Canada and the First World War

"Within weeks, the first wave of nearly 30,000 Canadian volunteers was sailing to war"

The First World War was an international conflict that cost over 13 million lives. The many contributing causes are still debated by historians today, but they agree that the immediate cause was the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. They were shot by Serbian extremist Gavrilo Princip on June 28th, 1914, in the Bosnian capital city of Sarajevo. The assassinations sparked a crisis between Europe’s two opposing alliances; the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Italy) and the Triple Entente (England, France, Russia). Threats of war and ultimatums fanned the crisis. Diplomacy failed and on August 1st, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium en route to France. The war was on.

Three days later on August 4th, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany and with that, Canada was at war. At the time, Canada was a self-governing dominion within the expansive British Empire and when Britain was at war, so was Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden received a telegram from the British Government advising him to send soldiers. Canadians greeted the war with subdued enthusiasm and within weeks, the first wave of nearly 30,000 Canadian volunteers was sailing to war. By the end of the bloody affair, over 620,000 Canadians would serve—which is an amazing number considering the national population was barely 8 million.



"The cost was heavy; 66,000 were killed and 172,000 wounded."

Canadians fought as part of the British army, but in Canadian units commanded mainly by Canadians. The soldiers developed a keen sense of Canadian identity and proudly wore the maple leaf on their uniforms. They fought dozens of major battles winning a reputation as elite troops. The cost was heavy; 66,000 were killed and 172,000 wounded. In 1917, voluntary enlistment dried up. The “Conscription Crisis” tore the nation apart but eventually over 125,000 were conscripted and the fighting went on. By 1918, a fleet of five hospital ships (including LLANDOVERY CASTLE) returned the sick and wounded soldiers to Canada.

During the final stages, Canadian-born General Sir Arthur Currie, considered one of the best generals of the war, led the Canadians to a string of impressive but costly victories. When the war ended on November 11th, 1918, the Canadians had advanced further than any other allied army. Prime Minister Borden demanded Canada be treated as an equal. Despite British resistance, Borden had a chair at the Paris Peace Conference and signed the Treaty of Versailles that ended the war. The war had transformed Canada.

 

For further research:

1. The Canadians fought in many bloody battles. Research one of these battles.

  1. Battle of St Julien, April 1915: Canadians endured the first use of poison Chlorine gas.
  2. Battle of Beaumont – Hamel, July 1st 1916: The Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out.
  3. Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9th 1917: Was Canada born on this bloody day?
  4. Battle of Passchendaele, October 1917: Was the battle futile?
  5. Battle of Amiens , August 8th, 1918: Were the Canadians the best soldiers in the war?

2. The cost of the war.

  1. What nations suffered the most?
  2. Why was the First World War originally called “The Great War” and the “war to end all wars”?
  3. National Unity and the Conscription Crisis: Many Canadians did not support the war effort; notably thousands of newly arrived non-British immigrants and the majority of French Canadiens. Their spokesman was former Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier. In December 1917, a general election decided the issue and conscription was adopted. Riots, strikes and protests tore the nation apart. Question: What is conscription? Was it necessary? Why did French Canadians oppose conscription and why did English Canadians support it? What were the results of the election? Assess the long-term impact of the “Conscription crisis” on the nation?
  4. Modern weapons including machine guns and long range artillery (cannons) forced the armies to dig trenches from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Millions of soldiers would die in battles to break the trench stalemate. Why did nations keep sending their soldiers to fight in such awful conditions? Should they have continued to fight given the cost in lives, money and environmental damage?