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Century Of Duty

Canadians have often been called an unmilitary people but wars not only shaped the map of Canada, they also determined its political history and social development. And although Canadians never went to war for gain, Canadian resources and–more importantly–the lives of Canada’s servicemen bought this nation its autonomywithin the British Empire, then its complete independence and finally a respected place in the important councils of the world.

Canadian military history did not begin with Canada’s first overseas battle at Sunnyside Kopje in South Africa on New Year’s Eve 1899. The stage for major military achievement in the 20th century was set by political and military developments that unfolded a half-century before. The creation of the non-permanent active militia in 1868 and of the tiny permanent force in 1883 gave Canada an ongoing, though limited and not especially professional military capability. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, didn’t believe in the need for standing military forces. His aim was to get along with the Americans and not risk the support of the economy-minded voters by spending money on defence.

Canada’s armed forces were barely able to cope with the Northwest Rebellion of 1885 even though Louis Riel’s rebel Métis buffalo hunters were outnumbered and outgunned. When the Boer War broke out on Oct. 11, 1899, Canada was not ready to make much of a military contribution.

Canadian opinion was sharply divided over the need to participate in that war. Imperialists pushed to participate, but Quebecers were strongly opposed. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier was pressed by London to send troops so the British could show the world that the Empire was united. Laurier caved in and authorized the raising of a contingent of 1,000 men–all volunteers–so long as Britain covered the costs. The formation–designated the 2nd Special Service Battalion–was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter who had led a column of troops in the Northwest Rebellion.

By the end of the war, 8,372 Canadians had served in South Africa; 244 had died on active service, but the majority of those deaths were disease-related. In addition, 252 Canadians were wounded and four were awarded the Victoria Cross. A brand new regiment–the Lord Strathcona’s Horse–was raised and funded entirely by Lord Strathcona of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

By 1902 the British had achieved their objectives, but at great cost. It cannot be said, however, that this war was a major Canadian military achievement. The Canadian government had been reluctant to participate and Canada had sent a relatively small contingent. Some Canadian officers gained battle experience and two regiments were bloodied, but the next war Canada fought was very different. Canadian heroes of the Boer War, such as VC recipient Sir Richard Turner, would turn out to be intellectually and professionally inadequate to cope with WW I.

Canada was virtually unarmed on Aug. 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany. The nation was young with a population of a little more than 7.8 million. It had no air force, a navy in name only with two obsolete training cruisers, the Niobe and the Rainbow, and a regular army of some 3,000 officers and men backed by a poorly trained, inadequately armed and badly led militia of approximately 60,000. Many militia officers were straight patronage appointees with no idea of how to lead men in battle.

The quick raising of the 1st Canadian Contingent–out of which was created the 1st Cdn. Division–in the fall of 1914 was undoubtedly one of Canada’s most important military achievements. More than 40,000 volunteers were gathered at the barely built Camp Valcartier in Quebec, then organized into formations, given rudimentary training and transported overseas in less than three months. But the haste eventually cost the army greatly. In directing such a hurried mobilization, the minister of militia and defence, Sir Sam Hughes, sacrificed the regimental structure of the militia to create numbered battalions and then organized a chaotic reinforcement system that impeded, rather than helped the flow of trained men to the front. Hughes was also directly responsible for major problems with the kit. The Ross rifle, for example, would not fire when dirty or overheated. It was later replaced.

After a miserable winter on Salisbury Plain, 1st Cdn. Div. entered the line in France in March, joining the Princess Patricia’s Cdn. Light Infantry, initially a British formation recruited in Canada by Sir Hamilton Gault. The division fought its first major battle in April 1915 at Ypres, Belgium, where it was subject to the first gas attack of the war. In that action, half-blinded Canadian infantry held their portion of the line while French colonial troops on their left broke before the greenish clouds of chlorine gas. A raw militia brigadier from Victoria, B.C., Arthur Currie was at one time found wandering behind the front lines, apparently to lead up reinforcements. But Currie and his men rallied and fought a difficult night action to recover the lost ground. Over the next few days, through sheer guts and sacrifice, and despite the handicap of the Ross rifle, the Canadians restored the line. They suffered heavy losses and still had much to learn.

Canada’s next major battle–for the St-Éloi craters in April 1916–was an unmitigated disaster. Unsure of his mission or of the actual positions of his troops, 2nd Cdn. Division Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Turner, performed. His men lost craters to the Germans and there were heavy casualties. Turner, should have lost command of 2nd Cdn. Div., but it was the British Corps commander, Sir Edwin A.H. Alderson, who was given the chop. St-Éloi was the low point of the Canadian Corps. From that battle on, over the next two years, the corps built itself into a crack formation with a deserved reputation for toughness, innovation and success. That was certainly one of Canada’s most important military achievements ever.

The rebuilding process began with the takeover of the corps by Sir Julian Byng who stood out from most British officers of the day in that he knew the Allies would never prevail until the trench warfare stalemate was broken and a war of movement re-established. He sent Currie to learn how the French army had overcome the restrictions of static war in the brutal battles of attrition at Verdun, France. Currie returned with a whole new approach to doctrine.

His application of the lessons learned at Verdun began the change that turned the Canadian Corps from a patronage-ridden army of amateurs to what one historian has called “the shock army of the British Empire.” Led by corps officers who earned their positions through the grim selection process of improve or die and by innovative non-commissioned officers, the corps found the keys to winning battles while keeping casualties down. In training and in planning battles, they forsook brigades and battalions and focused on platoons and sections. They created specialized infantry tasks and armed their men to the teeth with Lewis guns, trench mortars, rifle grenades, flamethrowers and other new weapons. They started to plan battles meticulously and learned how to dominate the ground through the innovative use of artillery. They used new ways of communicating with forward troops, and they insisted on promotion through merit. They demanded that the chaotic medical and reinforcement systems in England be straightened out to the benefit of the men at the front.

Currie did not command the Canadian Corps at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, but much of the formation’s fighting prowess had developed because of his reforms. When he did take over from Byng shortly after, the corps reaped the full benefit of functioning as a national army fighting together. Currie and his divisional commanders knew each other well, trusted each other and ran the corps like a board of directors might run a corporation. Planning was easier, so were logistics, supply and reinforcement. The corps command was a well-oiled machine held together by mutual respect and motivated by the knowledge that they were winning plaudits for their country and for themselves at home and in the highest councils of the Empire.

The nation’s most important military achievement of that war, then, was the creation, maintenance and professionalization of the Canadian Corps. For a small nation such as Canada to have its army chosen to lead the most important Allied breakout battle of the war–Amiens–was recognition of that fact. Small, colonial and far away Canada was largely responsible for what became known to history as “the black day” of the German army. Aug. 8, 1918, was the beginning of the end of the Kaiser’s rule.

The Canadian Corps bought Canada the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles as a separate nation, the right to a seat at the League of Nations, and the right to equality with Britain within the Empire. Canada shed her colonial status, but 60,000 Canadian men paid the ultimate price. Another 172,000 were wounded.

Numbers alone tell only part of the story of Canada’s WW II achievement. At the outbreak of the war, the Royal Cdn. Navy had just seven old destroyers and a handful of small minesweepers and auxiliary vessels. To sail, maintain and repair this tiny fleet the RCN boasted fewer than 2,000 officers and men. By war’s end, more than 106,000 men and women had served in an RCN that grew to more than 350 corvettes, minesweepers, frigates, destroyers, cruisers and even escort carriers.

The Canadian Army’s permanent force had a strength of just over 4,200 officers and men on the eve of war. At its core were the three infantry regiments kept on strength following the Armistice in 1918. They were the Royal Cdn. Regt., the PPCLI and the Royal 22nd Regt. It had no armoured fighting vehicles to speak of and almost no modern artillery or machine guns. The non-permanent active militia numbered some 51,000 soldiers in under-strength battalions, mostly led by veterans of WW I. By 1945 the overseas army had grown to more than half a million soldiers at its peak, organized into five divisions and two independent armoured brigades in two corps and one army headquarters. The tiny officer corps of 1939 had expanded to produce dozens of excellent field commanders up to the divisional and corps levels.

The Royal Cdn. Air Force started the war with just over 3,000 officers and men, but most of its 270 aircraft were obsolete. By war’s end it had grown to more than 200,000 men and women, with 48 squadrons overseas, serving in theatres of war as far afield as Burma, Ceylon, North Africa and Northwest Europe.

Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 10, 1939. The country’s population was just under 11.5 million, and many people were wary of another long and costly land war. The government of William Lyon Mackenzie King thus pledged itself to a “limited liability” war effort and promised there would be no conscription for overseas military service. The focus would be on war production. Canada would send just one, possibly two infantry divisions, a handful of RCAF squadrons, and most of its destroyers to Europe, but that was supposed to be all.

King’s notion of a limited liability war effort went down the drain with the fall of France in June 1940. From that point until Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union one year later, Canada was Britain’s largest and most important ally. The government decided to expand all three armed forces and introduced conscription for home service, mostly to replace volunteers who wanted to join fighting formations. The 1st Cdn. Infantry Div. left Canada in early 1940. After the French defeat, the 2nd Cdn. Inf. Div., comprised entirely of militia formations, followed and more divisions were authorized.

Once again, as in 1914-1918, the Canadian Army had to re-learn the art of war. It did so at a terrible price with disasters at Hong Kong in December 1941 and Dieppe, France, in August 1942. The real learning began in 1943 when the 1st Cdn. Inf. Div. and 1st Cdn. Army Tank Bde. took part in the Sicily campaign under the command of Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, an innovative and forceful young artilleryman. The Canadians were supposed to play little more than a supporting role on the left flank of the main British thrust from the southeast corner of the island to the Strait of Messina. But when the Germans fought the British to a standstill near Mount Etna, the commander of the British 8th Army, General Bernard Montgomery, gave Simonds the job of turning the German left flank. In the appalling heat and dust, the Canadian division drove up the mountainous centre of the island and got the job done.

When the Allies later landed in Italy, the 1st Cdn. Inf. Div. was joined by 5th Cdn. Armd. Div. and 1st Cdn. Corps Headquarters. They defeated the tough German paratroopers at Ortona and distinguished themselves with house-to-house combat and a technique known as “mouseholing” that involved blowing holes in the walls of adjoining houses in order to get at the enemy. Canadian servicemen also distinguished themselves in the Liri Valley and the eventual cracking of the Gothic Line, surely among the proudest accomplishments of Canadian arms. They stayed in the theatre until February 1945 when shipping was finally available to send them to Northwest Europe to join the rest of the Canadian Army for the liberation of Holland.

The rest of the army in Europe fought in France, Belgium, Holland and north Germany. 3rd Cdn. Inf. Div. and 2nd Cdn. Armd. Div. hit Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, and drove farthest toward their D-Day objectives than any other Allied D-Day formation. In July, they were joined by 2nd Cdn. Inf. and 4th Cdn. Armd. divisions. These formations were first placed under the command of Simonds’ 2nd Cdn. Corps, then under H.D.G. Crerar’s 1st Cdn. Army. It was a remarkable achievement to create a field army within five years, especially when you consider the fact that Canada had started the war with a permanent force barely the size of a brigade.

The Canadians suffered heavy casualties in the largely static fighting in Normandy but so did the other Allies. Everyone had to learn how to fight this skilled and tenacious enemy who used defensive terrain so well and who was armed with better tanks and anti-tank guns and equipped with far more section light machine-guns than they were. The Canadians eventually helped to close the Falaise Gap, and were then assigned the slow, dirty and unglamourous task of clearing the English Channel and North Sea ports on the left flank of Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.

By the fall of 1944, the Canadian Army had vastly improved. Old and incompetent commanders were removed, younger men with battle smarts came up to take their place while the almost natural Canadian ability to tinker and innovate brought a vast improvement. Canadians were the first to use armoured personnel carriers, which Simonds invented, and integrated armoured personnel carrier formations into their infantry divisions. They were the first of the western Allies to deploy regular rocket battery formations. They developed new methods for tank/infantry co-operation and street fighting. In Belgium, when they were assigned the difficult task of clearing the Scheldt Estuary to alleviate the Allies’ growing supply problems by allowing the Port of Antwerp to be used, they scored their most important victory of the war, possibly Canada’s most important ever.

In the air war, Canada’s involvement in the strategic bombing campaign justified the formation of the RCAF’s only group in January 1943. With the exception of 405 Sqdn., which flew with the 8 (Pathfinder) Group, all RCAF bomber squadrons flew with 6 Group of the RCAF. Canada also operated and largely paid for the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that turned out more than 131,000 air crew. It provided crews and later aircraft for 6 Group and 19 squadrons to the Second Tactical Air Force. Canadian fighter pilots fought from the Battle of Britain until the last sorties of the war. Canadian bomber crews participated in all aspects of the bomber war, flew missions in the Aleutians, anti-submarine patrols over the North Atlantic and with the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command. By war’s end, 6 Group, which had had a rocky start on Jan. 1, 1943, was second to none in Bomber Command under the leadership of Clifford ‘Black Mike’ McEwen, a veteran fighter ace in WW I.

Another major accomplishment was the key role played by the RCN in the Battle of the Atlantic. Canadian navy ships escorted almost half of all convoys over the course of the war. Hampered by problems that stemmed from its rapid growth, the navy’s submarine sinking record did not match the records of its Allies. One problem was that the navy wasn’t as well equipped as the British and American navies. Nevertheless, the Canadian navy engaged the enemy at sea in what became the longest continuous battle of WW II.

Most historians also agree that Hitler’s defeat would not have been possible without the transatlantic convoys and the brave men who sailed in the merchant ships. From 1939 to the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, the convoys delivered the sustenance, weapons and fighting men needed to win the war. It was an incredible achievement.

Overall, Canada’s participation in the war cost us dearly: 42,042 dead and 54,414 wounded out of the 1.1 million who served. This number is lower than the casualty figure for WW I, but the number of army casualties were generated over a shorter span. The Canadian units in Normandy, for example, consistently suffered casualty rates higher than those sustained by Canadian units on the Western Front in WW I.

Canada demobilized rapidly after the war, and the Canadian Army was not ready for the Korean War which broke out without warning on June 25, 1950. The government eventually decided to maintain three destroyers in Korean waters, and contribute an air transport squadron and an infantry brigade group. The Canadian Army Special Force, re-named the 25th Cdn. Inf. Bde. Group, served as part of 1st Commonwealth Div. Its most spectacular achievement was the defence by 2nd PPCLI of the Kapyong road junction from the heights of Hill 677 on the night of April 24-25, 1951. Outnumbered and in the dark, but strongly supported by a New Zealand field battery, the Patricias held off a strong Chinese attack and blunted an offensive aimed at outflanking the South Korean capital of Seoul. 2nd PPCLI was awarded a U.S. presidential unit citation for that action.

Toward the end of 1950, when United Nations forces were on the retreat in Korea before a Chinese onslaught, the Canadian government launched the largest peacetime mobilization in Canadian history. They planned a new brigade group for NATO in Germany, dozens of brand new St. Laurent-class destroyers, and an air force of more than 600 first-line combat aircraft with a full air division of 13 squadrons in Europe. The Canadian military grew from a pre-Korean War low of approximately 34,000 for all three services to roughly 150,000 by the mid-1950s. That too was a spectacular military achievement because so much of the new kit, from the St. Laurent destroyers to the CF-100s all-weather interceptor, was first-rate and Canadian designed and built.

Significant Canadian military achievements continued through and after the Cold War. The first substantial Canadian contribution to international peacekeeping came with the creation of the United Nations Emergency Force, UNEF, first proposed by Canada’s Lester B. Pearson during the 1956 Suez crisis.

More than 100,000 Canadians have served in subsequent peacekeeping operations and more than 100 have been killed on active duty. Canada’s longest peacekeeping operation was on Cyprus from 1964 to 1993. Its bloodiest operation was with the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in the disintegrating state of Yugoslavia. Eleven Canadians were killed in the midst of that bloody civil war. Canada made only a small contribution to the Gulf War in 1991, but Canadian fighter bombers took part in the air campaign against Serbia and Serb forces in Kosovo in the spring of 1999.

Canada chalked up many important military achievements in the 20th century because when the chips were down, people and government united to pay the heavy price. At the end of the century we are all left with the question: “Will we ever be willing to pay the price again?”

David J. Bercuson is the director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.


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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.