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Canadian Identity & the Great War

Canadian Identity & the Great War

Since the outbreak of the First World War, Canada has had a unique national identity. Differing greatly at the beginning of the war were the opinions of different kinds of Canadians. Those who came from Britain or elsewhere in the British Empire were generally supportive of the war effort, however, French-Canadians with no ties left to mainland France, along with some other hyphenated Canadians, were less supportive of being involved in the European war. These anti-war sentiments were particularly strong among French-Canadians, who rioted when conscription came into place near the end of the war. The rift between these two factions was the major political issue of the era. Although there was much debate within Canada, the nation was automatically at war with the Central Powers as part of the British Empire. Even though Canada was dragged into the war by its European mother country, the war proved to be an important formative period for Canadian nationalism. While people discussed at home, the war raged on in Europe. Important turning points of the war were attributed to Canadian soldiers and tacticians. Although still under the command of the British Army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force was strong, and its achievements later became a key source of patriotism for Canadians of all varieties. Canadian achievements during the Great War resulted in a change in the perception of Canadians; they were seen as both worthy adversaries and capable allies. The forging of the emerging Canadian nationalism was aided greatly by its involvement in the First World War.

The Canadian military underwent profound changes as a result of the First World War. Firstly, the number of Canadian armed personnel grew exponentially at the dawn of the war. Canadian troops, who had previously been administrated and commanded by the British, had their own force for the first time. The Canadian Expeditionary Force was created in 1914, and it operated as the Canadian military arm in the Great War. Although still commanded by the British Empire, the Canadians fought within divisions made up of Canadians with Canadian officers. Contrary to the Second Boer War, this allowed Canadian achievements to be attributed to Canadian soldiers and military tacticians. Along with the army, the Royal Canadian Navy was an important line of defense for Canada. Although it had only six vessels at the beginning of the war (seven at the end), it was given more responsibilities after the war. It also included the Royal Canadian Naval Air Service for a short duration at the end of the war, but it was disbanded with the signing of the armistice. In 1920, two years after the conclusion of the war, the Canadian Air Force was created. The futures of all three branches of the modern Canadian Forces were drastically changed by Canadian involvement in the First World War.

Canadian foot soldiers had a strong impact on the Western Front. In decisive battles, such as the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the Battle of the Somme, and other famous clashes on the Western Front, Canadians played a pivotal role in the success of the Allies. The undeniable strategic advantage of the Germans on Vimy Ridge led to French and British failures. It was up to the Canadian Corps to retake the ridge for the Allies. The troops were under the command of British Field Marshal Sir Julian Byng, later the Governor General of Canada. However, the battle plan was drawn up by Canadian General Arthur Currie, commander of the 1st Canadian Division. His analysis of previous battles enabled him to devise a plan that would facilitate the retaking of Vimy Ridge. At 05:30 on the morning of 9 April 1917, the battle began. By 12 April 1917, all Canadian objectives had been achieved, and 4,000 German POWs were captured. Four members of the Canadian Corps subsequently received the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military decoration. A memorial to all Canadian troops who were killed in the Great War was unveiled at Vimy Ridge in 1936 by King Edward VIII, which has become a major symbol for Canadian nationalism ever since.

The First World War has been called Canada’s “war of independence” by numerous historians as a result of the level of autonomy granted to Canada in the following years. As well as the strong pride felt by many Canadians because of the military accomplishments during the war, many other Canadians had an anti-British attitude stemming from the substantial Canadian losses and hardships endured on the Western Front. Canadian losses were also an argument used by Prime Minister Robert Borden to ensure the dominion a seat at the Paris Peace Conference as well as the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Politically, this was an important step for the independence of not only Canada, but other members of the future Commonwealth of Nations as well. Under Prime Minister Borden, the National Research Council was formed, giving Canada the ability to perform its own scientific studies and to advise the federal government. This organization, formed during the war in 1916, gave Canada the agency it needed to advise the government on science and industry. In turn, Canada took another step towards autonomy from the British Empire.

Operating for the first time as a cohesive force, the Canadian troops quickly earned their seat at the table with the experienced troops of the European powers. After military successes like the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Canadian troops were regarded later in the war as the most effective Allied military formation on the Western Front. They were even called “storm troopers” by the Germans. This reputation as a skilled fighting force was displayed early on in the war, when Canadians were exposed to chlorine gas in the Second Battle of Ypres. The initial chemical attack killed many Canadian and French troops, but later in the battle Canadian troops were ordered to soak their handkerchiefs in urine and use them to cover the nose and mouth. This neutralized the deadly chlorine gas. Although many were lost, this became a life-saving technique to counteract the chemical weapons that were being used increasingly more frequently. Although it is not known who issued the order, the unnamed Canadian officer helped prove the effectiveness of Canadians on the battlefield. In particular, it proved that Canadian units commanded by Canadian officers were extremely combat-effective and necessary in the European war effort.

The red poppy is a symbol of Remembrance Day, the day commemorating the day of the 1918 armistice. It comes from the poem, “In Flanders Fields”, written by World War I Canadian soldier John McCrae. It was written in 1915, after the Second Battle of Ypres, and it soon became a powerful symbol of the war. Since the end of the war, it has been used as a symbol of remembrance. The poem and the powerful message it evokes have had an enormous impact on Canadian national identity. The poem is commonly recited at Remembrance Day services across Canada, and its author, John McCrae, has been designated a Person of National Historic Significance. The poem is also featured on the Canadian ten-dollar bill alongside the red poppy, both national symbols of the Canadian identity.

The events of the First World War had devastating effects on Newfoundland, which was then separate from Canada. On 1 July 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered heavy losses at the Battle of the Somme. The regiment suffered 90% casualties, and only 68 of the original 780 men were available for roll call the next day. This day became Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador. Since Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, Canada Day celebrations on July 1 have been a source of tensions between Newfoundland and the rest of the nation.

The rift between English-speaking Canadians and French-speaking Canadians expanded at the dawn of the war, with Anglo-Canadians staunchly supporting the war and French-Canadians being opposed to it. They, like the United States, felt that the Europeans should fight their own war. Isolationist policy, however, was not an option for the Dominion of Canada. Still, the debate raged on about how involved the Canadian government should be. The divide between the two factions only reinforced the beliefs of both sides, and as a result of the war, English-speaking Canadians generally still felt a sense of loyalty to Great Britain, while French-Canadians felt contempt for the British. Through this struggle, a hybrid national identity was born. Governor General The Lord Tweedsmuir later described the nature of Canadian identity in the Interwar Period as first being loyal “not to the British Commonwealth of Nations, but to Canada and Canada's King." Even the monarch’s representative in Canada recognized the new nation that had recently come into being. Some argue that there were two kinds of nationalism that grew during the First World War. The first was the patriotism brought from the glory of Canadian achievements on the battlefield. This was mainly felt among Anglophones who supported the imperial cause. The second was the anti-British sentiments (mainly among the Francophone population) felt as a result of the substantial Canadian sacrifices on the Western Front. Although seemingly contradictory, these two viewpoints helped to promote a sense of nationalism during and after the war.

The events of the First World War helped to create a whole new sense of Canadian national identity in various ways. The impressive military feats and regrettable losses of the Canadian Expeditionary Force have been a source from which patriotism has emerged. The effects of the war have had long-lasting and far-reaching consequences: changing the structure of the modern Canadian Forces, making the Canadian federal government more autonomous, and affecting the mindset of the Canadian nation.

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