The Canadians

Shock troops.

Canada automatically joined Britain when war was declared on Germany in August 1914. The Dominion’s government, however, was free to choose its level of involvement. Following Britain’s lead, Canada declared war as well and created the Canadian Expeditionary Force to send over to France as soon as possible. Canada only had a small standing force and not much history participating in Britain’s overseas wars. Nevertheless, thousands of Canadians immediately volunteered.

Five Canadian divisions were raised between 1914 and January 1917, but the first ones missed the bloodshed of 1914, arriving in Britain in early 1915 before heading to France. However, they had the dubious honor of being among the first Allied units to experience a gas attack, when the 1st Canadian Division was sent to fill a breach in the line at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Fighting with urine-soaked flannel over their mouths as their only protection, the Canadians established a reputation as tough and reliable troops who could be trusted to plug a gap in the line or lead an assault.

In the early 1900s Canada retained very close imperial ties to Britain. in fact, more than half the men in the CEF were British-born immigrants, and over three fourths of the first contingents to arrive in France had been British-born. Whereas English Canadians resolutely supported the war, however, French Canadians felt more lukewarm about a conflict they felt was mostly being fought for the British Empire. Tensions between the English and French Canadian communities remained long past 1918, when widespread rioting broke out in Quebec after the arrest of a French Canadian who refused to be conscripted. 

Canadian soldiers with their finicky but deadly Ross rifles.

Canadian soldiers wore British uniforms, but first arrived in France with a unique Ross Mark III rifle. Although the Ross was exceptionally accurate, it was too sophisicated and finicky for the muddy trenches, and by the Battle of the Somme all Canadian soldiers had been armed with the Lee Enfield SMLE, although a few Canadian and British snipers held on to their Rosses.

Canada did not need to impose conscription until August 1917, over a year after Britain. By then Canada was having a hard time replenishing units which had taken a bad mauling at the Somme and then again in April 1917 at Vimy Ridge. The battle at Vimy remains etched into Canadian national conscious, similar to Gallipoli in Australian memory. Canadian soldiers succeeded in taking Vimy Ridge in one day, against incredibly strong German opposition that had resisted every Allied attack since 1914. Beforehand many had believed it to be impermeable. The fall of Vimy in one day was one of the war’s most remarkable feats.

Perhaps an even greater achievement, however was Canada’s role in the Hundred Day’s Offensive in the summer of 1918, when Canadian soldiers breached the defenses of the German Hindenburg Line. The successful achievements, as well as the sacrifices, of Canadian troops during World War One helped establish a sense of Canadian nationhood when the CEF returned after the war.

Canadian soldiers arrive home in Toronto, 1919.

Kandahar, Afghanistan. 4 April 2002- A sniper from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) Battle Group demonstrates the fine art of vanishing into the landscape with his Parker-Hale C3A1 rifle.


Lee Enfield wire cutters of World War I,

Invented in 1873 in America, barbed wire was originally used to pen cattle and other livestock in the cattle countries of the Old West.  By World War I, however, the invention would be used to deadly effect against human beings. Placed in front of trenches and fortification, it could block access to an enemy assault or force the enemy into a deadly chokepoint where they could be cut down by machine guns and artillery.  Thousands of miles worth of barbed wire was laid along the Western Front, providing a formidable obstacle for both Allied and Central Power’s forces.

At first it thought that artillery barrages would be successful in destroying barb wire obstacles, but this was later proved ineffective.  Then both sides deployed special wire cutting teams who would infiltrate no man’s land and remove barbed wire fencing.  One solution to the barbed wire problem was created C.H.Pugh Ltd. of Birmingham, England.  Their solution was to produce a special wire cutting device which could be mounted to the end of the standard British Lee Enfield service rifle.  The wire cutting device could also be mounted on the British P14, the American M1917 Enfield, and the Canadian Ross Rifle.  

While the Lee Enfield wire cutters were a good idea in theory, in the trenches of World War I they found to be impractical.  The cutters were difficult to use, and made the soldiers using them sitting ducks to enemy fire.  Most that were issued were never used.  


The American Surcharge Ross Rifle,

Among the great duds of military firearm history, the Ross rifle ranks among the most notorious.  The straight pull bolt action rifle used by Canadian forces during World War I was grand in theory, but in reality it had some serious problems.  First and foremost, the straight pull design was highly susceptible to dirt, mud, dust, and moisture, causing it to jam and malfunction frequently.  The bolt could also be disassembled for routine cleaning and inadvertently reassembled in a manner that would fail to lock but still allow a round to be fired, leading to serious injury or death of the operator as the bolt flew back into his face.  Most comically, bayonets were known to fall off when the rifle was fired. In response to the failures of the Ross rifle, many Canadian servicemen ditched the Ross and unofficially adopted the British Lee Enfield.  Eventually, the Canadian Government was forced to admit it’s mistake and recall the Ross rifle.  The Canadian military then officially adopted the Lee Enfield in its place.

After the recall of Ross rifles from World War I, the Canadian Government found itself in a situation where it had hundreds of thousands of surplus Ross rifles collecting dust in storage.  When the United States entered the war in 1917, an opportunity arose to make a few bucks while getting rid of their rifles.  At the time, the U.S. was unprepared for war, and needed a large amount of arms for its expanding military.  While the 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield were the two most common used firearms by American forces during WWI, a bizarre hodgepodge of rifles were used for training, arming of secondary units, and even frontline combat.  

On November 17th, 1917 the United States purchased 20,000 Ross Mark II rifles at a cost of $12.50 each.  This also included accessories such as oil bottles, cleaning kits, bayonets, scabbards, and slings.  In addition 4,629,470 rounds of .303 British ammunition were purchased at a cost of $20 per 1,000 rounds.  Each of the rifles retained their original Canadian markings, but also including US Ordnance markings.  Of the 20,000 rifles, half were used to arm the New York State Guard.  The rest were used as training rifle by the regular army.  None ever saw combat in American hands.

After World War I, the US Government attempted to sell their stocks of Ross rifles to the American civilian market through the Civilian Marksmenship Program (CMP).  At first they were offered at $5 each, but due to their bad reputation no one would buy them.  They were then discounted to $3.50 each, again no buyers.  The US then tried to resell them back to Canada, an offer the Canadians refused.  Finally, during World War II, the United States sent them back to Canada under the Lend Lease Act.  Some were converted in sniper rifles, most stayed in storage during the war.  After World War II, remaining stocks of Ross rifles were converted into hunting and sporting firearms, and sold to the Canadian civilian market.