaele (July November 1917)

Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie was appointed to be the the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps (June 1917). Within a month he committed the Canadian Corps to its most infamous bttle of the War. The Canadians fought in waist-deep mud to take Passchendaele in Belgium (October-November 1917). They suffered 16,000 menkilled and wounded. The battle is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. The German-occupied Belgian town of Ypres was the principal population within a salient in the British lines. As a result, it was the scene of two bloody, but indecisibe earlier battles: First Ypres (October-November 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915). British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, know after the war as the Butcherof the Somme, was fixated on another offensive in Flanders. He was concerned about th German decesion to resume unrestricted submrine warfare and the possible impact on the British war effort. He wanted to retake the Belgian coast where the Germns had U-boat bases. He was also concerned bout Russian withdrawl from the War which was becoming more likely, releasing huge German formations for redeployment ion the Wesern Frint. Haig was pleased with the British success on Messines Ridge (June 7). British miners had placed 19 huge mines under the German front line trebches. They were exploded simultaneously. This enabled the infantry to take the Ridge. Haig then proceeded ith plans to take Passchendaele Ridge. The flat teraine, howevr, was a problem. It made it virtually impossible to hide prepration from the Germans. This had also been a problem at the Somme. The British began a 2 week artllery bombardment, a certain clue to the Germans that the Canadians were coming (mid-July). It consisted of 3,000 big guns firing 4.5 million shells. Despite this enormous bsrage, the German defenses remained largely intact. The Canadian infantry began to move forwardv (July 31). One impact of th artillery barage was that the clay soil was churned up and the drainage systems destroyed. The left of the Canadian attack largely achieved its objectives but the right failed. Then after a few day, the area was saturated with the heaviest rain in 30 years. The battlefield was transformed into a quagmire. The mud clogged up rifles and immobilised the tanks the British had begun to deploy. Movement became an unbelieveable struggle. The mud was so deep that men and horses becme stuck in it. Some even drowned.

German Spring Offensuve (1918)

The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsevicks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerful forces to the Wesern Front. The draconian demands on the Bolshecicks delayed the siugning of the peace treaty and the transfer of troops to the Western Front. The Russian Revolution occurred during the late Fall. The ensuing Wiunter of course meant that the Germans could not l;aunch a major offensive. By the tinme they were able to launch their offensive, a new American Army of over 1 million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Allied Offensive (August-November 1918)

The French Army by 1917 had been broken on Verdun and were no longer capable of offensive operations. The British with the Canadian Corps had built a new conscript army with improved tactica and weapons. It was the British on the left and the Americans on the fright that would crack the vaunted Siegfried Line. The Canadian Corps played an important part in the British advance. The Canadians struck at Amiens (August 8). This was the beginning of the “Hundred Days” that won the War. German General Erich Ludendorff, Chief of Staff of the German Army, referred tothe launch of the Canadian offensive August 8 as, “The Black Day of the German Army”. The Canadian Corps was at the Mons in Belgium nearing Germany itself when the Armistice was declared. That 100 days of fighting cost 45,000 men killed and wounded.

Canadian Units

The largest Canadian military unit in World War I was the the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) which was forned into the Canadian Corps and served with the British Army on the Western Front. The four divisins of the CEF played an important role in the War. There were, however, many other Canadian units which participated in the War, including air and naval units.

Air Operations

Canadians served in the British Royal Air Force. The air plane had only limited military value at the beginning of the War. Such rapid strides were made in aviation that by the end iof the War, planes had become potent weapons of war yielding a new dimension to warfare. Canadians served both in the aerial struggle over the Western Front as well as at home in Canada. Aviation schools were opened in Canada and more than 3,000 British and Canadian pilots trained there.The bestvknown Canadian airman was W.A. “Billy” Bishop who was the third leading fighter pilot ace of the war. He destroyed 72 enemy aircraft. William Barker was one of the most highly-decorated Canadians. Other Canadian aces were Raymond Collishaw and A.A. McLeod. About 23,000 Canadian airmen served in the War and of those men 1,563 were killed.

Royal Canadian Navy

Canada had only a minimal naval force at the onset of the War. The only two large vessels were two cruisers acquired from Britain (1910). The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was given the task of patrolling the country's eastern coast against U-boat threats. Fortunately the U-boats at the onset of the War were only a minimal threat along the western Atlantic. The RCN had at first only 350 men. German submarines became an incewasing threat as the War ciontinued. The Germans built better ships with longer ranges. The Germans were disuaded from unresticted submarine warfare to avoid Ameican entering the War (1915). An increasinhgly desperate Kaiser finally agteeded to unrestructed submarine warfare to cut off Btitain from America, Canada, and the other Dominions (1917). While the Germans achieved some initial success, the campaign failed and had the disaterous consequence of bringing America into the War. The British in defeating the U-boats introduced the convoy system. The RCN supported this effort. The RCN by 1918 had expanded to more than 5,000 men and some 100 small warships, many escort craft constructed in Canadian shipyards. In addition, 3,000 Canadians enlisted in the British Royal Navy. More than 150 Canadian sailors were killed during the War. The RCN was to play an even more important role during World War II.

Other service

Canadian men and women served in many other units during World War I. These included the Canadian Forestry Corps which fell trees in both Britain and France. Canadian railway troops operated rail networks immediately behind the front lines to move up supplies. Canadian medical units and Canadian Nursing Sisters aided wounded soldiers in the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and on the Western Front. Canadian military engineers served in both Europe and the Middle East.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment

At the time of World War I, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada, While a large territory, Newfoundland is sparsely populated. Even so, 6,00 men joined the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Others served in the British Royal Navy. More than 1.500 Newfoundlanders died in the War.

Russian intervention (mid-1918-April 1919)

Revolution broke out in Russuia during 1918. The Tsar was overthrown, but the Provisional Government pledged to continue the War. Largely because of this the Bolshevicks were able to overthrow the Provision Government and take Russia out of the War. Civil war then broke out. About 5,000 Canadians made up the Allied intervention that moved into some Russian ports at the end of the War.

Armistice (November 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. There was not total agreement on this Genetral Pershing wanted to fight on to Berlin. The guns fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded.

Caualties

About 620,000 Canadians served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. About 425,000 were actually deployed overseas. More than 60,000 Canadians were killed and 172,000 wounded, an extrodinary casualty rate. While the numbers involved may not sound impressive compared to the massice armies raised by the major combatants, Canada had a much smaller population. It was actually an enormous effort an accomplishment for Canada.

Constitutional Change

Canadians unlike the Europeans at the time did not have a sence of extreme nationalism. This is reflected by the fact that Canada was still a British colony. The huge Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort as well as the casualties helped to make Canadians increasinly aware of themselves as a nation. Canada after the War was a signatory of the Versailles Treaty signifying the country's emergence as an independent state. Canada became a member of the League of Nations.

Post-War Military

The Canadian Corps was rapidly demomilized after Wotld War I. Canadians hoped that World War I would actually be "The War to end all wars". Economy minded Canadian governments in the 1920s and 30s pared back miltary spending. The Canadian military was reduced to 5,000 men. The Royal Canadian Navy was reduced to only two ocean-going ships. The Royal Canadian Air Force was created (1924). It was used for a range of civilian needs. The Depression brought even more demands to reduce military spending.

World War II

Canada loyally followed Britain into World War II. The controversy over conscription became a major political issue which impeded the Canadian war effort. French Canadians in particular were unenthusiastic about fighting in what they saw as a British war. Canadian ports and the Canadian Navy played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Royal Canadian Navy almost did not exist before the War and was rapidly expanded to a major naval force. The Canadians also hosted a major effort to train the air crews for the Strategic Bombing Campaign. Canadian industrial and agricultural production and raw materials were important to the British war effort. Some British children were sent to Canada for saftey early in the War, but this was discontinued when children were lost to U-boat attacks and the threat of NAZI invasion receeded. Canadian units were badly mauled at the poorly conceived Dieppe landings (August 1942). The Canadians played a major role in the D-Day, landing at Juno Beach. They went on to form an important part of Montgomery's First Army in the liberation of France and the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) and the final push into NAZI Germany.






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Created: 5:54 AM 3/18/2006
Last updated: 6:42 AM 5/27/2014