Watching a TV programme about the last heroes of World War II, I was struck by the numbers of former US and to a lesser extent British soldiers who fought in the final battles leading to the defeat of Nazi Germany and its wartime allies. Speaking personally, I have always believed that if Britain has one true ally across the Atlantic, then it is Canada, rather than the USA, who are our truest friends across the ocean, a fact that they have proved when our country has faced its darkest moments, but which has been largely overlooked by many commentators and historians. The following is an extract from my book “Mariners, Merchants and the Military Too – A History of the British Empire” relating Canada’s contribution to the British Empire during World War I alone…….
“As with many of Great Britain’s self governing colonies and dominions, the outbreak of the First World War proved to be a pivotal moment in the history of these former Imperial territories, marking their change from being an historic dependency of the British Crown, to becoming a recognisable international state in its own right. Through its political decision making, but more importantly through the valour and commitment of its armed forces, Canada was reported to have finally emerged upon the world stage as an independent democratic nation which willingly submitted itself to upholding the ideals of freedom and democracy. As in the other great British colonies and dominions throughout the globe, including India, Africa, Australia and New Zealand, tens of thousands of young Canadian’s, both men and women, were reported to have rallied to Britain’s cause, willingly committing themselves to her defence. Despite only having a relatively small standing army of some several thousand men, within a matter of months, some thirty thousand Canadians were said to have volunteered to serve in Western Europe and were making their way across the Atlantic to take their place on the Western front. The first Canadian troops were thought to have arrived in France by the beginning of 1915 and elements of their 1st Division were reportedly some of the first allied troops to have been attacked with the poison chlorine gas which was commonly used by the German army. While large numbers of British and French troops were said to have fled the threat of this new weapon, the Canadians were thought to have quickly realised that the effects of the gas could be neutralised by the use of urine soaked rags being placed over their nose and mouths, helping them to hold their positions and preventing the enemy forces from advancing. However, even with their homemade defence against the poisonous clouds that were unleashed on their lines, it was still reported that some six thousand Canadian troops were affected by the gas, of which, a full third were thought to have died as a direct result of it being deployed against them.
Canadian forces were also an intrinsic part of the allied force that was marshalled in 1916 in preparation for the Battle of the Somme, which ultimately resulted in the largest number of allied casualties ever suffered by British and Dominion forces, nearly fifty eight thousand men killed or wounded in a single day. As much the result of poor planning, communications and inadequate leadership, as it was of complete incompetence, such enormous human losses were thought to have become a common feature of the First World War overall, although for the Canadian’s specifically, the Somme campaign alone was thought to have accounted for some twenty five thousand casualties, either killed or wounded. Despite such losses however, Canada’s frontline troops, continued to enhance their military reputation, reportedly being prepared to take on any military assignment, seemingly regardless of the cost and earning the everlasting esteem of their civilian contemporaries, as well as their political masters in equal measure. Vimy Ridge was said to be just one of the many battles which saw the Canadian military divisions take their place in the vanguard of various allied operations, designed to capture the German army’s well established defensive lines. Beginning on the morning of the 9th April 1917, a “creeping artillery barrage” was said to have cleared the way for the following Canadian troops, who then cleared the trenches of their German defenders, slowly, but surely moving the allied lines forward of their previous positions. By the afternoon of the following day the Canadian troops had not only taken a great deal of ground, but also captured several thousand German prisoners and killed many hundreds more. However, the victory had not come without a high price for Canada’s own young troops, who were reported to have suffered some eleven thousand casualties, either dead or wounded, a figure which underpinned their utter determination to achieve the objectives that they had been given.
Seven months later and largely because of their tenacious reputation, Canadian troops were reported to have been redeployed to the Ypres area, in readiness for yet another allied offensive that later became known as the Second Battle of Passchendaele, which was fought between October and November 1917. In conjunction with British and Anzac troops, Canadian soldiers were tasked with pushing the German’s front line back, allowing the allied positions to be advanced, so that the town of Passchendaele could be recovered by the allies. Although there were several instances of allied reversals and occasional failures to reach individual objectives, the operation itself proved to be successful, although the entire campaign was said to have cost some sixteen thousand Canadian casualties, with at least a quarter of that number being killed. Despite these losses though, Canadian troops were thought to have been so vital to the allied offensive strategy that they were intensively employed throughout much of 1918, most notably during the famous One Hundred Days Offensive, which saw Canadian troops and others, participate in the Battle of Amiens, Cambrai and the vital breaking of the Hindenburg Line which ultimately forced Germany to agree an Armistice on 11th November 1918. As with a number of other former British colonies, including Australia and New Zealand, by the end of the First World War, Canada’s international reputation as one of the principal victorious allied nations, had been assured and the military worth of its fighting forces had likewise been enhanced. Back in Canada itself, its own people began to see themselves as an integral part of the international community, a country with its own culture, traditions and now with a reputation and standing that was equal to its previously more dominant American and British counterparts. Although Canada was thought to have been largely independent of Britain, since the beginning of the 20th century, its emergence after World War I, was thought to mark the period when most Canadians began to see themselves as Canadians, rather than being historically tied to or associated with Britain or indeed the United States”
(Extract from: Mariners, Merchants and the Military Too by Phillip E Jones)