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Canada in the First World War - Background

Updated on February 23, 2012

In any history there is a background which is not readily apparent in history books or TV documentaries. This is as true of Canada in the First World War as all other histories. The issue of the numbered battalions, machine guns in the Canadian Corps, the restructuring of the British Infantry Division, the draft and the vote for women, all of these play an often unrecognized role in the history of the First World War.

In 1910 Canada began a build-up of it’s army and navy. In 1910 Canada had no navy. The British had suggested that Canada contribute funds toward the building of dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy rather than building its own navy. The Liberal government of Wilfred Laurier wanted only a small navy suitable to Canada’s interests, 5 cruisers and 6 destroyers. The Conservative opposition wanted to forward enough money for 4 dreadnoughts. The Liberal government managed to purchase two cruisers for training purposed before the election and then lost that election. The incoming Conservatives decided to forward the money to Britain for the dreadnoughts but the Liberal dominated Senate held up the appropriation. As Canada entered the First World War she only had one serviceable cruiser and Britain had yet to receive money for dreadnoughts. During the war Canada would develop a small navy suitable for anti-submarine patrolling but little else.

Canada had also agreed to raise a larger army to defend itself. This army was to be centred around regionally recruited regiments of the Militia. When war was declared government lawyers were uncertain as to the legality of sending Militia regiments out of the country. The matter was rectified by recruiting numbered battalions for Imperial service, officers receiving commissions for both the Canadian military and Imperial forces. Some of the battalions were amalgamations of former Militia regiments (as was the 16th Battalion, composed from 4 different Highland Regiments), some entirely raised by those regiments (such as the 48th Highlanders). Battalions which early in the war represented British Columbia would by the end of the war due to losses and replacements be manned entirely from Ontario. While some battalions can be identified with specific regiments, e.g. the 49th Battalion with the Loyal Edmonton Regiment, the 50th Battalion with the Calgary Regiment (now the King’s Own Calgary Regiment), some cannot.

As Canada was building up its army during the South African War it required rifles, the preferred rifle was the British Lee Enfield, but there was a shortage of those and British requirements came first. It was suggested that a Canadian company make the required rifle and that rifle was the Ross rifle. An excellent sporting rifle it was ordered in 1902 to equip Canadian forces. It was quickly found to jam while quick firing, it had problems with blow back (a sometimes deadly propensity to fire before the breach was closed causing the breach block to blow back into the shooters face), and it would also jam more frequently than the Lee Enfield when dirty. But the Lee Enfield was not readily available so the Ross it was. At Neuve-Chapelle and Ypres all of the already known problems were intensified by casualties and the Ross was finally replaced in 1916 by the Lee Enfield, although it remained in service as a snipers rifle and training weapon.

At that time in history it was still possible for a private citizen to raise and equip a military unit. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was one such unit, but smaller and unique were the machine gun units. The earliest of the machine gun units was the Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade No.1, paid for by the French millionaire Canadian resident Raymond Brutinel. It was twenty Colt machine guns with necessary crews and vehicles. It would be followed in 1915 by the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery, financed by the Eaton family, and the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery and the Borden Machine Gun Battery. All of these units would be amalgamated in the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade in 1916. Raymond Brutinel, who was commissioned as a major and commanded his brigade and later the 1st CMMGB developed the method of indirect fire for machine guns, a practise adopted by all British forces during the war. The performance of the Brigade was such that a second brigade was formed in 1918.

In 1918 the British Army was forced by losses to restructure its divisions. Previously a British brigade consisted of 4 battalions of infantry, this was reduced to 3 battalions resulting in the reduction of each brigade by almost a thousand men and a division by 3,000. This was done to ensure that they could keep the same number of divisions even if they were smaller. The Australians followed this restructuring but Lt. Gen. Arthur Currie refused. Rather than restructure his divisions downward in size he broke up the 5th Division, which had yet to leave England. This allowed him to increase each of his battalions by 100 men. This meant that a Canadian division had almost 4,000 more men than a British or Australian division. The extra battalion per brigade for the Canadians allowed Canadian brigadiers greater flexibility in battle. Canadian machine gun companies were also amalgamated into battalions, one per division. At ninety six guns per battalion these were 3 times larger than a British machine gun battalion. Canadian engineering battalions were also increased in size resulting in a 3,000 man engineering brigade for each division. This was more than 4 times the size of a British engineering battalion. All of these differences allowed greater flexibility in combat to Canadian formations for the final year of the war.

One often overlooked difference is the fact that the Canadian Corps consisted of the same divisions throughout the war, as did the Anzac Corps. This allowed greater familiarity among staffs and a common doctrine. One British Corps commander noted that 33 different divisions had passed through his corps during the war, all having learned different battle doctrines before arriving at his Corps and having to learn a new one when they did arrive. The familiarity between divisional and corps staff undoubtedly helped in combat but also the “esprit de corps” something that can only occur in a stable formation.

By 1917 recruitment was no longer keeping up with losses. It was felt necessary to implement a Military Service Act, conscription. This was a divisive issue in Canada. Not all Canadians felt a moral obligation to support the war effort. The governing Conservative party felt it necessary, the opposition Liberals with their main base of support in Quebec opposed it. Unable to form a Unionist government because of the conscription issue an election was necessary.

Among the tools used to fight the election was the franchise for women. The province of Manitoba had extended votes to women in 1916 and was followed by Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1917. It was proposed that all women in the services as well as women with sons, husbands, and brothers in the services also be allowed to vote. While it cannot be conclusively stated that the war won women the right to vote (women in Quebec would not be able to vote provincially until after 1922) it seems to have hastened the day in most of Canada.

While there are a great many other issues which could be considered general (Canadian pilots, the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, the Siberian Expedition) these few are perhaps the most helpful in understanding Canada’s contribution to the First World War.


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