The First World War: The war that changed Canada forever

August 21, 2014

When Germany invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914, Canada found itself at war. “As part of the British Empire, we had no choice in the matter,” says Canadian War Museum First World War historian and author Tim Cook.

“But we did have a choice about how we got involved.” Canadians went all out. A nation of fewer than 8 million people, Canada quickly raised a 30,000 strong contingent to fight overseas. Ultimately, more than 620,000 Canadians would serve.

First seeing action at Ypres in April 1915, Canadian soldiers stood their ground against a massive German offensive that was launched behind the earliest use of chlorine gas in the history of warfare. Other battles followed at Festubert, St. Eloi, Mount Sorrel, and along the Somme.

On April 9, 1917, after two bloody years in the trenches, the four division-strong Canadian Corps succeeded where British and French troops had failed, by seizing the strategically important Vimy Ridge from the Germans. The cost? More than 10,600 killed and wounded. “At Hill 70, Passchendaele — from Vimy on,” says Cook, “the Canadians never lost a battle.” On August 8, 1918, at Amiens, the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps, by then widely hailed as the “Shock Troops of the Empire,” drove 11 kilometres into the German lines, the greatest Allied advance in the war to date. Over what became known as the “Hundred Days,” Allied armies pushed the Germans back across open countryside. “But there were no easy victories,” says Cook, “it’s important to emphasize that. This was the bloodiest period of the war, with over 45,000 Canadians being killed and wounded.” The fighting never let up — on November 11, 1918, Private George Lawrence Price gained the sad distinction of being the last Canadian to fall in the Great War, felled by a sniper’s bullet at 10:58 — two minutes before the shooting ceased. More than 66,000 Canadians had died; 173,000 had been wounded.

“The First World War,” says Cook, “forced Canada to grow up, on the battlefield and at home.” Canada had stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain. “There was a new sense,” says Cook, “that we had done our part and there needed to be a change in the political and constitutional relationship.” But the war damaged the country too. “The conscription debate of 1917 was one of the worst crises the country has ever faced. And the exertion and cost of the relentless fighting overseas was very hard on those at home, especially mothers and fathers, wives and children, all of whom waited and worried about their loved ones.”

“The 100th anniversary is a time for Canadians to take stock,” says Cook. To make this easier, the Canadian War Museum is planning a number of exhibitions and special events. “We’ll be looking at the battles waged overseas and the struggle at home, the role of media and the contribution women made to the war, as well as the many ways in which the war has been remembered over time. Canada and Canadians will be paying more attention to the past. Our job here at the Museum will be to show it to them.”

Image: CWM 20010129-0729e ©Canadian War Museum

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