A Canadian perspective, from the Legion's Legacies. From YouTube.
War and the Economy
The war united Canadians at first. The Liberal opposition urged PM Sir Robert BORDEN'S Conservative government to take sweeping powers under the new WAR MEASURES ACT. Minister of Militia Sam HUGHES summoned 25 000 volunteers to train at a new camp at Valcartier near Québec; some 33 000 appeared. On October 3 the first contingent sailed for England. Much of Canada's war effort was launched by volunteers. The Canadian Patriotic Fund collected money to support soldiers' families. A Military Hospitals Commission cared for the sick and wounded. Churches, charities, women's organizations and the Red Cross found ways to "do their bit" for the war effort. In patriotic fervour, Canadians demanded that Germans and Austrians be dismissed from their jobs and interned (see INTERNMENT), and pressured Berlin, Ont, to rename itself Kitchener.
At first the war hurt a troubled economy, increasing unemployment and making it hard for Canada's new, debt-ridden transcontinental railways, the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific, to find credit. By 1915, military spending equalled the entire government expenditure of 1913. Minister of Finance Thomas White opposed raising taxes. Since Britain could not afford to lend to Canada, White turned to the US.
Also, despite the belief that Canadians would never lend to their own government, White had to take the risk. In 1915 he asked for $50 million; he got $100 million. In 1917 the government's Victory Loan campaign began raising huge sums from ordinary citizens for the first time. Canada's war effort was financed mainly by borrowing. Between 1913 and 1918 the national debt rose from $463 million to $2.46 billion.
Canada's economic burden would have been unbearable without huge exports of wheat, timber and munitions. A prewar crop failure had been a warning to prairie farmers of future droughts, but a bumper crop in 1915 and soaring prices banished caution. Since many farm labourers had joined the army, farmers began to complain of a labour shortage. It was hoped that factories shut down by the recession would profit from the war. Manufacturers formed a Shell Committee, got contracts to make British artillery ammunition, and created a brand new industry. It was not easy. By summer 1915 the committee had orders worth $170 million but had delivered only $5.5 million in shells. The British government insisted on reorganization. The resulting IMPERIAL MUNITIONS BOARD was a British agency in Canada, though headed by a talented, hard-driving Canadian, Joseph FLAVELLE. By 1917 Flavelle had made the IMB Canada's biggest business, with 250 000 workers. When the British stopped buying in Canada in 1917, Flavelle negotiated huge new contracts with the Americans, now in the war.
Unemployed workers had flocked to enlist in 1914-15. Recruiting, handled by prewar militia regiments and by civic organizations, cost the government nothing. By the end of 1914 the target for the CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE was 50 000; by summer 1915 it was 150 000. During a visit to England that summer, PM Borden was shocked with the magnitude of the struggle. To set even the British an example of earnestness, Borden used his 1916 New Year's message to pledge 500 000 soldiers from a Canadian population of barely 8 million. By then volunteering had virtually dried up. Early contingents had been filled by recent British immigrants; enlistments in 1915 had taken most of the Canadian-born who were willing to go. The total, 330 000, was impressive but insufficient.
Recruiting methods became fervid and divisive. Clergy preached Christian duty; women wore badges proclaiming "Knit or Fight"; more and more English Canadians complained that French Canada was not doing its share. This was not surprising: few French Canadians felt deep loyalty to France or Britain. Those few in Borden's government had won election in 1911 by opposing imperialism. Henri BOURASSA, leader and spokesman of Québec's nationalists, initially approved of the war but soon insisted that French Canada's real enemies were not Germans but "English-Canadian anglicisers, the Ontario intriguers, or Irish priests" who were busy ending French-language education in the English-speaking provinces. In Québec and across Canada, unemployment gave way to high wages and a manpower shortage. There were good economic reasons to stay home.
Organization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
Canadians in the CEF became part of the British army. As minister of militia, Hughes insisted on choosing the officers and on retaining the Canadian-made ROSS RIFLE. Since the rifle had serious faults and since some of Hughes's choices were incompetent cronies, the Canadian military had serious deficiencies. A recruiting system based on forming hundreds of new battalions meant that most of them arrived in England only to be broken up, leaving a large residue of unhappy senior officers. Hughes believed that Canadians would be natural soldiers; in practice they had many costly lessons to learn. They did so with courage and self-sacrifice.
At the second Battle of YPRES, April 1915, a raw 1st Canadian Division suffered 6036 casualties, and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry a further 678. The troops also shed their defective Ross rifles. At the St Eloi craters in 1916, the 2nd Division suffered a painful setback because its senior commanders failed to locate their men. In June the 3rd Division was shattered at MONT SORREL though the position was recovered by the now battle-hardened 1st Division. The test of battle eliminated inept officers and showed survivors that careful staff work, preparation, and discipline were vital.
Canadians were spared the early battles of the SOMME in summer 1916, though a separate Newfoundland force, 1st Newfoundland Regiment, was annihilated at Beaumont Hamel on the disastrous first day, July 1. When Canadians entered the battle on August 30, their experience helped toward limited gains, though at high cost. By the end of the battle the Canadian Corps had reached its full strength of 4 divisions.
The embarrassing confusion of Canadian administration in England and Hughes's reluctance to displace his cronies forced Borden's government to establish a separate MINISTRY OF OVERSEAS MILITARY FORCES based in London to control the CEF overseas. Bereft of much power, Hughes resigned in November 1916. The Act creating the new ministry established that the CEF was now a Canadian military organization, though its day-to-day relations with the British army did not change immediately. Two ministers, Sir George PERLEY and then Sir Edward KEMP, gradually reformed overseas administration and expanded effective Canadian control over the CEF.
While most of those forces were with the Canadian Corps or with a separate Canadian cavalry brigade on the Western Front, Canadians could be found almost everywhere in the Allied war effort. Young Canadians had trained (initially at their own expense) to become pilots in the British flying services. In 1917 the ROYAL FLYING CORPS opened schools in Canada, and by war's end almost a quarter of the pilots in the Royal Air Force were Canadians. Two of them, Maj William A. BISHOP and Maj Raymond COLLISHAW, ranked among the top air aces of the war. An independent Canadian air force was authorized in the last months of the war. Canadians also served with the Royal Navy and Canada's own tiny naval service organized a coastal submarine patrol.
Thousands of Canadians cut down forests in Scotland and France, and built and operated most of the railways behind the British front. Others ran steamers on the Tigris R, cared for the wounded at Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece, and fought Bolsheviks at Archangel and Baku (see RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR, CANADIAN INTERVENTION IN).
British and French strategists deplored such diversions from the effort on the Western Front. It was there, against the main German forces, that war must be waged. A battle-hardened Canadian Corps was a major instrument in this war of attrition. Its skill and training were tested on Easter weekend, 1917, when all 4 divisions were sent forward to capture a seemingly impregnable VIMY RIDGE. Weeks of rehearsals, stockpiling, and bombardment paid off. In 5 days the ridge was taken.
The able British commander of the corps, Lt-Gen Sir Julian BYNG, was promoted; his successor was a Canadian, Lt-Gen Sir Arthur CURRIE, who followed Byng's methods and improved on them. Instead of attacking Lens in the summer of 1917, Currie captured the nearby HILL 70 and used artillery to destroy wave after wave of German counterattacks. As an increasingly independent subordinate, Currie questioned orders, but he could not refuse them. When ordered to finish the disastrous British offensive at PASSCHENDAELE in October 1917, Currie warned that it would cost 16 000 of his 20 000 men. Though he insisted on time to prepare, the Canadian victory on the dismal, water-logged battlefield left a toll of 15 654 dead and wounded.
The Conscription Issue
A year before, even the patriotic leagues had confessed the failure of voluntary recruiting. Business leaders, Protestants, and English-speaking Catholics such as Bishop Michael FALLON grew critical of French Canada. Faced with a growing demand for conscription, the Borden government compromised in August 1916 with a program of national registration. A prominent Montréal manufacturer, Arthur Mignault, was put in charge of Québec recruiting and, for the first time, public funds were provided. A final attempt to raise a French Canadian battalion, the 14th out of 258 battalions in the CEF, failed in 1917.
Until 1917 Borden had no more news of the war or Allied strategy than he read in newspapers. He was concerned about British war leadership but he devoted 1916 to improving Canadian military administration and munition production. In December 1916 David Lloyd George became head of a new British coalition government pledged wholeheartedly to winning the war. An expatriate Canadian, Max AITKEN, helped engineer the change. Faced by suspicious officials and a failing war effort, Lloyd George summoned premiers of the Dominions to London. They would see for themselves that the Allies needed more men. On March 2, when Borden and his fellow premiers met, Russia was collapsing, the French army was close to mutiny, and German submarines had almost cut off supplies to Britain.
Borden was a leader in establishing a voice for the Dominions in policymaking and in gaining a more independent status for them in the postwar world. Visits to Canadian camps and hospitals also persuaded him that the CEF needed more men. The triumph of Vimy Ridge during his visit gave all Canadians pride but it cost 10 602 casualties, 3598 of them fatal. Borden cancelled plans to expand the corps but he returned to Canada committed to conscription. On 18 May 1917 he told Canadians of his government's new policy. The 1914 promise of an all-volunteer contingent had been superseded by events.
Many in English-speaking Canada - farmers, trade union leaders, pacifists - opposed conscription, but they had few outlets for their views. French Canada's opposition was almost unanimous under Henri Bourassa, who argued that Canada had done enough, that Canada's interests were not served by the European conflict, and that men were more needed to grow food and make munitions. Borden felt such arguments were cold and materialistic. Canada owed its support to its young soldiers. The Allied struggle against Prussian militarism was a crusade for freedom. There was no bridging the rival points of view. To win conscription, Borden offered Laurier a coalition. The Liberal leader refused, sure that his party could now defeat the Conservatives. He also feared that if he joined Borden, Bourassa's nationalism would sweep Québec. Laurier misjudged his support.
Many English-speaking Liberals agreed that the war was a crusade. A mood of reform and sacrifice had led many provinces to grant votes to women and to prohibit the sale or use of liquor (see TEMPERANCE). Although they disliked the Conservatives, many reform Liberals like Ontario's Newton Rowell believed that Borden was in earnest about the war and Laurier was not. Borden also gave himself 2 political weapons: on 20 September 1917 Parliament gave the franchise to all soldiers, including those overseas; it also gave votes to soldiers' wives, mothers and sisters, as well as women serving in the armed forces, and took it away from Canadians of enemy origin who had become citizens since 1902. This added many votes for conscription and removed many certain Liberal voters from the lists. On October 6 Parliament was dissolved. Five days later, Borden announced a coalition Union government pledged to conscription, an end to political patronage, and full WOMEN'S SUFFRAGE.
Eight of Canada's 9 provinces endorsed the new government, but Laurier could dominate Québec, and many Liberals across Canada would not forget their allegiance. Borden and his ministers had to promise many exemptions to make conscription acceptable. On December 17, Unionists had won 153 seats to Laurier's 82, but without the soldiers' vote, only 100 000 votes separated the parties. Conscription was not applied until 1 January 1918. The MILITARY SERVICE ACT had so many opportunities for exemption and appeal, that of more than 400 000 called 380 510 appealed. The manpower problem continued.
The Final Phase
In March 1918 disaster struck the Allies. German armies, moved from the Eastern to the Western Front after Russia's collapse in 1917, smashed through British lines. Fifth British Army was destroyed. In Canada, anticonscription riots in Québec on the Easter weekend left 4 dead. Borden's new government cancelled all exemptions. Many who had voted Unionist in the belief that their sons would be exempted felt betrayed.
The war had entered a bitter final phase. On 6 December 1917 the HALIFAX EXPLOSION killed over 1600, and it was followed by the worst snowstorm in years. Across Canada, Sir Thomas White's (minister of finance) heavy borrowing finally led to runaway inflation. Workers joined unions and struck for wages. Food and fuel controllers now preached conservation, sought increased production and sent agents to prosecute hoarders. Public pressure to "conscript wealth" forced a reluctant White in April 1917 to impose a Business Profits Tax and a War Income Tax. An "anti-loafing" law threatened jail for any man not gainfully employed. Federal police forces were ordered to hunt for sedition. Socialist parties and radical unions were banned. So were newspapers published in the "enemy" languages. Canadians learned to live with unprecedented government controls and involvement in their daily lives. Food and fuel shortages led to "Meatless Fridays" and "Fuelless Sundays."
In other warring countries, exhaustion and despair went far deeper. Defeat now faced the western Allies, but the Canadian Corps escaped the succession of German offensives. Sir Arthur Currie insisted that it be kept together. A 5th Canadian division, held in England since 1916, was finally broken up to provide reinforcements. When Borden went to England in spring 1918, the Canadian Corps was the strongest formation of its size on the British front. Borden was furious at the mismanagement of the war. He condemned the waste of Passchendaele but he agreed that the British army would have to be husbanded and rebuilt for a victory that might have to wait until 1920. He argued that the Russian front must be revived and was obliged to offer Canadian troops to help Britain in seeking the overthrow of the new Bolshevik government.
To help restore the Allied line, Canadians and Australians attacked near Amiens on 8 August 1918 (see AMIENS, BATTLE OF). Shock tactics, using airplanes, tanks, and infantry, shattered the German line. When resistance thickened, Currie was among those who advised switching to new lines of attack. In September and early October the Canadians attacked again and again, suffering heavy casualties but making advances thought unimaginable. The Germans fought with skill and courage all the way to Mons, the little Belgian town where fighting ended for the Canadians at 11 AM (Greenwich time), 11 November 1918. More officially, the war ended with the Treaty of VERSAILLES, signed 28 June 1919.
The CEF lost 60 661 dead. Many more returned from the war mutilated in mind or body. In autumn 1918 almost as many Canadians died from the effects of a worldwide influenza epidemic. Both tolls fell heavily on the young and energetic. The survivors found that almost every facet of Canadian life, from the length of skirts to the value of money, had been transformed by the war years. Governments had assumed responsibilities they would never abandon. The income tax would survive the war. So would government departments later to become the Department of VETERANS AFFAIRS and the Department of Pensions and National Health.
Overseas, Canada's soldiers had struggled to achieve, and had won, a considerable degree of autonomy from British control. Prewar dreams of imperial federation perished with Borden's own experience in 1917 and 1918. Canada's direct reward for her sacrifices was a modest presence at the Versailles conference and a seat in the new LEAGUE OF NATIONS. However, the deep national divisions between French and English created by the war and especially by the CONSCRIPTION crisis of 1917 made postwar Canada fearful of international responsibilities. Canadians had done great things in the war but they had not done them together.
Author DESMOND MORTON
E. Armstrong, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914-1918 (1974 reprint); Pierre Berton, Vimy (1986); W.R. Bird, Ghosts Have Warm Hands (1968); M. Bliss, A Canadian Millionaire (1978); R.C. Brown, Robert Laird Borden, vol II (1980); D.G. Dancocks, Legacy of Valour (1986) and Spearhead to Victory: Canada and the Great War (1987); W.A.B. Douglas, The Creation of the National Air Force (1986); D.J. Goodspeed, The Road Past Vimy (1967); J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises (1977); Desmond Morton, A Peculiar Kind of Politics (1982), and Canada and War (1981); G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 (1964); J.A. Swettenham, To Seize the Victory (1965); J. Thompson, The Harvests of War (1978); B. Wilson, Ontario and the First World War, 1914-1918 (1977); S.F. Wise, Canadian Airmen and the First World War (1980).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian War Museum
The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is dedicated to the men and women who served with valour and distinction in Canada’s armed services. Their website features a virtual tour of the museum and multimedia online exhibits that depict how Canada met and overcame wartime challenges throughout its history.
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The War Amps
The War Amps website commemorates Canada's proud military heritage and the sacrifices of Canadian war veterans. Check out the "Canada's Military Heritage" section for extensive documentation, photographs and veterans’ accounts of their wartime experiences. Features a special section devoted to the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.
Archives of Ontario
The collections held by the Archives of Ontario are a rich resource for the study of the history of Ontario and its people. Check out the historic photographs, paintings, documents, patriotic posters, personal letters, audio files, and other online features.
Royal Alberta Museum
The website for the Royal Alberta Museum. Explore the natural and human history of Alberta website. Also, check out the interactive Virtual Collection and online tours.
Battle of Passchendaele
This site provides links to a detailed education guide that invites students to discover how the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele became a defining event in Canadian history. Activities focus on the analysis of vital primary sources, multimedia, and other resources. Associated with the the major Canadian feature film "Passchendaele." From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Canadian Military Heritage Society
A website dedicated to the promotion and the preservation of Canada's national and military heritage. See the latest news about re-enactment events and interesting historical details about wartime conflicts involving various units of the Canadian military. Features videos and numerous archival photographs.
World War, 1914-1918
Explore this extensive collection of photographs depicting Canadian military action in the First World War. Part of the CN Images of Canada Gallery at the Canada Science and Technology Museum website.
Nursing Sisters in Canada
This tribute to Canadian Nursing Sisters tells of these brave and dedicated women. Their story is one of humour as well as anguish. It is a story of unyielding women who braved all the hardships of war to do their duty and serve their patients, and of those who nursed the casualties left in the wake of war. From Veterans Affairs Canada.
Keys to History
Search this "Keys to History" website for fascinating online exhibits about notable people, places, and events in Canadian history. From Montréal's McCord Museum.
Saskatchewan in Two World Wars
View an interesting selection of wartime photographs depicting life on the home front and overseas at this Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists website.
Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917 – 1918
A brief video clip of Author Tim Cook talking about his book "Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917 – 1918." From the website for the Charles Taylor Prize.
The Canadian Letters and Images Project
This extensive collection of letters and photographs brings to light personal stories about wartime life at home and on the battlefield. Produced by Malaspina University College in British Columbia.
CBC: Vimy Ridge Remembered
A multimedia CBC feature devoted to the stories of Canadian veterans who fought on the front lines at Vimy Ridge in the First World War.
Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Search this online registry of information about the graves and memorials of more than 116,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who gave their lives for their country. From Veterans Affairs Canada.
A tribute to the combatants in the First World War, this film traces the conflict through the war diary and private letters of five Canadian soldiers and a nurse. From the website for the National Film Board of Canada.
The Virtual Gramophone: The First World War Era
Listen to audio clips of popular songs produced by Canada’s burgeoning music industry during the First World War. This Virtual Gramophone website also features digitized sheet music and related archival resources. From Library and Archives Canada.
English Songs Popular during the First World War
Listen to a selection of songs that were popular during the First World War.
Search the Legion Magazine website for online feature articles about Canadian military history.
Canada at War
A very detailed information source about Canadian military activity in the First World War and the Second World War. Also features an extensive database of Canadian soldiers who died in battle.
Library and Archives Canada: Military and Peacekeeping
Check out the online exhibits about the history of Canadian military and peacekeeping operations featured at the website for Library and Archives Canada. View paintings by Canada's great war artists, gripping photographs of war on the frontlines, war diaries and stories, multimedia, and much more.
Canadian Military History Gateway
Search this website for authoritative information about Canadian military history. Provides links to websites for Canadian museums, libraries, archives, and other heritage organizations. Also features an online glossary of military terminology, educational resources and much more. From the Department of National Defence.
Canadian Navy of Yesterday and Today
An informative site about the ships and aircraft of Canada's navy, from its inception in 1910 to the present day.
Canadian Forces: Glossary
A glossary of military terminology used in the Canadian Forces. From the forces.ca website.
From Colony to Country: A Reader's Guide to Canadian Military History
An extensive online bibliography concerning Canadian military history. From Library and Archives Canada.
An Archival Look at the First World War
Peruse soldiers' letters to their girlfriends and other fascinating archival material about Canada's war effort at home and overseas. From Queen's University Archives.
A detailed history of The Dumbells, a military “concert party” successful both in military and civilian life during and after the First World War. See also the biographies of individual performers and the links to audio clips of their music. From the Library and Archives Canada website "The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings."
For King and Empire: Canada's Soldiers in the Great War
An online guide to the “For King and Empire” video documentary series. Features detailed day-by-day accounts of military battles, profiles of individual soldiers, a glossary of weapons and artillery, and much more. From Breakthrough Films and History Television.
The Canadian Wartime Experience: The Documentary Legacy of Canada at War
This website examines the impact of wartime experiences on previous generations of Canadians. Peruse digitized images of ink-stained personal letters, official documents, news clippings, old photographs, and much more. Covers major military conflicts from the Red River Rebellion to the Vietnam War. Also offers learning activities that relate to primary source materials. From University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
Images of a Forgotten War
View rare wartime film footage, photos, historical essays, and related educational resources at this National Film Board of Canada website.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park in France is dedicated to Newfoundlanders who gave their lives in the First World War. From Veterans Affairs Canada.
This Ottawa memorial honours fourteen valiant men and women who gave outstanding wartime service to Canada.
First World War Photograph Collection
Browse or search this extensive and diverse online image database of photos and posters about the First World War. From Digital Collections and Services at the University of British Columbia Library.
Dedicated to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. Click on "Cemetery Details" and then click on the names for personal information about each soldier buried at the site. From the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Sir Robert Laird Borden
This biography of Sir Robert Laird Borden includes interesting details about Canada's role in the First World War and related issues. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Canada's Fighting 'Van Doos'
This CBC Archives site features radio and TV clips that chronicle the history of the Royal 22e Régiment.
In Flanders Fields
An information site for "In Flanders Fields," an award-winning documentary film about Canadian military action at Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele during the First World War. Click on the link at the top of the page to read an online copy of the full film script. From The War Amps.
Canada’s National Army, Canada’s National Interest 1918, 2008
This paper offers some comparisons between decisions taken by Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden and Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie in the last years of the First World War and contemporary foreign and defence policy in the era of Prime Minister Harper and General Hillier. From the "Journal of Military and Strategic Studies".
Guns and Butter: World War I and the Canadian Economy
An academic paper that provides interesting details about the impact of the First World War on various sectors of the Canadian economy. From Trent University.
Oral history interview of Greg Clark, journalist
Scroll down this document to the first article "Oral history interview of Greg Clark, journalist for a CBC Radio broadcast". Clark details the unpleasant grittiness of daily life in trenches during the First World War. From the Canadian Oral History Association Journal.
1914 - 1921: The Crucible of War
A brief history of Canada's role on the world stage during peace and wartime from the website for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada. Scroll down the page for historical notes and photographs of major events.
Canada's last known First World War veteran dies at 109
Watch a CTV News video about the passing of John Babcock, Canada's last known First World War veteran. Includes an interview with Tim Cook, curator at the Canadian War Museum.
See an extensive illustrated overview of Canadian military history at the website for The Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum.
Watch film clips from Paul Cowan's "Paris 1919," a feature-length documentary with archival footage and dramatic re-enactments that take viewers inside post-First World War peace talks. Based on the book of the same title by author Margaret Macmillan and narrated by R.H. Thomson. From the National Film Board of Canada website.
Major-General Malcolm Smith Mercer
This article chronicles maneuvers of Canadian forces under the command of Major-General Malcolm Smith Mercer, the highest ranking Canadian officer killed in the First World War by friendly fire. Includes images of battlefields painted by Canadian artists. From the Canadian Military Journal.
52nd (New Ontario) Battalion, CEF
This website is dedicated to the memory of the men who served in the 52nd 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion, CEF during the First World War.