Why would Canadian get involved in a war so far away?

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.  As part of the British Empire, Canada was automatically at war (where Britain led, Canada must follow).  The only thing in Canada’s power was the level with which it participated.

Most Canadians felt very strongly about their connection with Britain.  Loyalty to Britain and the King was strong.  Much of the Canadian economy was linked to Britain.

How long could war really last?

Military strategists planned for a quick victory in which Germany was defeated.  No one could have predicted the bloodshed that was to occur.

How much would/could Canada give?

With a population of 7.5 million, many new immigrants, developing industry, and acres upon acres of farming, what was Canada prepared to devote to winning the war?

1000s of soldiers hurried to enlist 60,000 died 250,000 were wounded. By the end of the war, 650,000 men and women were overseas serving in the army, navy, and air force.

Canada Goes to War

• In 1914 thousands of Canadians volunteered to go to war.

• Prime Minister Borden declared that conscription would never be necessary for Canadians.


Canada was automatically at war because it was part of the British Empire – but the country could decide how much support to offer toward the war.

Initial support at the start of the war – eager – young men flocked to recruiting offices to volunteer.  Within a month over 30,000 had signed up. The politicians never imagined the conditions the soldiers would face. Government banned news stories that would be harmful to the war effort.


The optimism that was first present at the start of the war would be shattered. Initially there was a sense of excitement and adventure.   The original feeling was that the war would be short and soldiers would be home by Christmas and would be heroes. Canadians knew little of the conditions faced by soldiers in the trenches.

In 1914 some Canadians did see it as “Europe’s war” but still there was wide support. Canadian’s united with France and Britain against a common enemy. Women signed up as nurses and ambulance drivers. Wealthy donated money Blacks, Asians and Native Canadians were not welcome as volunteers.  Native Canadians were denied enlistment. All were told that it was “a white man’s war” As the war dragged on this view would change – within a year the ban on Native Canadians enlistment was lifted and by 1916 Asians and Blacks were admitted.   Blacks would serve in all-Black battalions.   Ukrainians, Germans and Austrians living in Canada were seen as “enemy aliens”. It was feared that they may harbour sympathetic feelings toward their homeland. Others – Italians, Jewish also worked toward supporting the war effort but were not recognized for it.

•  Canada also began producing munitions to supply to Britain and France.

• Canada opened over six hundred munitions factories in the country.

• Munitions production paid well as there was high demand.


Canada’s boom at the Turn of the Century was easing and the country was facing an economic depression.   Factory production was slower; the availability of jobs had decreased.  In the prairies, crops were suffering from drought.   The army offered a steady job and decent pay for the unemployed.  All the technology which suggested a better life was suddenly being used to fight a war in Europe. Canada’s perfect wheat and farming industry helped provide much needed food supply during the war years.   The overuse of soil during the war years would have disastrous results in the 1930s.


Better prepared than most Canadian’s had expected Military training had been a high school requirement

Sam Hughes (Minister of Militia) ordered Valcartier Camp to be built.  The camp had drill fields, mess halls, latrines, rifle range.  The camp was not prepared for the cold winter and Hughes (like most Canadians) were anxious to see training completed and soldiers sent to England.  By the end of September, soldiers boarded ships and spent the winter in England.

Volunteers were issued supplies and taken by railroad from Quebec City to the camp.

Equipment was of poor quality – for example is the Ross rifle – it was Canadian-made and good for sharp-shooting but is seized up in the trenches.  It was long and heavy.  Canadian soldiers would “re-equip” themselves once in the fields.  They also received supplies from British rations once in England.

Canadian officers not yet ready to command so troops were placed under British authority.

The best of the Canadian’s were sent to train alongside the British.  This training was completed by February 1915.  The Canadian Division was positioned at Ypres.

Trench Warfare

• World War I was fought mainly by trench warfare.

• Trenches were a way of protecting soldiers from machine gun fire and exploding shells. This was also necessary since the countryside of northern Europe was flat. Opposing sides were separated, some by only 25m. Trenches were protected by machine gun fire and rows of barbed wire. This made it difficult for either side to gain land.

Conditions in the trenches:

In wet weather, trenches became flooded. It was very cold and it was covered with mud. In these conditions, sickness and disease spread rapidly. Trench foot and trench mouth were particularly common. Trench foot was the result of flesh between and around the toes would rot.

Trench mouth was a painful infection of the mouth. Soldiers were also affected by body lice and were infected by diseases carried by rats. Soldiers also suffered severe nervous breakdowns because of the stress of battle. This was identified as shell-shock.


Although communication systems remained quite primitive during the war compared with today’s standards, there were significant improvements during World War One.

For example, early model Continuous Wave (CW) wireless (radio) sets and “spark” or “loop” sets were a great development on earlier systems of communication. With them, different groups on the battlefield could communicate quickly, without requiring men as messengers. The role of these systems was primarily to transmit messages from relay stations to battalions and brigade headquarters during the fighting.

War at Sea

• Canada had only 2 warships when WW1 started.

• Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserves

Convoy system was Britain’s response to unrestricted submarine warfare.

• Cargo ships no longer sailed alone but in fleets (convoys) that included armed destroyers and speedy corvettes.

• Canada (through the port of Halifax) was shipping food, materials, and munitions to Britain on cargo ships. Canadians served in British Royal Navy & Royal Naval Air Service. Canadian Patrol Service protected the coast.

Ypres, 1917

Description of Battle / Tactics / Strategies Two months after the 1st Canadian Division arrived at Ypres, the Germans launched the first ever gas attack

Ypres was the last part of Belgian soil not controlled by the Germans. Surrounded on three sides by the Germans The British high command had been warned of a possible gas attack but did not tell front-line soldiers. When the French troops saw the strange green cloud – they panicked and ran.

Role of Canadian Soldiers / Troops Canadian troops held their position for 3 days

Attacked by artillery as well Held for 4 days until the British relieved them.

Results / Casualties Over 6000 Canadians died – this represented ½.  Canadian soldiers earned high praise. Learned a harsh lesson

The battle at The Somme

The battle at The Somme began on July 1, 1916. With the French army hard-pressed to the south of Verdun, the British intended to break through the German defences. In late August, the Canadians took over a section of the front line. Britain’s initial artillery bombardment failed to dislodge much of the German wire or destroy their machine-gun posts and the Germans managed to destroy many of the oncoming waves of British infantry. On the first day, the British suffered 57 470 casualties. The battle persisted until November 19, 1916 and when the offensive was called off, the British were still three miles short of Baptaume and Serre, part of their first day objectives

Vimy Ridge in April 1917

Description of Battle / Tactics / Strategies

The Ridge Gave the German army a commanding view of the area of France the Central Powers controlled

Germans were well entrenched – they had built tunnels and thick concrete walls to protect from artillery attacks.

French soldiers and British soldiers had failed to secure the Ridge.

Currie believed the Somme had failed because when the artillery attack stopped it acted as a signal to the Germans that an attack was coming.

Many historians and writers consider the Canadian victory at Vimy a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness. Canadian troops also earned a reputation as formidable, effective troops because of the stunning success. But it was a victory at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 killed and wounded.

Role of Canadian Soldiers / Troops

Currie planned and designed the attack. Currie had Canadian soldiers rehearse every detail of the attack. Currie introduced the “creeping barrage” – a curtain of artillery shelling behind which the Canadians would advance.  Required courage and discipline. By noon on the day of the attack, the Canadians had secured the Ridge. Germans were in retreat

Results / Casualties

Major turning point in the war – for the Allies and the Canadians Over 3500 killed Canadians were no longer to be under the command of British Generals.


Over-ambitious aims during appalling weather conditions. The misguided persistence of the generals resulted in casualties of over 250 000, many of whom drowned in liquid mud. The town of Passchendaele, which often lends its name to this battle, was taken by the Canadians on November 6, 1917

Description of Battle / Tactics / Strategies The battle of Ypres had left damage to the land and destroyed water systems – the land was muddy and swampy

Germans had the high ground. Canadians moved through waist-deep mud under attack from the Germans

Role of Women


Volunteered to work as nurses and ambulance drivers overseas

Employed in industries considered unsuitable for their gender

Worked as bus drivers, streetcar drivers and police officers which were considered unsuitable for their gender

Women were brought together

Nellie McClung (Manitoba), Dorothy Davis (BC), Margaret Gordon (Ontario), Emily Murphy and Alice Jamieson (Alberta)


Contributed to the war effort by working in munitions factories à helped the economy

Earned money other ways and sent them overseas or donated them to the war effort.


Suffragist movement (right to vote)  led by Famous Five and won right to vote at the provincial level

Wartime Elections Act (December 1917) granted mothers, sisters and wives of soldiers and nurses serving overseas to vote in the federal election

Fight for equal opportunities in careers such as law and medicine

Fight for equal rights in politics Dominion Elections Act (1920) gave women the right to run for election in parliament (this excluded Native women and minority groups)

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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