In the First World War, Canada did something for the very first time – it sent men to fight in Europe. In all, 625,000 made the journey. In the Americas, only the United States did the same. The other countries knew that they were safe and felt no need to pick sides in a spat between the various European empires.
Indeed, even the Americans, despite their ambitions to become a great power, waited three years before joining the fray and, in the end, they had to be pushed (by Germany’s decision in 1917 to wage unrestricted submarine warfare).
Despite having a population just one-twelfth that of the U.S., we had two-thirds as many soldiers killed because we were in the war from the starting gun.
Why did we do that? We were never in any danger, and we weren’t building an empire.
“The Canadian territory is nowhere exposed to the attacks of the belligerent powers,” Henri Bourassa, the Quebec politician and founder of Le Devoir, wrote just one month after Britain declared war 100 years ago this week, automatically taking Canada with it.
“As an independent nation, Canada would today enjoy perfect security. It is then the duty of England to defend Canada and not that of Canada to defend England.”
A dark night of tyranny would have descended?
Bourassa was French-Canadian, of course, and immune to the wave of “imperial” patriotism that swept English-speaking Canada when the war broke out. Most English-Canadians still half-believed that they were British themselves. But that no longer sounds like a good reason, so now we tell ourselves that a dark night of tyranny would have descended on the world if “our side” had lost. We were fighting for “freedom.”
This rather overlooks the fact that three-quarters of the world’s people already lived in a dark night of tyranny, subjugated by the European empires, of which the British was the largest.
What we really mean is that, had we not fought and won, some Europeans, maybe even the British, would have had to live under the heel of German oppression.
No, of course not. Germany would have had to be very fortunate to win the war: It and its allies were outnumbered by more than 2-to-1 from the start. In fact, it was lucky to hang on as long as it did.
If the Germans had won, it would only have been by the skin of their teeth. Their last throw of the dice was the great offensives they launched in France in the spring of 1918, after standing on the defensive on the Western Front almost exclusively since 1914.
They were able to launch those offensives only because the Communist revolution took Russia out of the war in late 1917 and freed a million German soldiers to move to the Western Front.
But even if the offensives had torn the British and French armies apart, the Germans would have had to end the war fast, before millions of American troops arrived in France. (They were arriving at the rate of 10,000 a day in the spring of 1918.) But suppose Germany had somehow managed to win. What would the peace treaty have been like?
Not nearly as bad as the Treaty of Versailles, the peace we imposed. A “victorious” Germany would not have had the power to strip the losers of their colonies, take away parts of their home territory, impose huge reparations and make the losers “admit” that the war was all their fault, the way we did. It would have been a peace treaty that basically restored the prewar status quo.
In the aftermath, having achieved a no-score draw thinly disguised as a victory, Germany likely would have been more or less democratic: no Hitler.
And the losers, Britain and France (and, at a great distance off, Canada), would not have lost so badly that they were at risk of slipping into some sort of dictatorship. Which probably also means that there would not have been a Second World War just 20 years later.
So a German victory wouldn’t have been all that bad a result, really. Certainly no worse than the Allied victory, which led to a second world war that killed far more people than the first, and was effectively won by the Soviet Union.
That in turn led to a 40-year Cold War (which could easily have turned into a Third World War) – and Canada signed up for that as well.
Nobody was plotting to take over the world
So what was a nice, safe country like Canada doing in this stupid, repetitive game? Our experience in the First World War is the key.