Nation forged in ‘Great War’
Heroism and ultimate sacrifice a century ago helped to make us who and what we are today
This Remembrance Day is especially meaningful, because it marks a century since the end of the First World War.
It was on Nov. 11, 1918, that the guns fell silent and the so-called Great War in Europe ended. Although the conflict took a terrible toll in terms of Canadian lives lost and permanent wounds suffered on the muddy battlefields of France and Belgium, it also marked a turning point in Canadian nationhood.
Before the First World War, Canada exercised only minimal autonomy, University of Calgary military historian Prof. David J. Bercuson explained in a 2017 telephone interview. In 1914, Canada “was still very much part of the British Empire when it came to two major areas: one was foreign policy, the other was defence,” he said.
However, by war’s end, Canada was much closer to becoming an independent, sovereign nationstate.
A muddy, bloody war
Canada was brought into the war on Aug. 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany. The British declaration was precipitated by the German invasion of Belgium.
A deadly stalemate quickly developed on the battlefields of Europe in the fall of 1914. With the British and French Allies on one side and the Germans on the other, technological innovations made a quick victory impossible.
“It simply became too dangerous to fight on the surface of the ground,” Bercuson told the WhigStandard. “Too many men were being killed in huge numbers by machine-gun fire and by new types of artillery that were taking lives at an unprecedented rate. So they began to dig in.”
Both sides developed complicated systems of trenches facing each other across “no man’s land,” literally stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border, Bercuson stated. “Both sides, for the next three years, are trying to break this trench system and attack the other side and win the war.”
The history of the First World War is full of significant battles and stories of heroism. And it is impossible to do justice to the Canadian war effort in a single article. However, there are three significant military campaigns that all Canadians should study.
Battle of the Somme
On July 1, 1916, the Allies launched an offensive in northern France. On the very first day of the four-month campaign, German machine-guns and artillery cut down British forces in staggering numbers. More than 57,000 Allied soldiers were killed that day. Yet the Brits advanced only one kilometre into German-held territory.
The Newfoundland Regiment, attached to the British forces, suffered devastating losses that same day. According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, “only 68 of the more than 800 men who had taken part” in the battle were “able to answer roll call the next morning.”
On Sept. 15, the Canadian Corps lost 2,600 soldiers in a battle close to the French village of Courcelette. The Canadians advanced behind a creeping barrage of Allied artillery fire, forcing the German defenders to take cover. Later that day, the Canadians, supported by the military innovation of tank warfare, captured Courcelette.
“In the weeks that followed, soldiers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisions would be repeatedly flung against a series of German entrenchments,” Veteran Affairs Canada notes. The Canadians’ objective was to capture the German defensive line, which they referred to as the Regina Trench.
In mid-October, the 4th Canadian Division relieved the other divisions, taking heavy losses on the battlefield. On Nov. 11, the 4th Canadian Division succeeded in capturing Regina Trench.
“A week later, in the final attack of the Battle of the Somme, the Canadians took Desire Trench,” Veterans Affairs reports. With that victory, the Allied offensive halted, having advanced 10 kilometres.
Veteran Affairs Canada describes the campaign as a “watershed event” in the Great War, demonstrating that the Canadians were “first-rate front-line troops who could capture enemy positions in the face of heavy fire.”
By the time the Somme campaign ended, 24,000 Canadians had been killed in battle.
Battle of Vimy Ridge
The Allies planned a major offensive for April 1917 in the Arras area of France, and Canada was tasked with taking Vimy Ridge.
“At that point, in the spring of 1917, the Canadians had gotten a lot better at learning how to fight that particular kind of war,” Bercuson said. Four Canadian divisions were “physically suited to the job at hand, and they were all bloodied.”
After months of preparation and a pre-attack artillery barrage on German gun positions, the attack was launched at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.
The Canadians advanced across no man’s land behind a creeping barrage of intense Allied artillery fire. According to the Bercuson, “the first part of the attack was quite successful in the southern part of the area.” However, he noted that in the northern part of the battlefield, “there were difficulties and heavy casualties, right up to about three days later.”
Overall, the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was a success in the military historian’s estimation, especially compared to previous Allied attacks. In past offensives, explained Bercuson, “there was a lot of attrition fighting where these attacks peter out very quickly; they don’t make very much progress; there are very heavy casualties.”
However, he said that it was a very different story at Vimy Ridge. “The Canadians had taken heavy casualties, but they had taken all of their objectives within three days, and many of their objectives within the first day.”
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, 3,600 Canadian soldiers perished at Vimy Ridge and many thousands more were wounded.
Battle of Passchendaele
After securing the costly victory at Vimy Ridge, the Canadian Corps were deployed to Belgium to help break the stalemate between German and Allied forces along the heavily fortified trenches.
Canada won a significant victory at the bloody Battle of Passchendaele in northwest Belgium in the latter half of 1917. More than 4,000 Canadian soldiers were killed and nearly 12,000 were wounded on the killing fields.
Located in Belgium’s Ypres area, Passchendaele was the only part of Belgium that had not fallen completely under German control after lightning advances earlier in the war.
A low-lying region protected from flooding by a series of dikes and ditches, Ypres became a muddy battleground after the drainage system had been ripped apart by artillery fire and heavy fighting.
The British launched the Third Battle of Ypres in the summer of 1917 in an attempt to force the Germans to divert some of their forces from the south, thereby relieving pressure on French forces.
The British offensive, launched in July, immediately became bogged down after heavy rains turned the battlefield to mud, making rapid advance impossible. Allied troops in no man’s land became easy targets for fortified German machinegun positions.
“Early in October 1917, the Canadians were sent to Belgium to relieve battered New Zealand’s [ANZAC] forces and take part in the final push to capture Passchendaele,” the Veterans Affairs website notes.
The Canadian offensive was launched on Oct. 26, 1917. Progress was slow but steady. On Oct. 30, the Canadian troops found themselves at the edge of the village of Passchendaele. And a week later, Canadian and British forces unleashed the final assault on German positions in the village. The 27th Battalion of the Canadian Corps captured Passchendaele on Nov. 6, 1917. And four days later, the Canadians drove the Germans from the eastern part of Passchendaele Ridge, bringing the Allied offensive to a conclusion.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, 100,000 Canadian soldiers took part in the Battle of Passchendaele. The record shows that nine Canadian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, honouring their valour at Passchendaele.
The Canadian contribution to the victory at Passchendaele added to the Canadian Corps’ reputation as an extremely effective fighting contingent, demonstrating that the Canadians were the best fighters on the Western Front.
Great place among the world’s nation.
Prime Minister Robert Borden addressed the House of Commons on May 18, 1917, to inform Parliament of his recent trip to Great Britain, where he visited eight military training camps. He also visited hospitals in Great Britain and France, where Canadian soldiers were being treated for their wounds.
According to Prof. Bercuson, most of war wounds suffered by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge were caused by artillery fire. Indeed, some of the Canadians suffered disfiguring wounds.
Borden recalled meeting “only two men from Vimy Ridge who did not smile with great satisfaction when I spoke of their having driven the Germans back.” Those two wounded warriors had suffered terrible facial injuries. “Those men could not smile with their lips by reason of their wounds, but they did smile with their eyes,” Borden told the House of Commons.
Just two months before the armistice was signed, Borden anticipated the end of the conflict and what it would mean for Canada. “The Canadians who have fought so gallantly for our liberties and those of the world, and who have given to our country a great place among the world’s nations, will return to Canada with a wider vision and with a higher appreciation of the opportunities that lie before them,” Border declared in a Sept. 9, 1918, address to the Director’s Luncheon at the Canada Exhibition in Ottawa.
According to the Veterans Affairs Canada website, more than 650,000 men and women from Canada and Newfoundland served in uniform during the Great War. More than 66,000 Canadians gave their lives in the service of Canada during the war. In addition, 172,000 were wounded in battle.
In recognition of the major role that Canada played in the Allied Victory, Canada was accorded the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles — the peace treaty that ended hostilities. Without a doubt, Canada’s contribution to victory advanced the country’s drive toward autonomy from Britain, which eventually came with the Statute of Westminister in 1931.
All Canadians, whether born here or elsewhere, owe a great debt to the brave Canadian soldiers who laid their lives down in the Great War. Their heroism and ultimate sacrifice a century ago helped to make us who and what we are today.
Wounded Canadian and German First World War soldiers help one another through the mud during the Battle of Passchendaele in Passchendaele, Belgium, in 1917.