Mark Osborne Humphries is Dunkley Chair in War and the Canadian Experience, associate professor in the department of history, and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.
One hundred years year ago this week, the men of the 1st Canadian Division were baptized by fire on the Western Front. Raised in the late summer and early fall of 1914, the First Canadian Contingent sailed for Britain in October, trained in the shadow of Stonehenge, and went into the line for the first time in mid-February, 1915.
There were a few casualties as 12 battalions of Canadian infantry learned to live in the shallow trenches carved into the chalk and mud of northwest Europe. But the lists printed in this newspaper in February and March, 1915, were nothing like what was to come that terrible April when 6,000 Canadians were killed or wounded in only four days of heavy fighting.
Why should we remember the battles of the First World War a century on? What relevance do they have today? Many Canadians would say that it is because we became a nation during the Great War. Literally, of course, this is untrue, but the idea doesn't hold much figurative water either. While the Great War did unite English-speaking, middle-class, urban Canadians behind a common cause, it was under the banner of British imperialism, not Canadian independence.
The war was far more divisive than the popular myth would have us believe. Ukrainian-Canadian immigrants, coaxed to the Prairies a decade earlier with the promise of cheap land, were rounded up and interned as enemy aliens. The press was censored; civil rights were suspended across the country.
Aboriginal Canadians could not even vote – neither could women until Sir Robert Borden granted selective suffrage in order to prop up his Union government. In 1918, French-Canadian protesters in Quebec City opposed to conscription were even gunned down with machine guns fired by English-speaking troops specially brought in from Ontario. This is hardly the stuff of myth and legend.
But perhaps the idea that Canada came of age during the Great War is true in another sense. It was during the 1914-18 war that Canadians first began to talk about what our role in the world should be. The Dominion had gone to war before, of course. It was voyageurs from the northwest who rowed Garnet Wolseley's expedition up the Nile River in 1885 to avenge the death of Charles "Chinese" Gordon at the hands of the Mahdi in Khartoum.
More than 10,000 Canadians served in South Africa during the Boer War which also caused a minor crisis for the Laurier government, although Sir Wilfrid defused it in his usual sunny way. Until the Great War, we were never called on to make the type of gut-wrenching sacrifices on the international stage that might truly threaten to pull apart a fragile Confederation of former British colonies.
Until the Second Battle of Ypres, many Canadians, including prime minister Robert Borden, believed that the Dominion might again avoid addressing tough questions. Then, on April 22, 1915, the German Fourth Army launched the first cloud gas-attack in history – the first use of what we would now call a weapon of mass destruction. Over the next week, Canadians from all parts of the country and all walks of life held their ground against repeated attacks, even withstanding a second cloud of gas on April 24 without respirators.
After the Second Battle of Ypres, the mood in Canada shifted as war became a more serious, sombre business. Gemany's use of poison gas and the sinking of the Lusitania the next month transformed public discourse about the war, making it into a great Christian crusade on Prussianism. Canada was now part of a great global war effort.
The day after the second gas attack, Australians and New Zealanders landed at Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, which saw some of the worst fighting of the war. In the coming months, they were joined by Canadian doctors and nurses, as well as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the smallest independent Dominion formation raised during the war, which landed at Suvla Bay in September, 1915. Indeed, Canadians would serve in every theatre and every capacity from Salonika to Mesopotamia to China to Northern Russia and the Caucuses.
The First World War was not Canada's war of independence, but it was the start of an important conversation that continues to this day. What is Canada's role in the world? What sacrifices are Canadians willing to tolerate? How do we balance domestic interests and foreign policy in a diverse country?
Then as now these are questions that force us to reflect, to look at who we really are, and who we want to be as a people. In 1915, Canada started down a path toward global citizenship. Once we chose to engage with the world rather than turn away, the Old Dominion would never be the same.
The latest series in The Globe and Mail's coverage of the First World War's legacy at 100.