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.