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Canada in the First World War

Updated on September 3, 2013


When Britain declared war on Germany in August of 1914 Canada was automatically at war as well. Canada was as well prepared for war as any part of the British Empire, which means not very well at all. Canada had an army, albeit a small and disorganized one. It also had a navy with a single cruiser, the result of political wrangling (both the navy and the single cruiser). But what Canada had she was prepared to give to the Imperial war effort.

In that August it was widely believed that the war would be over by that Christmas. There was a surge of enthusiastic volunteering, primarily by British immigrants. The Canadian government committed to sending an Infantry Division with supporting elements, some 25,000 men, as quickly as possible.

The Minister of Militia (the equivalent of Minister of Defence at the time but responsible solely for the army) then slowed things down by recruiting on the basis of a new numbered battalion system rather than the established Regimental system which was already in place. Thus Canadian units of World War One are known by numbers rather than the names which are known in World War Two (my wife’s grandfather served with the 49th Battalion rather than the Loyal Edmonton Regiment which maintains the honours of the battalion).

The new volunteers were then hurried off to a brand new camp, Valcartier in Quebec, which had been specially built for the purpose. They were given rudimentary training before they were embarked for Britain in October. There they trained on the Salisbury Plain. That same October a second contingent was authorized and in November thirteen regiments of Canadian Mounted Rifles was approved. By Christmas the French had suffered 900,00 casualties, the British 58,000.

It was not until February 1915 that the Canadian Division (there was only one at the time) was sent to France. The commander of the Division was a British general, Sir Edwin Alderson, who had commanded Canadians in the Boer War. The Division was assigned to the Second British Army and manned a quiet sector near Armentieres where they could gain experience in trench warfare.

In April the Canadian Division was moved to the Ypres salient. It was considered a quiet sector. On April 22 the German army unleashed a chemical attack, chlorine gas. The French troops on the Canadian’s left flank broke under the assault. A Canadian attack slowed the German assault but did not stop it. On April 23 the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the war was awarded (the Victoria Cross is the highest award for valour given in British forces). It was the first of four to be awarded in this battle.

During this Second Battle of Ypres (the first occurred in 1914), the Canadians suffered over 6,000 casualties, the British over 59,000, the Germans 35,000. Another Canadian unit, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), a privately raised unit composed mainly of British reservists who had been living in Canada, was serving with the British 27th Division, suffered 400 casualties in May.

In September the 2nd Division was ready for deployment to France and a 3rd Division was authorized. The PPCLI were assigned to the 3rd Division, as was the Royal Canadian Regiment, a permanent force unit which had been garrisoning Bermuda. In France the Canadian divisions now formed a Corps which the 3rd Division would join in 1916. For the remainder of 1915 and the first few months of 1916 the Canadian Corps was engaged primarily in raiding.

In April of 1916 the Canadian Corps became involved the battle of the St. Eloi craters. The British had dug mines, tunnels filled with explosives, under the German lines near the village of St. Eloi. On March 27 they detonated the mines as part of an offensive. On April 3-4 the Canadian 2nd Division took over from the British 3rd. The Germans successfully held their line, the British attack ending on April 19. German casualties were listed as 483, the Canadian 2nd Division lost 1373. In the aftermath of the battle generals were replaced. General Alderson who commanded the Canadian Corps was replaced by Sir Julian Byng.

The first battle under General Byng occurred at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient. The Canadian Corps held high ground and the Germans wanted it. Using mines as the British had at St. Eloi, on June 1 the Germans disrupted the Canadian line and captured Canadian positions. The Canadians counterattacked and recaptured the ground. The fighting lasted until June14, the Canadian Corps suffered 8,000 casualties, the Germans 5,700. It was during this battle that the Canadian general Arthur Currie was recognized as the best among the Canadian generals.

On July 1 the Battle of the Somme began. The Canadian Corps joined the battle when they replaced the Anzacs (Australian New Zealand Army Corps) in August. The Canadian assault began on September 15. The Canadians captured the objective of Courcelette fighting off many counterattacks and won a reputation as “storm troops”.

In August the 4th Division had arrived in France. When the Canadian Corps was moved from the Somme to Arras-Lens the 4th Division was given a turn in the line at the Somme. By the third week on November they too were exhausted. The Battle of the Somme had cost the Canadians over 24,000 casualties.

The year 1917 was an important year for Canada as a nation. For the first time all four Canadian divisions would fight together in the Canadian Corps and a Canadian would command them. The site was called Vimy Ridge, a set of hills that had been fought over from the beginning of the war. The French had lost over 100,000 men attempting to recapture the ridge. The Germans and British had added another 200,000 casualties, now it was the turn of the Canadians. On April 9 the Canadians attacked, within hours they had secured the ridge and for three days fought off the German counter-attacks. When the fighting stopped the Canadians had suffered nearly 11,000 casualties, some 3,500 dead. It is said that at Vimy Ridge Canada became a nation. Atop the ridge there now stands a monument to Canada’s war dead.

The war had not ended and the Canadians were called to capture the village of Lens. General Currie noted that Lens was dominated by a hill, Hill 70. He decided to capture the hill. On August 15 the attack began, it was not until August 18 that the last German attack counter-attack was repulsed and the battle ended. The battle had cost the Canadians another 5,800 casualties. General Currie would remember this battle as his proudest. But Lens was not captured and the Canadian Corps was given a given a more deadly assignment.

The British commander, Field Marshal Haig felt a compelling need to capture the village of Passchendaele. Between July and October British forces had suffered over 138,000 casualties in their attempts to capture the village. The Canadians were brought in with General Currie objecting, he felt the casualties to be suffered were beyond the value of the target, nevertheless he carried out his orders. On October 26 the attack began through horrible mud. The Canadian offensive was a success and they were replaced by British troops on November 14 but not before they had suffered over 15,000 casualties. The total cost for the British Army in that sector was over 100,000 but this time the objective had been captured.

The Canadian Corps was returned to the Vimy sector to hold the line. As a Corps they missed the German offensive of 1918 but 3 of the 4 divisions were assigned to British Corps, and the Motor Machine Gun Brigade and the Canadian Calvary Brigade both saw extensive action during that offensive. With German assault broken the British Army prepared to return to the offensive against the Germans. The Canadian Corps was called upon to support an assault by the Australian Corps near Amiens.

On August 8th the assault began, during the first four days the Canadian Corps advanced fourteen miles, then German resistance stiffened. The battle continued until August 15th and on the 19th the Canadian Corps was transferred to Arras. On August 26th they began on advance to capture the D-Q line, by September 3rd they had succeeded. The last British General commanding a Canadian Division was replaced on September 13th. On September 27th the Canadians assaulted the Canal-du-Nord Line, initial success was rapid but again German resistance stiffened, by October 2nd the Corps switched to holding ground. Since August 8th the Canadian Corps had suffered over 30,000 casualties.

The final assault for the Canadian Corps began on Oct. 9th with the capture of Cambrai. They would continue their advance until Nov.11th. The last Canadian killed in the war died of 10:55 a.m., five minutes before the armistice went into effect. He was the last of almost 60,000 Canadian soldiers killed in the war.

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