When people look back and remember the First World War, they often remember the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand, the sinking of the Lusitania, or the Zimmerman telegram. Not often do they recall the role that Canada played in the war. However, Canadians were a significant factor of the Allies’ success. Although Canada only possessed two Navy warships at the time and was known for being a peaceful country, she supplied over 60,000,000 shells to the Allies’ troops and endured over 67,000 casualties and 173,000 men wounded across multiple battles. With that said, it could also be argued that internal political conflicts in Canada afflicted their overall contribution to the war. In fact, many French-Canadians (specifically in Quebec) were reluctant and even opposed to aiding Britain in the war.
This fact is understandable because Canada committed to a total war effort, even when it was not exactly their war to fight. When the British Empire joined World War I in 1914, all Dominions of the Empire were brought into the conflict, including Canada. Canada was not given prior knowledge, it was automatic, and without their consent. Even though Canada may have not met her full potential as an aid to the war because of her political disputes, she managed to fight a good fight in the end. The main importance of that country’s role in World War One was that it gave them their identity as Canadians, dissolving the idea of being British subjects and not their own nation.
The Canadian 1st Division fought its first major engagement during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium (April 15, 1915). It was here the Germans introduced poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches- the first use of poison gas in the war. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches, the French colonial defences and British colonial forces on either side of the Canadians crumbled. The troops, completely overcome by this terrible weapon, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping four-mile hole in the Allied line. A soldier in the Canadian lines discovered that neutralization of the chlorine gas was possible by pressing urine soaked rags over their noses and mouths.
The Canadians were the only division that were able to hold the line. All through the night, the Canadians fought to close this gap. On April 24, the Germans launched another poison gas attack, this time at the Canadian line. Through terrible fighting, they were withered with shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by their jammed Ross rifles, and violently sick and gasping for air through soaked and muddy handkerchiefs. However, the Canadians held on until reinforcements arrived. Thus, in their first major appearance on a European battlefield, Canada established a status as a formidable fighting force. Congratulatory messages were cabled to the Canadian Prime Minister. But the cost was high. In these 48 hours, 6,035 Canadians, one man in every three, became casualties of whom more than 2,000 died. The Canadian Corps began to gain a reputation for being skillful trench raiders, eventually leading larger attacks on German lines. By 1917, the Canadian Corps consisted of four divisions.
They were given the task of capturing Vimy Ridge, which was a commanding position that the French army had been unable to wrestle from the German army. The operation, planned to launch on April 9th, 1917, was completely conceived, planned, and executed by the Canadians. Sir Arthur Currie, the first Canadian General, took note of their previous failures and determined not to repeat them. He had his corps rehearse the plan over and over behind the lines. He made sure that all his men, especially non-commissioned officers, understood their objectives and how to find them both on a map and in reality. Innovations such as platoon tactics and new methods for counter battery targeting helped make the capture a huge success. Unfortunately, response to wartime matters was a major issue that the Canadian government faced, on many different levels. Not only did they have trouble fighting on enemy lines, but there were also political battles to be addressed within the country itself. Despite the enthusiasm with which most Canadians approached the war effort, there was, from the start some quiet voices of dissent.
Those voices that would grow in volume as the slaughter in France became more apparent and dragged on from year to year. The dispute that took place from the beginning and all the way through the war was mainly divided into two groups: the English- Canadians and the French-Canadians. The English-Canadians felt that it was their duty to aid Britain in the war and their dedication never faltered during those long years. However, the French-Canadians were simply upset that so much Canadian effort was being put into a fight that was not really their own. Henri Bourassa, a French-Canadian politician and nationalist, spoke publicly against the war in I916. His parliamentary followers backed his opposition; this united front, however, was built more on circumstances than it was on deeper political principles. Most Canadians agreed that the German’s idea of expansionary war was unnecessary, destructive, and evil. They agreed that “The Great War” needed to be ended before too much damage was made. However, they could not come to an consensus about how that was to be accomplished.
The French-Canadians did not believe that fighting alongside the Allies was the way to bring about peace. What the French-Canadians could not see was the end result in 1918. On August 12, 1918, the Canadian corps was engaged in the brilliantly successful battle of Amiens, which completely upset the German offensive plan. In short, 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. However, the Russian Revolution occurred during the late fall. The ensuing winter of course meant that the Germans could not launch a major offensive. By the time they were able to do so, 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. The British with the Canadian Corps had built a new conscript army with improved tactics and weapons. The Canadian Corps played an important part in the British advance.
The Canadians struck at Amiens (August 8), which was the beginning of the “Hundred Days” that won the War. German General Erich Ludendorff, Chief of Staff of the German Army, referred to the launch of the Canadian offensive on 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 (agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting) was declared. That 100 days of fighting cost 45,000 men killed and wounded. Although the armistice, signed on November 11th, 1918, ended the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty.
The Treaty of Versailles (signed on June 28th, 1919) not only required Germany to accept responsibility for causing the war (among other things), but also granted Canada a big step in becoming an independent world power. The huge Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort as well as the casualties helped to make Canadians increasingly aware of themselves as a nation. Canada after the War was a signatory of the Versailles Treaty and became a part of the League of Nations, signifying the country’s emergence as an independent state. The role of Canada in World War I may not be remembered as significant, but their gain of true independence and improved warfare is to be greatly appreciated.
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