This series commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele and Canada's role in the First World War and its enduring legacy.
The Great War of 1914 to 1918 was a watershed in world history. The titanic affair involved tens of millions of citizen soldiers in uniform and whole societies geared toward victory. The cost was appalling with some nine million killed and countless more laid waste through starvation, disease and genocide. The war destroyed four empires, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans.
The conditions of the war birthed Communist Russia and propelled the United States toward becoming a superpower, while also creating new frictions and fault lines in places such as Ireland, Africa and the Middle East. The world is still dealing with the war's legacy.
The First World War also had a profound impact on Canada. The nation of not yet eight million fielded a fighting force of more than 620,000. The costs were appalling with more than 66,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders (then a separate Dominion) listed in the Books of Remembrance. Another 173,000 Canadians were injured during the war, with 138,000 of those being battle casualties. An unknown number of combatants were wounded in mind and spirit, and suffered for years or their whole lives, in an age before there was formal recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder.
To deal with the wounded, the federal government established a massive system of hospitals, sanitariums and rehabilitation centres across the country. This was part of the debt that the government owed to those who served, and it was a profound change to health care in Canada.
The dead were also commemorated. The citizens of almost every city, town and village in Canada raised funds to erect stone memorials to the fallen. The bodies were usually left overseas, gathered and placed in the thousands of Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries.
- More in the series:
- Row on row - unknown soldiers with lives cut short
- First World War action frozen in time in archives, photos
- Combat morale – how soldiers survived in the trenches
- Passchendaele – grit, muck, blood and victory
The federal government also funded memorials to mark key battlefields, of which the Vimy Memorial on the ridge captured in April of 1917 was the largest. In Canada, the Peace Tower was central to the rebuilt Parliament buildings, which had burned down in 1916. It was a memorial and an aspirational structure for a better world. The National Monument in Ottawa was unveiled in May of 1939, less than half a year before Canada again went to war against Germany and Hitler.
As a British dominion, Canada had automatically been at war in August of 1914 when Britain went to battle. But Canada's wartime contribution, pride and sacrifice had led to an evolution in Canadian engagement outside of its borders. In 1919, Prime Minister Robert Borden had demanded a voice at the Treaty of Versailles and Canada joined the new League of Nations.
Canadian political leaders also gradually became more comfortable in saying no to the British, especially during the Chanak Crisis of 1922, when Britain assumed that Canada would automatically send soldiers to aid a beleaguered garrison in Turkey. Not so, decided the wily Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. He delayed his response to London and ultimately ran out the clock to avoid commitment.
Canada emerged from the Great War with a new sense of international engagement, although it took a long time for the country's cautious leaders to go beyond talking. Even so, Canada took control of its destiny on the world stage, especially after the 1931 Statute of Westminster.
On the domestic front, deep war-induced scars remained. The government, strengthened by the War Measures Act in August of 1914, had nearly unlimited powers. Urged on by Canadians who sought to uncover those deemed untrustworthy in their ranks, some German and Ukrainian Canadians were harassed and close to 9,000 were imprisoned in isolated camps across the country. These attacks on supposed disloyals continued throughout the war, with German shops and businesses boycotted or burned. Matters ran so hot that the residents of Berlin, Ont., felt it wise to prove their loyalty by changing their city's name to Kitchener, after the British War Minister Lord Kitchener.
Other fault lines were exacerbated by the strain of the war. The horrendous casualties overseas outpaced the Canadian commitment of voluntary soldiers and Borden's government felt compelled to introduce conscription in 1917. This divisive legislation forced young men to serve against their will and pitted community against community. French Canada was singled out by large parts of English Canada for not contributing enough soldiers. While thousands of French Canadians served overseas, with more working at home in factories or on farms, there was no great desire to fight in a unilingual English army.
The wartime turmoil extended to those in the cities turning on farmers – English, French or New Canadian – especially when runaway inflation led to rumours that farmers were reaping great profits. They were not, but the anger festered and divided Canadians. From the latter part of the war, organized labour was under systematic assault when it pushed for a greater share of the enormous war-related profits that did not make its way down to the workers.
All of these dark legacies extended long after the war, with French Canadians viewing English Canada with deep suspicion over conscription, while farmers and labour, drawing strongly from the West that had felt ignored by Central Canada, created a third federal party. The Progressive Party was influential in propping up the Liberals at the federal level throughout the 1920s and later became the genesis of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (and later the NDP), along with a number of provincial farmers' parties that came to power in many provinces. Canada's political system was forever changed by the war's unrest.
There were other legacies. The federal government was empowered to intrude deeper into the lives of Canadians. Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure and then became permanent. Railways were nationalized. Canada turned to Washington for staggering wartime loans and became more fully enmeshed in a North American economy. Most women received the right to vote, save for those in a few provinces and Indigenous women.
The war created a new influential group of Canadians – the veteran. While there had been scattered veterans in the past, now there were more than 500,000 from this war. They fought for rights and pensions, and continued to be a force during much of the century.
Some of the 4,000 or so Indigenous veterans returned home having been treated as equals in the trenches to find that again they were wards of the state. Many fought for greater rights within Canada, as did Japanese Canadian veterans. Almost all veterans demanded that their fallen comrades be remembered, and the country embraced new symbols like the poppy and commemorative events like Remembrance Day.
A new and negotiated Canadian identity was stimulated by the war, with Canadian painters, novelists, photographers and writers, some of them veterans, creating a vibrant cultural tradition in the country. John McCrae and A.Y. Jackson would pass the torch to later generations of cultural creators, who did not serve in the war but found it haunted the country.
The dark shadow of the war extends into this century, even after the last Canadian Great War veteran died in 2010. That living link to the war is gone, but millions of Canadians retain a family connection to the war through a veteran, kept alive by blood, memories, and, on occasion, old photographs and poignant artifacts.
The Great War remade Canada into something different, even as it wore deep its scars and grief over its fallen.
Tim Cook is the author of 10 books of military history, including Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (2017).