Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Attacking under smoke during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium during the First World War in 1915. (Library and Archives Canada)

Attacking under smoke during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium during the First World War in 1915.

(Library and Archives Canada)

Remembrance Day: 10 momentous battles from Canada's military history Add to ...

Some are tactically important, others are strategically significant. There are famous disasters, as well as brave and daring episodes in Canada’s military history. Historian David Borys picks 10 battles that made a difference.

Battles of Gravenstafel Ridge and St. Julien – April 22 to May 5, 1915

Canadian Casualties: 6,064 wounded and killed

Known as the Second Battle of Ypres or the First Gas Attack, the 1st Canadian Division found itself thrust into the position of defending a massive breach in the Allied salient around the ancient city of Ypres. The Germans initially released a massive wave of poison gas directed at the North African troops stationed to the left of the Canadians, driving the French territorials back in panic. The Canadians plugged this gap but suffered a second gas attack as the Germans desperately fought to break through the Canadian lines. Urinating in their handkerchiefs, the Canadians were able to block the worst excesses of gas exposure and tenaciously held their positions, preventing a demoralizing Allied retreat.

Vimy Ridge – April 9 to 12, 1917

10,602 wounded and killed

For the first time, all four infantry divisions fought together as part of the Canadian Corps. The ridge had been the site of previous defeats by both the British and French in attempts to dislodge the Germans from this strategically vital high ground. The Canadians utilized numerous innovative methods, including large-scale battle rehearsal, the creeping barrage (a barrage that ‘creeps’ over no-man’s land in front of the advancing troops), and leap-frogging (after capturing an objective, a unit is 'leap-frogged' by a second unit moving forward to the next objective) in order to rapidly overcome the German defences. In a blinding snowstorm on April 12, the last and most formidable German position, nicknamed “The Pimple,” was captured and the entire German defensive system in the region was exposed, forcing them to conduct a large-scale withdrawal.

Amiens – Aug. 8 to 12, 1918

9,074 wounded and killed

Known as “The Black Day” for the German army, the Canadians utilized infantry-tank co-operation on an unprecedented level to spearhead a decisive blow in the first battle of an offensive that came to be known as Canada’s Hundred Days. Corps commander Gen. Arthur Currie had tricked the enemy into believing the Canadians were actually stationed in Flanders, and thus the Germans were shocked to discover Canadian troops penetrating their defences at distances up to 8 kilometres. This battle heralded in a period of unprecedented military success and many in the German high command were now asking Kaiser Wilhelm to sue for peace.

Canal Du Nord and Cambrai – Sept. 27 to Oct. 11, 1918

13,672 wounded and killed

Near the tiny village of Bourlon, Gen. Currie utilized a daring and innovative tactical plan to overcome German defences positioned around a dry, unfinished segment of the Canal Du Nord and capture the city of Cambrai. By squeezing his corps through an extremely narrow frontage, utilizing the highly effective counter-battery corps under Col. Andrew McNaughton, and employing his controversial and newly formed engineer brigade, the Canadians were able to rapidly cross a daunting physical obstacle and capture a vital transportation hub. On Sept. 27 alone, the engineers constructed 17 bridges and built seven miles of tramline. This was the first time on the Western Front that such a large-scale engineer formation had been utilized and ushered in the era of modern warfare where engineers would play a pivotal role.

Dieppe – Aug. 19, 1942

1,413 wounded and killed, 1,946 captured

At the coastal villages of Dieppe, Puys and Pourville, Canadians of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division stormed the beaches in an ill-fated raid with poorly defined objectives and shockingly limited naval, air and artillery support. The beaches in and around this port city became a killing ground as Canadian soldiers and British commandos attempted to force their way inland. Over half of the attacking troops never made it back to England. The lessons learned at Dieppe would play a significant part in informing plans for the invasion of North Africa, Sicily and eventually Normandy. The operation would also prove to be highly controversial within military history literature as historians grappled with the reasons for the assault and who was to blame.

Assoro – July 20 to 22, 1943

In one of the most audacious and daring Canadian operations of the entire Second World War, the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment scaled the 900-metre, terraced back side of the hilltop fortress town of Assoro during the Allied campaign in central Sicily. The small group of Germans at the top of “Castle Hill” was easily overcome and from this newly won position the Hasty P’s called down artillery fire on the German troops in Assoro proper. The shocked Germans attempted several attacks on the Canadian position but were unable to remove them from the ruins of Castle Hill. The exposed nature of the German position as a result of the Canadians now above them forced a general withdrawal from one of the most daunting and physically intimidating defensive positions in all of Sicily.

Juno Beach – June 6, 1944

1,200 wounded and killed

Juno Beach was considered one of the most heavily defended of the five Normandy beaches, and Canadians overcame stiff resistance to advance farther inland on D-Day then any other Allied unit. The unprecedented artillery support failed to fully neutralize the German positions, and rough seas delayed the arrival of the floating Duplex Drive tanks, yet soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were able to advance inland and establish strategically vital defensive positions in the face of a building German counterattack from 21st Panzer Division and later from the 12th SS Hitler Youth division, a unit that became notorious for the shooting of Canadian POWs.

Breskens Pocket – Oct. 6 to Nov. 3, 1944

600 wounded and killed

In some of the most gruelling conditions experienced by Canadians in northwest Europe, soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Division overcame stout German resistance in flooded, mud-soaked fields and over well-defended canals and dykes in what came to be known as Operation Switchback. Vital in order to begin clearing the approaches to Antwerp, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade launched a frontal assault over the heavily defended Leopold Canal with the support of numerous Wasp flame-throwers while the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade carried out a difficult amphibious assault in a two-pronged attack to reduce the Breskens Pocket. German resistance was tenacious but this almost month-long battle opened the way for the clearing of the Scheldt Estuary and the eventual opening of the port of Antwerp.

Groningen – April 14 to 18, 1945

209 wounded and killed

In one of the last significant actions of the entire war, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, along with Dutch Resistance, launched a difficult urban assault on German, Belgian and Dutch SS troops holed up in the medieval fortress city of Groningen. Limiting their use of artillery due to the large presence of civilians, the Canadians utilized bold and rapid manoeuvres to continually outflank German strongpoints while effectively co-ordinating their tank and infantry in a textbook combined-arms urban assault operation. Although Ortona has captured the public’s imagination for its brutality, Groningen stands as one of the largest Canadian urban assaults of the war.

Kap Yong – April 22 to 25, 1951

33 wounded and killed

The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry is one of only a handful of non-American regiments to ever receive the U.S. Presidential Unit citation, because of its involvement in the incredible battle of Kap Yong. As part of the 27th Commonwealth brigade, the Canadians found themselves surrounded in the Kap Yong Valley by a vastly numerically superior Chinese force. Along with the Royal Australian Regiment, the Canadians waged a series of impressive and desperate defensive battles, effectively stopping an entire Chinese division from breaking through the United Nations front and threatening the city of Seoul.

Why not Afghanistan?

Dr. Borys did not choose an Afghanistan operation because the conflict is relatively new for academic study, with many documents still classified.

Dr. David Borys is a military historian who currently teaches at UBC Okanagan. He specializes in Canadian military history, civil affairs and modern civil-military relations. Check out his twitter feed at @docborys.

A previous version of this feature incorrectly said the 9th Canadian Infantry Battalion carried out an amphibious assault during the Breskens Pocket battle in the Second World War. In fact, it was the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade. This article also referred to the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion instead of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade. In addition, due to an editing error, the description of the Groningen battle, also in the Second World War, involved an assault by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division on German, Dutch and Belgian troops. In fact, the units involved were the Canadians, along with Dutch Resistance against German, Belgian and Dutch SS troops.

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories