As we mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, one country’s contribution to the war to end all wars has been sorely overlooked — Canada.
I attempted to rectify this by modest measure. Last week, during a visit to my home and native land, my older brother and I made a pilgrimage to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Canada’s military has made important contributions in the War in Afghanistan, the Korean War, and in WWII, especially during D-Day. But it was in World War I that Canada came of age.
While Woodrow Wilson vowed to keep America out of war, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden had no such luxury. Although Canada had been independent nearly half a century, as part of the British Commonwealth it was not autonomous in matters of war. When Britain went to war, Canada was obliged to follow, although it could determine the extent of its participation as was the case 15 years earlier when Britain entered the Boer War in South Africa. So when Germany violated Belgian neutrality, Borden declared, “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain.”
Although Canada’s navy was in its nascency and its army was equipped with poorly made Ross rifles, there was no shortage of men willing to fight for King and Country. While it is true that many of these men were unemployed, they were certainly motivated to enlist out of a sense of duty to do their bit.
A few of them would become Canadian folk heroes. William Barker would become and remains the most decorated soldier in Canadian history, earning among other distinctions as Distinguished Service Order, a Military Cross, and a Victoria Cross while shooting down 50 enemy aircraft. Barker would earn the Victoria Cross after being ambushed by a formation of German Fokker D.VII’s in October 1918. Despite serious wounds to both legs and his left elbow, he shot down three of the Fokkers and was able to land safely behind Canadian lines. Billy Bishop would become a legendary flying ace credited with shooting down 75 German aircraft. Twenty of those planes were shot down in April 1917.
That same month the most notable Canadian triumph of the war took place: the capture of Vimy Ridge in northern France near the Belgian border. Four divisions of Canadian soldiers did in three days what French soldiers could not do in three years. But it came at a steep cost. Nearly 3,600 Canadian soldiers died at Vimy Ridge while another 7,000 were wounded.
Despite the triumph of Vimy Ridge, enthusiasm for the war was waning. A decade before becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, Amelia Earhart had worked as a nurse’s aide along with her younger sister Muriel tending to Canada’s wounded warriors at Toronto’s Spadina Military Hospital. She recalled her contributions to the Canadian war effort in her 1933 autobiography, The Fun of It:
There for the first time I realized what the World War meant. Instead of new uniforms and brass bands, I saw only the results of four years’ desperate struggle; men without arms and legs, men who were paralyzed and men who were blind. One day I saw four one-legged men at once, walking as best they could down the street together.
Of course, there was one province that never had any enthusiasm for the war — Quebec. The French-speaking majority saw the conflict as Britain’s war. Although Britain was allied with France and Belgium, the Quebecois felt no affinity with them either. At first, this was not a significant problem. But as casualties mounted and the number of men willing to enlist diminished, the Borden government embarked upon a policy of conscription.
This not only severely divided English and French Canada, but also divided the opposition Liberal Party. English-speaking Liberals aligned themselves with Borden’s Conservative Party under the Union banner while the Liberals were reduced to a rump of mostly Francophone MPs led by former Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier. One of the few Anglos remaining in the Liberal caucus was MacKenzie King, who later became Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister. But the man who most fiercely opposed conscription was Henri Bourassa, who called it “a blood tax.”
The 1917 federal election was fought over the question of conscription, the most bitter and corrupt campaign in Canadian history. It was the first election in which women were allowed to vote — but only if they were the wife/widow, mothers, sisters and daughters of Canadian soldiers over the age of 21. While some women gained the vote, conscientious objectors and those who had arrived in Canada after 1902 from countries of enemy alien origin were not allowed to participate. But it was the votes of overseas soldiers that caused the most consternation. Instead of being placed in the constituencies in which the soldiers resided, their votes instead went into constituencies where Union candidates were vulnerable. Thanks to votes distributed in this manner, at least 14 seats that would have gone Liberal instead went to Union candidates. Despite their dubious nature, these measures were entirely unnecessary — the Unionists would have easily won a majority government without such manipulations.
The Allied victory came less than a year after the election. There was great relief the war was over, but hard feelings remained between English and French and the conscription issue would rear its ugly head again during WWII as Prime Minister King in his dithering manner said, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” Of the 420,000 Canadian military personnel who participated in WWI, 60,000 were killed and 172,000 wounded. The last Canadian soldier killed was Private George Price, who died 11 minutes before the Armistice took effect.
In short, one out of every seven Canadians who partook in WWI never made it back home. Put another way, nearly one percent of Canada’s population was lost as a result of the First World War. If the United States were to lose nearly one percent of its population in a four-year war, this would mean the deaths of 3 million people.
This loss of life was best expressed by a Canadian military doctor named John McRae in his poem In Flanders Field:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
While McRae lamented the men who never made it back home, he believed that the sacrifice made by these men was noble and urged generations to come to follow their example.
The First World War was an arduous endeavor for Canada and very nearly tore it apart. But when the war was over, Canada would emerge as a stronger country even if the rest of the world’s attention was directed elsewhere.