A Nation Is Born: Canada in World War I Essay

On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war,” said Prime Minister of Canada Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1910. [1] His comments reflected the view of most Canadians at the time; an identity firmly planted in British sovereignty. Canadians did their part and made their contribution initially consisting of one division, later followed by three more, creating the first Canadian Corps.

The performance of the Canadian Corps at the battles of Ypres and Somme during the war, instilled pride in soldiers, and that of the Nation they fought gallantly for. The battle of Vimy Ridge in particular “symbolized Canada’s coming of age as a Nation. ”[2] Canada saw the evolution of its army from a single division under the command of the British to a remarkable fighting Corps under the command of one of her own people. The performance of her militia as well as the experiences and contributions made by Canada during the war, inspired the transformation of the colony to a proud Nation.

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In 1914 Prime Minister Laurier spoke on behalf of a great many Canadians when he said: “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country. ”[3] The Canadians considered themselves a colony of Britain, and showed immediate support for Britain as they went to war. With a contingent of 3,110 men the Canadian expeditionary force was off to Britain. After an accelerated training during the winter of 1915, the Canadians deployed to France with a false sense of preparedness.

The battle fields as they had pictured it and the glory they had dreamt about, quickly faded as they embraced the cruel reality of the cold and muddy French battlefields. On April 22 1915, during the second battle of ypres, the 1st Canadian division under the command of a British general were given the difficult task of reclaiming a gap in the allied defensive line. At the loss of many men, the Canadians were able to regain the gap. Days later, on April 24, 1915 the Canadian line came under attack from the Germans. German artillery bombardments were followed by the infamous chlorine (poison) gas. Through terrible fighting, withered with shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by their issued Ross rifles which jammed, violently sick and gasping for air through soaked and muddy handkerchiefs,” the Canadians held the line until reinforcements arrived. [4] In their first appearance on the battle field, the 1st Canadian division made a significant impact, and showed the world it was a formidable fighting force. The Canadian public was proud of the great courage and performance displayed by their militia. The British were singing Canadian praises in the form of congratulatory messages sent to the Canadian government. 5] After the second battle of Ypres, during the spring of 1915, the 1st Canadian division were joined by the 2nd Canadian division. This marked the formation of the first Canadian Corps. The 3rd Canadian division composed of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, and the Royal Canadian Regiment joined the Canadian Corps shortly thereafter. Each of the Canadian divisions were now under the commands of Canadian Major Generals. A milestone for the Canadian military as they proved competence in commanding their own divisions. The multiple divisions of the Canadian Corps however, remained under British command.

In late August 1916 the Canadians Corps were moved to the French river Somme to take over a section of the front line pushing back an invading German force. The Canadians Corps “ran into heavy fighting and suffered some 2,600 casualties before the full-scale offensive even got underway. ”[6] September 15, 1916 marked the beginning of the major offensive against the German forces at the river Somme. “Advancing behind a creeping barrage, the canadian infantry was aided by the new engine of war, the armored tank. ”[7] Suffering heavy casualties the Canadians were able to take their main objective of the village of Courcelette.

Numerous counter attacks by the Germans were successfully repelled and the Canadians held Courcellete. The Canadians continued to push the German line back by attacking their trenches in Somme. The newly arrived 4th division showed “a remarkable feat of courage and endurance”[8] as they captured the Regina trench, a mission which British and French forces were unable to capture. Upon completion they proceeded to rejoin the Canadian Corps across Vimy Ridge. The Canadians had lost 24,029 men in the battle of Somme, “but it was here that the Canadians confirmed their reputation as hard-hitting shock troops. ”[9]

British Prime Minister Lloyd George, in his memoirs about the battle of Somme wrote: “The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst. ” The headlines on the home front read: “Canadians wreath themselves in glory,” and another “bravest of the brave. ”[10] These and other such statements continued to raise morale within the Canadian Corps, and the pride of Canadians at home.

The Canadians mourned the men they had lost and took great pride in the courageous performance of their home grown heroes. The 4th Canadian division joined the rear of the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge near the end of 1916. During the calm at the end of 1916 and early 1917 the Canadian Corps began preparations for their assault on Vimy Ridge. The Germans held Vimy Ridge since 1914. French and British attacks in 1915 and 1916 had failed. The task now fell to the battle hardened and competent Canadian Corps. “The attack was a brilliant success, involving meticulous planning and incorporating many lessons learned from previous battles.

Based upon French experiences, mass linear assaults were rejected in favor of sending forward masses of individualized platoons. Containing bombers, riflemen, and machine-gunners, each member of the platoon knew their precise role and objective, information that in previous battles was provided only to officers and NCOs, thus leaving the attackers directionless if their leaders became casualties. ”[11] On the 12 of April, 1917 the Canadians had captured Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps suffered thousands of casualties, but were able to capture 54 artillery pieces and 4,000 prisoners.

The victory at Vmiy Ridge showed the Nation that it was capable of accomplishing great things. “The triumph became part of National lore, portrayed as a turning point in transforming Canada from colony to Nation. ”[12] Desmond Morton suggest that it was not merely pride in the successes of battles that contributed Canada’s new found Nationalism, but also the experiences, and tremendous contributions it made to the Great War. [13] The victory at Vimy Ridge paved the way for a Canadian General to take command of the Canadian Corps. Major General W. Arthur Currie was seen as the architect behind the victory.

He was knighted and promoted to Lieutenant- General and given command of the Canadian Corps. This marks another significant milestone for Canada, as it is the first time the Canadians were in command of the whole Corps. Evidence of the continued growth and independence Canada experienced through the War. The Canadian contribution to the war effort also earned them an independent signature block on the Peace Treaty. More evidence depicting Canada’s new found identity as an independent Nation. In 1914, Canada entered the war simply as an extension of the Britain.

Therefore it was without contestation that when Britain declared war on Germany, Canada too was at war. The poorly trained men of Canada were shipped division after division to Britain where they were trained for a short period and sent into harsh combat conditions. The Battle of Ypres signified the first of many Canadian victories. It was there where the soldiers performance first began to inspire pride and unity in the Canadian people. The Battle at Sommes set the Canadian Corps apart as courageous men. It was after this battle that the Germans began referring to the Canadians as “shock troopers. The victory at Vimy Ridge was a turning point in Canadian Nationalism. Vimy Ridge was the most important element of a well fortified German defense. Previous attempts by the British and French ended in defeat. The four Canadian divisions of the Canadian Corps working together were able to defeat the Germans at Vimy Ridge. A significant victory for a colony which began to realize they were capable of accomplishing great things on their own. The pride from its performance in battles, along with the experiences, and tremendous contributions to the war transformed the colony of Canada into a proud Nation.

References Barris, Ted (2007). Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age, April 9-12 1917. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers. Cook, Tim (2008). Shock Troops: Canadians fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. Toronto: Viking. Keshen A. J, Durflinger S. M. (2007). War and Society in Post-Confederation Canada. Nelson Thomson. Morton, Desmond (1985). A Military History of Canada. McCleland & Stewart. Pierce, John (1992). “Constructing Memory: The Vimy Memorial. ” Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament studies. Unknown Author (1982). Canada and the First World War. Veterans Affairs Canada. http://www. eterans. gc. ca/eng/history/firstwar/canada, accessed 2012 Nov 03. ———————– [1] Morton, Desmond (1985). A Military History of Canada. McCleland & Stewart. P130 [2] Pierce, John (1992). “Constructing Memory: The Vimy Memorial. ” Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament studies. P5 [3] Unknown Author (1982). Canada and the First World War. Veterans Affairs Canada. http://www. veterans. gc. ca/eng/history/firstwar/canada, accessed 2012 Nov 03. [4] Cook, Tim (2008). Shock Troops: Canadians fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. Toronto: Viking. P80 [5] ibid p89 [6] Cook, Tim (2008). Shock Troops: Canadians fighting the Great War, 1917-1918. Toronto: Viking. P101 [7] ibid p102 [8] ibid p102 [9] Unknown Author (1982). Canada and the First World War. Veterans Affairs Canada. http://www. veterans. gc. ca/eng/history/firstwar/canada, accessed 2012 Nov 03. [10] Keshen A. J, Durflinger S. M. (2007). War and Society in Post-Confederation Canada. Nelson Thomson. P86 [11] Keshen A. J, Durflinger S. M. (2007). War and Society in Post-Confederation Canada. Nelson Thomson. P86-87 [12] ibid p87 [13] Barris, Ted (2007). Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age, April 9-12 1917. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers. P23