Paradoxically, although Canada's participation in the Great War divided French and English Canadians, it was also instrumental in transforming Canada from a colony into an autonomous nation. The paradox can be seen in popular attitudes towards, and the accomplishments of, Robert Borden. French Canadians labelled Robert Borden an imperialist, while English Canadians increasingly appreciated him as a Canadian nationalist. His wartime policies reflected his belief that Canada was fighting in its own right, not as a colony of Great Britain but as an equal partner. In return for its participation, Canada sought a full involvement with the mother country in imperial war decisions.

Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 14 November 1914. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

"Welding, Not Breaking, the British Empire."


The idea that the war united the empire was a common theme in wartime propaganda. In fact, Britain ignored demands from Canada that it have a say in wartime planning.

Until 1917, however, the British government treated Canada more like a colony rather than a self-governing dominion. Britain simply took Canada's resources and personnel for imperial purposes. It ignored Canada's protests as it filled war orders in the United States rather than in Canada. It did not consult Borden on war policy. The Prime Minister found out about military policy and activity like other Canadians -- in the newspaper.

When David Lloyd George's coalition government came to power in Britain at the end of 1916, British imperial policy towards the Dominions changed significantly. In 1917, the new government held an Imperial War Conference and created an Imperial War Cabinet with representation from Canada and the other Dominions to discuss war policy. Britain also appeared willing to accept a Canadian resolution asserting the equality of status of the dominions with the mother country and giving them a say in foreign policy and in foreign relations.

Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 21 December 1918. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

"Canadian Cabinet Ministers and Officials Who Are to Attend the Peace Conference," 1918.

Pictured here are the Canadian cabinet ministers and officials who attended the Peace Conference. Front row (left to right): Sir George Perley, Sir George Foster, Sir Robert Borden, A.L. Sifton, C.J. Doherty, Frank Jones, and R.J. Younge. Back row: L.C. Christie, Colonel O.M. Biggar, Dr. J.W. Robertson, Colonel Walter Gow, P.M. Draper, and J.W. Dafoe (Manitoba Free Press). Absent (owing to illness): Lloyd Harris, head of the Canadian Trade Mission to England.

But theory and practice were not the same thing. The British government continued to ignore Borden until the disastrous Passchendaele campaign, in which thousands of Canadian soldiers were killed and wounded without any Canadian input into how the campaign had been conducted. Borden then demanded real changes. An Imperial War Committee was created to review war strategy and recommend future policies. Because of Canada's large wartime commitment -- in terms of troops and war production -- Borden was finally able to gain a voice in the discussion of imperial foreign policy.

At the end of war, Borden, supported by Lloyd George, obtained separate Canadian representation at the peace conference over the opposition of the British Colonial Office and the United States' government. Although most of the treaty provisions at the conference were negotiated by the five Great Powers, Canadian delegates did participate in the discussions, and, in 1919, Canada signed and ratified the peace treaties separately from the mother country. As Borden concluded: "Canada got nothing out of the war except recognition."

Throughout this ghastly war, the Canadian Corps was undeniably an outstanding fighting force. Many factors contributed to its effectiveness. Canada's army was made up largely of hardy young people from what was still a primarily rural, even frontier society, with a strong leavening of robust immigrants. On average, they were sturdier and of larger build than European soldiers of that era. Many of the soldiers, from the front line troops up to the senior commanders, demonstrated a willingness to innovate and experiment with new techniques and equipment rather than blindly adhere to existing doctrines. Brigadier General Raymond Brutinel's use of mobile fire power and indirect fire techniques with his Canadian Motor Machine Gun Corps, Brigadier General Andrew McNaughton's development of advanced artillery spotting, targeting, and bombardment techniques, and Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie's insistence on meticulous preparation and rehearsal exemplified this approach. Notwithstanding the dreadful conditions and hideous casualty rates, there was consistently high morale and a will to prevail, rather than simply mute resignation and endurance. Much of that attitude was due to a generally high level of mutual respect and concern between the various command levels and the average soldiers. This concern and respect reflected an army that, while hierarchical, came from an essentially classless society and, like that society, not only allowed people to rise to power substantially on merit regardless of social differences or origins but also expected initiative and innovation even from private soldiers.

Finally, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Canadian Corps was the high standard of leadership and tactical handling of its officers. These traits were particular evident among the corps commanders such as Sir Julian Byng and, especially, Sir Arthur Currie. The staff officers at all levels of the corps served as a necessary complement to the work of its leaders. By 1918, staff planning skills within the corps were of a very high standard, and, for example, numerous instances of very complex operations being planned on very short notice can be found among the 100 Days battles. Moreover, even by the end of the war, the Canadian army was still dependent on the significant proportion of British staff officers found at all formation headquarters. In addition to the competence and brilliant originality of some of the strategic planning, virtues seen ultimately in the handling of the battles of the 100 Days Campaign, one must focus on Currie's role in defining the rock-solid structure of the Canadian Corps. Under the duress of high battle casualties, the British had scaled their divisions down very considerably: three instead of four battalions per brigade, three instead of four companies per battalion. Currie also resisted British pressure to "dumb down" his structure. Converting the Canadian Corps to the British model would have meant converting its four divisions into at least two corps of three smaller divisions each. This transformation would have created a Canadian army (and, in the process, won a promotion for Currie). Rather, the Canadian Corps paid homage to the old dictum, "God is on the side of the biggest battalions." For example, when the first Canadian troops departed for England in 1914, they had more machine guns proportionally than the British. This trend continued, and, by 1918, at all levels -- battalion, brigade, division, and corps -- the Canadian Corps had more machine guns, artillery, engineers, and even trucks and vehicle workshops, than comparable British formations. Reacting pragmatically in a trial and error fashion, the corps increased its supporting arms as the going got tougher for the infantry. In the bleak days of the German spring offensive, Currie was preparing his organization for the challenges of open warfare. Concurrent with training for offensive action that stressed all arms co-operation, he and his staff continued to build up the various supporting arms and services. They created the Canadian Independent Force, based on Brigadier Brutinel's corps (as opposed to divisional) level machine gunners, but now including truck-mounted trench mortar batteries and even an infantry bicycle battalion. Engineers, so critical in the advance to clear mines and wire obstacles and build bridges, were given massive strength increases. Early in 1918, when the 5th Division was split up for reinforcements, the divisional artillery was kept intact and added to the corps artillery. The corps' logistical organization gave the Canadians a unique ability to replenish themselves and maintain an attack's momentum. As the corps launched an assault, forward engineer and railway units followed immediately behind the leading infantry to repair roads and push light railways forward to move critical supplies like artillery ammunition for advancing formations. By the time of the Amiens assault that began the 100 Days Campaign, the Canadian Corps had the equivalent in fighting power of a British army, and each division possessed almost the equivalent of a British corps. The British were normally using "shock troops" to spearhead attacks, and the solid, massive structure of the Canadian Corps set it apart from the rest in this role. Although formations other than the Canadian Corps -- the Australians and selected British divisions -- were also used in this role, the Canadians were assigned the lion's share of this work. The credit for this must go to the hard work of the Canadian Corps' staff officers, both Canadian and British, working at all levels. Above all, however, credit must be given to the pragmatic, visionary, and courageous leadership of the corps' commander, Sir Arthur Currie.

By 1918, the British and Allied high commands had realized that the Canadian Corps possessed unique advantages over every other formation at their disposal. Some writers (1), based on recollections of Brigadier Raymond Brutinel recorded in the early 1960s, almost 50 years after the fact, claim that Foch himself intervened to keep the Canadians out of the battles of the German offensive of 1918. Foch had already concluded that they would be the key to breaking the German army in a future Allied counteroffensive. This credible claim has yet to be corroborated but what is clear is that Field Marshal Haig, the British Supreme Commander, did use the Canadian Corps as his sledgehammer to break the Germans in the 100 Days Campaign. As pointed out by Shane B. Schreiber in his superb study of the 100 Days Campaign,(2) Haig found it politically expedient to do so -- high casualties or a failed assault by British troops would have brought his dismissal, so using the Canadians entailed less risk. But Haig clearly also had full confidence in the military capacity of Currie and the Canadian troops to come though with the results on the battlefield. In conflicts between the Canadian Corps and doubting British commanders and staff, he consistently backed Currie. Currie, for his part, having accepted a job, insisted on doing it his own way -- he was, after all, as Haig himself admitted, the commander of an army of a sovereign, if junior, nation of the Empire and, as such, he could accept or reject any assigned mission. He seems to have been impatient to finish the war and willingly accepted the heavy casualties of this final offensive as a lesser evil. Nominally under the command of various British armies, in many instances, he dealt directly with Haig's staff. The plans were so audacious and innovative that, on at least two occasions, the British vigorously questioned his plan, but he stuck to his guns and his soldiers vindicated him. As in the organizational aspects of the Canadian Corps, Currie's victories were also those of the staffs at corps, division, brigade, and battalion headquarters who had to react to and define, often on very short notice, the corps's tactical concepts, and the troops themselves who assaulted and held the German positions.


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