War trans­formed Canada

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - FORUM - GE­OF­FREY P. JOHN­STON

This Re­mem­brance Day is es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful be­cause it marks a cen­tury since the end of the First World War.

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 said. “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.”

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 Ger­man­held 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.

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.

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 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. “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,” Bercu­son said.

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.

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 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. Fol­low Ge­of­frey P. John­ston on Twit­ter @Ge­offyPJohn­ston.


Cana­dian sol­diers in a cap­tured Ger­man ma­chine-gun em­place­ment, Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917.

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