Canada and World War One

The Great War – left a huge mark on an entire
generation of people -14 million dead/21
million crippled
World War One is considered by many
historians to be the single most significant
event of the 20th century
Over a period of many years prior to the
outbreak of war many old and new European
powers had competed in an “arms race” and a
race to gain imperial possession around the
world. This nationalistic “saber- rattling” led to
a complex network of military alliances and
had turned Europe into a powder keg.
The spark that set off the
war was the assassination
of the heir to the throne of
the Austrian-Hungarian
Empire (Archduke Francis
Ferdinand) by a Bosnian
nationalist (Gavril Princip)
in the Bosnian capital of
Sarajevo. As aggression
begins over the Balkans the
“alliances” cause all Europe
to be drawn into war.
Triple Entente
Great Britain
Triple Alliance
Austria- Hungary
The first major action of the
war sees Germany sweep
through the “backdoor” of
Belgium as part of the
“Schlieffen Plan” .This plan
involves the Germany army
flanking the French forces and
coming within 25 miles of Paris
before being pushed back and
both forces being forced into a
stalemate in northern France.
When the war begins on August 4/1914
Canada’s foreign policy is still controlled by
Britain which meant that Canada is
automatically at war because of being a
member of the British Empire. Robert Borden
is P.M. Wilfred Laurier also supports the war
effort. Most Canadians are enthusiastic to go
off and “fight the Hun”. The war is supposed
to be short- “I’ll be home by Christmas”.
The economy has slowed down significantly and
unemployment is high. Young men are eager to
enlist and Canada’s military grows from 3,000 to
30,000 in months. Troops are trained at Valcartier
under the Minister of the Militia Sam Hughes. A
poorly trained and equipped Canadian
Expeditionary Force leaves for Europe by October
and is in France by December.
Ottawa passes the “War Measures Act” and
receives sweeping powers to support the war
effort. Canadian industry is transformed to
produce armaments. At the beginning of the
war manufacturing sector is run haphazardly
with the result being poor quality and high
production costs – “profiteering” is a concern.
Canadian wheat production is seen as a key to
the war effort because the Ukraine is now a
Propaganda is important in supporting the
war effort
Women enter the work force in the factories
and fields
War bonds are sold to finance the war
“Subversives” are arrested – Germans,
Turks, Austrians
Ukrainians are interned and property
Government expenditures rise sharply due
to war
Income tax is introduced- “a temporary
The Great War saw the Canadian
Government under Robert Borden
have to deal with many issues that
involved the war effort. The
Canadian Government’s
mobilization campaign under Sam
Hughes had not achieved the goal
of training and equipping our
soldiers properly, but the issue of
profiteering had to be dealt with
quickly and dramatically by Joseph
The labeling of 80,000
so-called “enemy aliens”
who were
“disenfranchised” was a
controversial step but the
internment of 8,500 (5,000
Ukrainian immigrants)
from 1914-20 was an issue
that haunts us today.
The Women’s Movement took
great strides forward during the
war as women assume the role
of men in the workforce and
participated for the first time in
the military. In 1916 many
provinces enfranchised women
and in 1918 women received the
right to vote federally and were
also successful in the outlawing
of alcohol sales or prohibition.
By 1916 the patriotic enthusiasm had
disappeared and it became apparent that the
need for new recruits was increasing as the war
took its toll on Canadian soldiers and the death
tolls rose sharply. In 1914 Robert Borden had
promised not the conscript troops, but after
returning from Britain in 1916 Borden had seen
the need and told Canadians that he would
have to break his promise.
In May of 1917 Borden rises in the House and
announces “The battle for Canadian liberty and
autonomy is being fought today on the plains
of France and Belgium.” Borden had promised
to send 500,000 troops (Canada population- 8
million and 1.5 million men are military age).
Britain, New Zealand and the U.S. had
Conscription is angrily rejected by Quebec and
riots break out in Montreal. Bourassa had
warned many years early that the “imperialist”
would drag Canada into a war and in the
process “bankrupt” Canadian industrial and
agricultural production. Quebecers feel no ties
to Europe and the Canadian military is an
English speaking entity. (except for the 22nd
battalion the Vandoos).
Other groups opposed conscription including
farmers, and labour unionists (Ginger
Goodwin story). Many feel that they are doing
their part for the war by and can not afford to
give up their workers. The Liberal party was
split along linguistic lines with Laurier on the
anti-conscription side. Borden decides he must
call an election over the “Military Service Act”
Borden has no intention of losing this
election and he quickly introduces the
“Military Voters Act” which allows all soldiers
a vote regardless of ethnic background. He
also introduces the “Wartime Elections Act”
which allows women related to servicemen to
vote and disallows conscientious objectors and
recent immigrants the right to vote.
Borden also invites the pro-conscription
members of the Liberal party to join in a
“Union Government” to support the war effort.
The results of the “khaki” election were heavily
in favor of the Union Government (152-82
Riots breakout in Quebec when military
“exemptions” are denied (four die in the riots
when soldiers are forced to shoot into an angry
crowd). Canada meets its goal with
recruitment. Of the 100,000 that were
conscripted 24,000 end up serving in Europe
but the hatred of Quebec for the “Prussians
next door” will not soon be forgotten.
As Canada enters the war our troops were not
well trained or equipped but as the war
progresses they learn quickly from their
experiences. As the war begins Canadian
troops are under the command of British
Generals and this is an issue until later in the
war when Canadian commanders are
disturbed by the “attrition” approach to the
war that comes from trench warfare. Canada
will prove itself on the battlefields of Europe.
Ypres- 1915- Canadian troops saw there first
real battle as French troops fled Canadian
troops filled the gap and were subjected to the
war’s first gas attack, but the troops held their
ground despite incredible odds.
Somme-1916- A daylight
offensive attack by
British commanders that
lasted three months and
gained little – (500,000
allied troops lost and
24,000 Canadians
including the
annihilation of a
Sir Julian Byng leads a fierce attack that proves
Canadian troops are ”battle-hardened”.
Andrew McNaughton pinpoints German
artillery and our troops follow a “rolling
barrage”. All four Canadian divisions sweep
the ridge. “The most perfectly organized
victory of the war” – “A nation making
moment” that gives the troops great pride.
Arthur Currie is knighted and given command
of Canadian Corps
3,600 Canadians die in this battle
Canadian troops are
order to attack despite
fierce opposition and
a high estimated cost
of lives by the British
Command. Currie’s
carefully planned
attack succeeds.
-16,000 troops lost
5 km of muddy
craters gained and
later lost
After a final push by the Germans to win the war
Canada spearheads an ally counter-attack at
Amiens- crushing German lines and capturing
13km in one day (5000 POW’s)
-Arthur Currie shifted attack to the Hindenburg
-4 divisions of Canadians defeated 47 German
divisions due to a German army that is badly
supported and undersupplied. Canadian troops
liberated 200 cities and capture 30,000 POW’s
-On Nov. 11, 1918 at the 11th hour – The “Great
War” ends with an armistice
At the beginning of the war the airplane was
only 11 years old. Canada had an unpaid
commander and an assistant and one planepurchased from the U.S. for $5000. Ten
thousand Canadians join the R.A.F. and
eventually make-up close to 30% of that force.
The novelty of the plane in 1914 becomes a
military necessity as the war progress enabling reconnaissance of troops and artillery,
bombing of railways and industrial targets
behind enemy lines, attacks on U-boats at sea
and aerial attacks on Zeppelins.
Airmen become the
“new warrior hero” as
the war goes on. 25,000
Canadians serve in the
British Air Service with
flying aces Billy Bishop
(72 kills) and William
Barker considered to be
2 of the top 5 airmen of
the air service. Roy
Brown was given credit
for shooting down the
“Red Baron”.
The Canadian Navy in 1914 consists of 2 ships
and 350 men. In WWI the Canadian Navy took
on the responsibility of protecting Canadian
ports and outgoing convoys that were vital to
supplying Britain. Canada’s navy will grow to
100 war vessels, 2 submarines and 5,500 men.
As with the air force many Canadians served in
the Royal Navy.
Although 150,000 troops were under Arthur
Currie’s command on the Western front at the end
of the war in 1918, 40,000 were also serving under
other commanders (Royal Air Force, Royal Navy).
With specialized skills as fallers and railway
builders Canadians found themselves all over the
world in places like Gallipoli and Palestine
fighting the Turks, in the Mediterranean as
hospital units, as engineers operating barges on
the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and in the United
States training troops after the US joins the war in
Canadians were also sent to fight in support of
the Communist troops in northern Russia and
on the Caspian Sea to protect the oil fields from
the Turks.
Canada’s coming of age had not happened
without a huge cost.
The War bought many changes to Canada.
Canada had proven itself on the battlefields of
Europe where 620,000 Canadians had served in
the war with 60,000 died and 172,000 wounded
(many for life), a very heavy contribution of
troops in relation to our small population.
The battle scars will remain for many years to
Canada had proven it could be
an industrialized nation in
supporting the war effort. Many
companies had made huge
profits during war and there
was resentment over possible
profiteering. Unions were
growing stronger. Post war
Canada had thousands of
returning troops to re-establish
into Canadian society.
Government needed to step in to support
veterans and their families as factories closed,
unemployment and inflation rose and workers
demanded higher wages (no increases during
war). Government was going to play a bigger
role in the lives of Canadians (business, finance
and social services) as a result of the war.
Canada now has many new
domestic issues to deal with
like the Spanish Flu that kills
between 30,000 and 50,000.
Women were now to play a
more active role in politics.
French Canada and English
Canada were deeply divided
over the Canadian war effort
and conscription.
On an international level Canada had
distinguished itself as an independent nation.
In 1917, the Dominions join the Imperial War
Cabinet and Resolution IX gave the Dominions
full recognition as “autonomous nations of an
Imperial commonwealth”. Borden insisted on
Canada signing Treaty of Versailles as a
member of the League of Nations.
Canada breaks many of its ties with Britain and
will now take responsibility for its own foreign
affairs. Canada will also now enter into a
relationship with the United States that will
dominate her foreign policy during the
twentieth century.

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