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Wounded Canadians on their way to an aid post during the Battle of Passchendaele in November, 1917: Despite a much smaller population, the country lost almost as many soldiers as the United States.

George Metcalf Archival Collection CWM 19930013-464 O.2201 © Canadian War Museum

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.

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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.

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Really?

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.

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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.

There was no great principle at stake, and nobody was plotting to conquer the world. It was just another great-power conflict of the sort that used to come along every 50 years or so.

But Europe's new wealth, technology and industrial capacity had unexpectedly transformed war into a holocaust that consumed millions of lives.

Canadians were there from the start, and the price we paid was enormous.

At the war's end, almost a quarter-million Canadians had been killed or wounded. Given the size of Canada's population at the time, the emotional impact was roughly comparable to what we would be feeling if we had suffered a million casualties in Afghanistan over the past four years. (We actually had 158 killed and 615 wounded in nine years.)

To make sense of so much pain and loss, we simply had to believe the war had been about something important. In fact, it had to be a crusade against evil itself, for nothing else could justify violent death on such a scale.

By 1918, our loyalty was no longer to Britain but to our own war dead, whose huge sacrifice would be meaningful only if the enterprise in which they had given their lives had been truly worthwhile.

And we had to be willing to do it again whenever the call came, for not to do so would be to betray the memory of the dead.

We did it in the Second World War (we managed to keep our losses a lot lower), and we're still doing it today, although mercifully the cost in Canadian lives has dropped massively in the past half-century. With one side of our brains – the right side, you might say – we still believe in the War of Good Against Evil even a century later.

Yet we are also rational human beings, and we couldn't help noticing that, as a political phenomenon, the First World War was quite familiar. The international system had produced half a dozen such wars in the previous three centuries, and the only difference in 1914-18 was the degree of popular involvement, the lethality of the weapons and the scale of the casualties.

If governments didn't want to go through that again, then they had to change the way the international system worked. So they did. Or at least they tried.

The League of Nations was a failure, but it's a bit like learning to ride a bike – you're almost bound to fall off the first time. The important thing was that in 1918 the most powerful states in the world recognized that the international system was broken, and set out to change it. They outlawed aggressive war, and created a system of "collective security" to enforce the ban. It was the left side of the brain at work, if you'll pardon the pop psychology.

A commitment to peace more talk than action

Canadians also took this lesson to heart, and no Western country has been keener to support the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations. Even at the height of the Cold War, we preferred to talk about our UN peacekeeping troops, not our nuclear-armed forces in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the North American Aerospace Defence Command. But the truth is that 90 per cent of our forces were committed to the Cold War, not to peacekeeping.

The deeper truth is that loyalty to our dead in the great wars of the 20th century still guides our choices. It was Canada and Britain who sweet-talked the United States into creating NATO in 1948, and we rushed into NORAD with the U.S. in 1957 without a backward glance.

When the "Global War on Terror" came along, we were equally keen to go and help, even if the strategy didn't make much sense.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien managed to dodge the invasion of Iraq (which was wise), but only by committing Canadian Forces to the equally forlorn but at least legal war in Afghanistan. Had he declined to do either, Washington could easily have turned the Canadian public against him.

Canada is not a great power, and we live in one of the safer parts of the world: great oceans to the east, west and north, and a generally friendly superpower to the south.

But we truly believe in the great-power game, with all its myths and rationalizations. That's why Canadian foreign policy still looks the way it does. It has hardly ever deviated from that course in 100 years.

Gwyn Dyer is a Toronto-based writer and historian. This piece is drawn from his most recent book, Canada in the Great-Power Game, 1914-2014, published this week by Random House Canada.

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