Skip to main content

Canada, then a young country of some eight million people, had never been tested the way it was during those four years more than a century ago

Open this photo in gallery:

The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, by William Longstaff.© House of Commons Collection, Ottawa

Tim Cook is the author of 11 books, including The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War, and the co-curator, with J.L. Granatstein, of Victory 1918, an exhibition on Canada’s Hundred Days campaign at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

There were no blackened battlefields, no smouldering craters or devastated cities reduced to rubble, but the Spanish flu was almost as deadly as the First World War. The pandemic started sweeping across Canada in early 1918, mutating and growing more lethal, and by May the following year, some 50,000 Canadians had been killed. The disease was unsparing and indiscriminate – it attacked the healthy as well as the young and old.

Among its victims were several thousand Canadian soldiers, many of whom had survived years of brutal trench warfare on the Western Front – avoiding sniper fire, mortars and the cruel effects of chemical weapons, among other dangers – only to succumb to an invisible threat both in Europe and at home. Thousands of others survived its rapid-onset, pneumonia-like symptoms – saved by military nurses and doctors – then learned, when they returned to Canada, that a sibling or parent had been felled by the flu.

And yet the flu is largely forgotten today, its legacy almost completely ignored. It has long been overshadowed by the First World War, in which more than 60,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders were killed in action, with another 6,000 dying from their wounds, the pandemic or related illnesses in the war’s immediate aftermath. There is no solemn day to mark flu victims, and only a handful of memorials across the country serve to remind us what transpired. But every year, we mark Remembrance Day with events held at many of the thousands of community memorials and cenotaphs across the country. There are also national and overseas monuments, the most famous being Walter Allward’s evocative memorial at Vimy Ridge. It continues to resonate with Canadians.

Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice and the end of the First World War. The four-year conflict still occupies a significant space in the country’s imagination, while the Spanish flu has been relegated to the history books. Why do we privilege one tragedy over the other? The numbers of casualties, after all, were not so dissimilar. It is because, in part, the flu was a “natural” disaster while the war was understood to be a manmade cataclysm in which young men, persuaded to enlist by idealistic calls of serving king and country and liberating the oppressed, were shipped off to a war on the far side of the ocean. The reality of what they found when they arrived in Europe – the horrors of trench warfare and industrial-scale slaughter that saw millions killed – shattered much of that idealism. Victory was achieved only through a gut-wrenching degree of endurance from individuals, communities and nations to see the war through to the end. This is something to be, if not exactly celebrated, then recognized. This is something we have chosen not to forget.

Canada, then a young country of some eight million people, had never been tested the way it was during those four years more than a century ago. It was an experience that both shattered and strengthened. It forced Canadians to confront horrific violence – to find meaning in it and draw from it – and to live with its effects. And the legacy of the conflict – the almost unbelievable bravery and the terrible sacrifice – has bled through the calendar, from 1918 to the present day.

Whether we still mark the occasion to such a degree 100 years from now remains to be seen. But the lessons of the war – how it changed and shaped the country – will continue to be a part of us.

When Great Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada was automatically dragged into the conflict. Despite the fact the country found itself in a war not of its own choosing, its citizens responded in huge numbers – tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of men enlisted. What they found when they arrived on the Western Front was out of a nightmare: 700 kilometres of trenches, all protected by razor-sharp barbed wire, machine guns and heavy artillery. Men were torn apart in a storm of steel. Even with millions of soldiers, the Allies could not break through the lines established by the Central Powers. One year turned into two, then a third. There were many hard-fought victories. But the losses were ghastly – on a scale the world had not seen before.

More men were required to keep up the strength of Canada’s primary fighting force, the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps, so in the summer of 1917, Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government enacted conscription. A majority of English Canadians agreed with Mr. Borden, who spoke of the war as an existential crisis (and also “the suicide of nations”): That if Britain were defeated, Canada would forever be diminished in a world dominated by the Germans. Other Canadians – many of them Francophone – felt that the war, while perhaps just and necessary in that it was noble to liberate occupied Belgium and France, had little to do with Canada. Forcing men to serve against their will was too much to ask.

‘Canada Plays Part In Great Victory’: Relive the final months of the First World War through the pages of The Globe

The battle over conscription changed Canada’s political system. In the run-up to the divisive 1917 federal election, Mr. Borden dissolved the Conservative Party and joined forces with a group of pro-conscription Liberals to form the Unionist Party, which handily defeated Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals. The following April, the Unionists broke a promise that the sons of farmers would not be conscripted; out of anger and a sense of alienation at having been abandoned by the two national parties, nascent provincial farmers' parties took power (including the United Farmers of Ontario in 1919, the United Farmers of Alberta in 1921 and the United Farmers of Manitoba in 1922). On a federal level, these parties were connected to the Progressive Party of Canada, which was established in 1920 and which, after it collapsed, arguably led to both the New Democratic Party and, through Western alienation stirred during the war, the Reform Party, which merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003. Thus, today’s political landscape was planted during the First World War.

The income tax that businesses and individuals pay today had its origins in the war as well. Ottawa was also forced to turn to Washington for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans during the midpoint of the war and away from financially pressed London, so embracing a North American financial system was another of the war’s legacies.

There were other changes, especially in the realm of women’s rights. Most women had won the right to vote in many provinces and at the federal level by the end of the war, and while Canada was far from embracing equality and equal pay, the war had shown that women could contribute equally by working in munitions factories and banks. Almost 3,000 women served as nurses, and they were among the first to cast a vote. Enfranchisement was a wartime legacy that fundamentally altered Canadian society, as was the new-found confidence for tens of thousands of women who, during the war, moved from the domestic sphere to the workplace.

The country emerged from the war with a strong sense of self – with what made Canada “Canada.” The wartime effort to “Buy Canadian” resulted in the creation of many made-in-Canada products, everything from beer and biscuits to automobiles and farm equipment. The country suddenly had new heroes and icons – Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie and airman Billy Bishop – which helped stoke national pride. New Canadian works of art emerged from the war, such as John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, which long outlived the soldier-physician-poet, who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. Dozens of Canadian painters were commissioned to document the Canadian forces at home and overseas, including four future members of the Group of Seven. “We are no longer humble colonials,” A.Y. Jackson said after the war, capturing the transformation. “We’ve made armies. We can also make artists, historians and poets.”

The war fundamentally changed how Canadians saw themselves – and how the world saw Canada. The country was proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain, contributing significantly to the empire’s war effort. At home, factories were refashioned to make munitions, and by 1917, a third of the shells fired by the British armies were made in Canada. The British were no doubt grateful for the shells – not to mention the wheat, minerals and other food Canadians produced – but Canada distinguished itself most significantly through the spectacular wartime record of its Canadian Corps. Led from June, 1917, until the end of the war by Lt.-Gen. Currie, the Corps' victories provided, to Mr. Borden, another kind of ammunition, allowing him to demand that Canada be recognized at Versailles as a separate signatory to the treaty that ended the war and to later join the flawed-if-idealistic League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. Canada was stepping out of Britain’s shadow.

Admittedly, if you’d polled Canadians on Nov. 11, 1918, few would have said they wanted to sever their ties to Britain. But something had changed. Indeed, Mr. Borden wrote in his diary during the long treaty negotiations at Versailles, “I am beginning to feel more and more that in the end, and perhaps sooner than later, Canada must assume full sovereignty.” The 1919 Nickle Resolution barred Canadians from accepting foreign titles of honour, such as a knighthood, which was a symbolic severing with Britain. Later, Mr. Borden and his successors would use the war to demand increasing Canadian sovereignty, which would culminate in full control over foreign policy with the 1931 Statute of Westminster. Canada had arrived.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Conquerors (1920) Oil on Canvas, by Sir Eric Henri Kennington: Canadians of the 16th Battalion march over a destroyed battlefield and the remains of their fallen companions on the western front. Kennington originally titled his work The Victims in keeping with the ghost-like procession he depicted, but after objections from the battalion's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cy Peck, he renamed it The Conquerors.Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

The country had arrived, but many were left behind.

Day after day, during the duration of the war, dozens of Canadian soldiers were killed – a slow drip of death. Such losses were only interrupted by the massive numbers of casualties suffered in major battles at places such as Ypres, the Somme, Vimy and Amiens. Like blood in a pool of water, each death spread outwards, encompassing not just families but entire communities. The entire country.

The deaths were acknowledged during the war, sometimes with the traditional wearing of black mourning clothes or in the public display of photographs of sons or fathers, but the losses were so frequent and so heavy, with the papers filled every day with the names of slain Canadians, that there was little sense of closure. The grief would have been overwhelming.

Around 60,000 Canadians were killed – the deadliest military conflict in the country’s history. After the war, almost all of Canada’s dead were left in Europe, disinterred from their temporary graves and reburied in the vast Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries. They were laid to rest under the white Portland limestone non-denominational headstones that bear the maple leaf or the Newfoundland caribou. The corpses of some 6,846 soldiers were so badly mangled that they were buried without being identified; their headstones bear the unforgettable inscription, A Canadian Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God. And almost 20,000 of those killed were never found – their deaths acknowledged but their bodies lost; they are remembered at the monuments at Menin Gate in Ypres and Vimy Ridge. Inscribing the names of those lost Canadians on these monuments was – and continues to be – a powerful act of reclamation.

These overseas monuments and cemeteries continue to serve as beacons; generations of Canadians have made the long pilgrimage to the Western Front to visit these sites. Here, one feels the weight of anguish and history.

I first visited the cemeteries when I was 17. I was shocked by the magnitude of the losses – row upon row of graves of Canadian soldiers, some younger than I was at the time. I have since returned, better armed with historical understanding, but still always overwhelmed by the courage it took for those soldiers to withstand the strain, to endure such misery and, ultimately, to deliver victory. I’ve written 11 books about the two world wars – all of them attempting to explore and capture the experience of service men and women, how these ordinary Canadians survived extraordinary circumstances. I have shed more than a few tears for those who fought and found their way home to Canada. And yet I have shed more tears studying the headstones of the fallen, the young and the old, the English, the French, the new Canadians and the Indigenous soldiers who lie there still. I am left wondering what legacy they might have carved out had they lived. We will never know.

With the bodies of the fallen left overseas, soldiers' families, friends, other veterans and members of the community contributed to erect memorials across the country, ranging from simple plaques to stained-glass windows in churches to ornate monuments. The names of the soldiers or nurses were given to geographical features – lakes, rivers, mountains – with formal naming programs in several provinces. Schools and streets are named after those who served, but none can top Valour Road in Winnipeg, which was home to three eventual Victoria Cross recipients before the war – a unique occurrence throughout what was then the British Empire. Many of the memorials are hiding in plain sight, but usually more prominent are the several thousand cenotaphs (empty graves) that were built – one in almost every community. Those local monuments became the sites to gather for Armistice Day and, later, when it was renamed in 1931, Remembrance Day. The symbols of commemoration and loss – the two minutes of silence, the poppy, In Flanders Fields – were all intertwined with Remembrance Day, which continues to compel us to reflect, every November, on not only the First World War but all subsequent wars.

In Photos: Poppies bloom on Canadian War Museum roof

A field of flowers grew this year from 15,000 pieces of paper containing poppy seeds that were planted on the rooftop garden of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Swipe through the gallery to see its progress or go to the gallery page.

  • On the roof of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa this year, a poppy-planting project like no other turned 15,000 seed-embedded paper messages into a field of poppies.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

    1 of 10

While the war led to Canada stepping out onto the world stage, there was also a dark legacy of anger at home. Existing fault lines were exacerbated, and new stress points emerged during the strain of war. The relentless demand for all to fight or pay, to serve or support, led some Canadians to turn on one another. Recent immigrants from Germany and Ukraine were hounded and labelled enemy aliens, and some 9,000 were locked up in isolated work camps, their civil liberties trammelled in a war for liberal democratic ideals.

Japanese-Canadian soldiers, who had enlisted despite the racism they faced, came back to fight for enfranchisement rights in a Canada little interested in diversity. They got the vote in British Columbia in 1931. Sadly, it would not stop most of them from being relocated to work camps in 1942 in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Hong Kong during the Second World War.

And of the 4,000 or so Indigenous soldiers who served in the war, where most were treated as equals by their white comrades in the trenches, the survivors returned to a country that continued to view them as wards of the state. Indian agents on the reserves desperately sought to re-exert influence over this new empowered generation of veterans. Soldiers such as Francis Pegamagabow and Frederick Loft (Onondeyoh) would fight for changes within their bands or for equal rights within Canadian society. It was a start, although they and their descendants would face a long battle that rages to this day.

Most notably, the war caused tremendous strain between English and French Canada. Without the same emotional links to Britain, Francophones enlisted in fewer numbers than English Canadians. Still, thousands of Quebeckers served in the war, with the 22nd Battalion and heroes such as Georges Vanier and Jean Brillant, recipient of the Victoria Cross, along with men from Franco-Ontarian, Franco-New Brunswick and even Franco-Albertan communities, celebrated after the war.

This pride, however, was often overshadowed by anger over the conscription crisis. The culmination of that trying period – from the enactment of conscription in August, 1917, under the Military Service Act to the Easter Riots of early April, 1918 – saw constant protest in Montreal and Quebec City.

On Easter weekend in late March, 1918, after several nights of rioting in Quebec City over the arrest of young men not carrying conscription exemption cards, English-Canadian militia units were called out. Already tense relations soon degenerated into violence. On April 1, after the sun had set, thousands of Quebeckers surged through the streets and confronted the outnumbered but armed militia. Insults were traded, and after the Riot Act was read, the militia shot into the crowd. Five people were killed and dozens were wounded. Few remember that some agitators in the crowd provoked the incident by first shooting at the militia; instead, the dead became martyrs – victims of the intolerance of war. With blood in the streets, the Easter Riots became a crucial symbol of disunity in French Canada over the decades and are evoked to this day. The riots were used in French Canada much like Vimy (which was made even more powerful after the national monument was unveiled in 1936) became a symbol in English Canada: a way to interpret and reframe the war in the years that followed.

Toward the end of the war, Canadian infantryman Coningsby Dawson wrote that “the war will not last forever; but the memory of it, the suffering of it, the incalculable waste of it, will last for all that remains of our lives.”

The war has indeed lived on long past the last shot fired – even past the death of the last Canadian veteran, John Babcock, in 2010. It remains with us still, an enduring legacy of pain and pride, of fracturing and unity, of honour and sacrifice.

At the war’s conclusion we said, “Lest we forget,” a phrase that is uttered year after year – a warning and a plea to remember those who served and not to allow the passing years to diminish the horror of the war.

But, of course, we forgot much over the subsequent century. We said, “Never again” – that the terrible struggle of 1914 to 1918 was the “war to end all wars.” Then, a generation later, Canadians fought in a second world war. The Great War left a legacy of contradictions.

If memory fades, the legacy remains. Modern Canada has been shaped by the war, with our politics, culture and economics bearing the stamp of conflict or the scars of loss. The war informs our acts of commemoration. Most Canadians hate war and yet can still find a place to pay tribute to those who served and sacrificed, be they soldiers, nurses or those parents, wives and children who waited and agonized at home. Across this country and overseas, we continue to come together on Nov. 11, or just bow our heads, for a moment, at 11:11 in the morning.

The centenary of the First World War is an important signpost. These dates matter. They increase media attention and capture the attention of Canadians. Last year, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge saw 25,000 Canadians cross the country and the Atlantic to converge at the monument in a unique act of commemoration; hundreds of thousands watched the broadcast from home. This year, there was barely a whisper – no cameras, few newspaper articles, a quieter ridge.

What will happen next year or the year after that? Does a war lose meaning on those years when an anniversary doesn’t fall on a 0 or 5? For almost a decade now, there have been no living veterans. It has fallen to a new generation to care for an event that took place in a world far different than our own. I’m a historian and am therefore more comfortable looking backward into the chaos than forward into the cacophony, but I think Canada’s involvement in the Great War will continue to echo. We have seen all manner of exhibitions, books, plays, documentaries and digital products over the past four years. There will be fewer of those, but the war continues to have a hold on our imagination unlike almost any other event in our history. For me, having spent more than 20 years studying these Canadians, trying to understand their motivations and beliefs, attempting to understand their inner lives and outward actions, I do not plan to send them into the oblivion. And I am not alone.

It matters because we, as Canadians, have said it matters. Not all Canadians care, of course, but enough do, especially the millions of Canadians who are descendants of the approximately 550,000 veterans who survived. They usually have very personal reasons for keeping the torch of memory alive, and yet others – from schoolchildren to those who knew veterans – come to attention, embrace the silence and reflect on the past.

Over generations we have used – and occasionally abused – the war and all that it stands for. But a century later, the First World War continues to haunt us. The murmurs and whispers of the past beckon us onward, and even though the guns fell silent 100 years ago, that dark, shrouded legacy is with us still.

In photos: Colourized images offer new perspectives on last days of the First World War

Based on original black-and-white photographs from battlefronts, liberated towns and elsewhere, the following images depict soldiers in many facets of active duty. Swipe through all 15 images below, or visit the gallery page here.

  • Tanks pass through a field during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. (Note: This image has been reversed.)Canadian War Museum / Image colourized by Canadian Colour

    1 of 15