Was The Great War Canada’s War Of Independence?

Desmond Morton
Professor of History at McGill University

During 52 months, the Great War, 1914-18, hastened the death of over 20 million people, demolished all but one of Europe's six empires and created enough yearning for vengeance to bring on a world war barely twenty years later that killed three times as many people. To argue that this terrible event also helped determine the future shape of Canada seems impertinently trivial.

The fact remains that the Great War persuaded most Canadians to support their own autonomy. In 1914, the pan-Canadian nationalism of Henri Bourassa or John Skirving Ewart was easily ignored. As prime minister, Sir Robert Borden's vision of Canada was as a leader of a world-girdling British imperial federation controlled by His Majesty's white subjects. War in 1914 was a splendid excuse to show that Canada's loyalty knew no limits.

Eager Recruits, OttawaWithin three years, a million Canadian men had volunteered for the war, at least one in every two men of military age. By the war's end in 1919, Canada had torn itself apart and bankrupted itself to sustain its war effort; 60,000 of its men were dead and many more would suffer mental or physical mutilation for the rest of their lives. In an Imperial War Cabinet, Canada's prime minister had helped decide imperial strategy, including an invasion of revolutionary Russia to restore Czarist authority and to restore the alliance of 1914.

In retrospect and even at the time, other decisions were far more important. At Versailles in June 1919, Canadians signed the ill-fated peace treaty under their own name, indented like the other Dominions, it was true, under the United Kingdom. In September 1916, Canada asserted its own direct authority over its soldiers overseas and created a new Ministry of Overseas Force to exercise control. The reform was needed to clean up the mess Canadians themselves had helped create when they entrusted their war effort to a partially insane Sir Sam Hughes, but the decision asserted Canada's extra-territorial sovereignty long before the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

General Sam Hughes, Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence, 1914-1916By 1918, Sir Arthur Currie, Canadian-born commander of the Canadian Corps in France, exercised authority in keeping his four divisions together that no British commander would have dared assert. "...we must look upon them in the light in which they wish to be looked upon," confessed the Earl of Derby to a resentful Field Marshal Haig, "rather than the light in which we would wish to do so."1 Borden had made the point a month earlier when he arrived in London, furious at the waste of 13,000 Canadian soldiers in the hopeless Passchendaele offensive. After he heard the Canadian leader, British prime minister David Lloyd George summoned the generals and forced them to listen. "Let the past bury its dead," thundered the usually taciturn Borden, "but for God's sake let us get down to earnest endeavour." If there were more Passchendaeles, he warned, not a single Canadian would sail for Europe.2

There had been no such questions or reservations in 1914. Colonel Sam Hughes had thrown away the official mobilization plans and commanded militia colonels to bring their men to Valcartier, a sandy plain outside Quebec City. Within a month 33,000 volunteers covered the plain with their tents. In September they were formally attested under the British Army Act as "Imperials," soldiers raised in a British colony and subject to British military law. How else could they serve abroad? Seventy per cent of them were British born.

In April 1915, the raw Canadians faced their first trial in badly built trenches in front of the Belgian city of Ypres. It was a disaster. In a few days, the Canadians lost over half their fighting strength in dead, wounded and those taken prisoner. The men fell back to their reserve trenches, leaving their useless Canadian-made rifles behind. One brigadier stayed in his dugout with Sam Hughes's son as companion. Another wandered back, looking for help. A Canadian colonel turned up drunk in Boulogne while his men headed to German salt mines as prisoners.

Was it a national humiliation? No. The Germans had cheated by using poison gas. Official figures showed only three Canadian dead from gas but that was a detail. Hughes's Canadian-born pal, Max Aitken, owner of London's Daily Express, had gained access to France as "Canadian Eyewitness." He returned the favour with a quick book, Canada in Flanders, giving a vivid, if fictional, portrayal of Canadians as rugged, sharp-shooting farmers, cowboys and frontiersmen overcoming impossible odds. Conscious of Canadian sensitivity, the British commander, Sir John French, wisely claimed that the Canadians "had saved the situation." To Canadians at home, St. Julien, Kitchener's Wood, Gravenstafel Ridge and Ypres entered their language as triumphs of courage and sacrifice for a new nation, much as Paardeberg in the Boer War had ended as a Canadian victory. Canada may have been British but Canadian soldiers had become the team to cheer for.

How Canadian was the team? Until June 1917, British generals commanded the Canadian division and, when it expanded in 1915 and 1916 to four divisions, the Canadian Corps. As historian W.B. Kerr remembered, the British accents of "Old Originals" dominated the non-commissioned ranks well into 1917. Carefully chosen British staff officers tried to keep their inexperienced Canadian generals from making fools of themselves. Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng -- "Bungo" to his British chums — re-shaped the Canadian Corps and transformed its tactics from the disastrous Somme offensives.3 Finally, after days of bombardment had shattered the German artillery and drove defenders insane, on Easter Sunday 1917, the four Canadian divisions rose from trenches and tunnels and walked forward under driving snow to capture Vimy Ridge. At a cost of 10,000 dead and wounded that seemed almost bearable by 1917, the Canadians delivered the first unequivocal Allied victory on the Western Front.

Nations are made by doing great things together, said the French historian Ernest Renan. Taking Vimy Ridge was a great thing a hundred thousand Canadians had done together. Colonel Thomas Tremblay's 22e bataillon canadien-francais had been there with 47 others. Of course the "Vandoos" did not include French Canadians who read Le Devoir, cheered Henri Bourassa and denounced the war.4 Nor did it include the "enemy aliens" Canada interned in the thou¬sands, nor many of the German-Canadian citizens of Berlin, Ontario, coerced to re-name their city for Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Secre¬tary.5

Sir Robert Borden's response to Vimy was to recognize that the losses had to be replaced. Since volunteers had stopped coming, the initial pledge of a war fought solely by the willing could not be sustained. A complex, almost unworkable system of conscription would follow. If Canada was a country of two nations, one might slowly draw triumph from Vimy; the other would draw broken promises, betrayal and defeat.

Sir Robert Borden Chats to Wounded Man at Base Hospital on the Western Front, March, 1917 Not even Vimy Ridge convinced Canadians to see themselves as a single nation. Nor could their prime minister, a colourless politician with little empathy for French Canada or the West. Sir Robert Borden was a deeply conscien¬tious man, profoundly moved by the suffering he encountered when he devoted every spare minute overseas to visiting military hospitals. His imperial convictions cracked under the indolent defeatism he encountered in Whitehall in 1915, when he found most British ministers absent for the grouse-hunting season. Only the one minister he had been prepared to despise as a pacifist and radical, David Lloyd George, was utterly intent on his job as Minister of Munitions. When Lloyd George became prime minister, after a coup partly engineered by Max Aitken, he summoned the Dominion premiers to London. "We need their men," he explained, "We must consult them."

That winter, Borden had learned some grim facts. Americans had entered the war but had yet to create an army. Russia was collapsing; so might the French, with their army dissolving in mutinies. At sea, German U-boats had brought Britain close to starvation. Could Canada cut its Corps? Borden could not share his gloomy reasons, but he could only give one answer.

The struggle over conscription ended with victory for Borden's Unionists in December 1917. Confederation was a partnership more than a democracy; no partnership survives long if the larger partner coerces the smaller. In 1917, a minor political figure named William Lyon Mackenzie King learned that lesson. Defeated in 1911 as a Laurier minister and MP, King burned to resume his career. After cultivating his rebel grandfather's riding of York North, King even volunteered to run for Borden's Unionists in 1917. Borden turned him down. Instead, King ran as an anti-conscription Laurier Liberal and was badly beaten. In 1919, when Laurier was dead and the Liberals needed a new leader, Lady Laurier's testimonial to King's loyalty turned the convention and launched the most successful career in Canadian politics.

Perhaps the Great War cured Sir Robert Borden of his dream of an imperial federation. Who can say what it did to his party? Once he was Liberal leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King needed no further demonstration. As Montreal'sLa Presse had once explained to its readers, French Canadians had only a single loyalty, to Canada. British Canadians seemed to need two loyalties. Charles Stacey discovered that Mackenzie King was more a closet anglophile than he could ever admit, but such emotions stayed in the closet. Never again, if King could help it, would Canada be drawn into a European war, to be torn apart by its own divided people. Under Borden, Canada changed from a colony to a junior but sovereign British ally.

The Great War gave King and the Liberals arguments and support enough to take Canada to full and unquestioned independence. Old loyalties proved too strong to keep Canada out of war in 1939, but, as King had pledged, "Parliament would decide." Until Adolf Hitler's triumphant summer of 1940, Canada did as little as it possibly could. As Mackenzie King insisted to shocked British delegates negotiating the Air Training Plan, "it is not our war.".6

1Derby to Haig, 2 November 1917, in Robert Blake (ed.) The Private Papers of Sir Douglas Haig (London, 1952), p. 266. See Borden Papers, Sir Edward Kemp to Borden, 24 February 1918; Preston, Canada and "Imperial Defense", pp. 487-9.
2Cited in Brown, Borden, vol. II, pp. 137-8; Stacey, Age of Conflict, vol. I, pp. 219-221.
3On Byng, Jeffrey Williams, Byng of Vimy: General and Governor-General (London, 1983), pp. 127-9 and passim. On changes in tactics, see William Rawling, On tactics see Morton, When Your Number's Up, pp. xxx. and Bill Rawling, Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). On trench raids, Dennis Winter, Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War (London, 1979), p. 92; John Ellis, Eye-Deep in Hell: The Western Front, 1914-1918 (London, 1976), p. 76; Maurice Pope, Soldiers and Politicians (Toronto, 1964), p. 34.
4On French Canada and the war, see Elizabeth Armstrong, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914 1918 (New York, 1967; Toronto, 1974); Réal Bélanger, "Albert Sévigny et la participation des Canadiens français à la grande guerre (1919 1918) in W.A.B.Douglas and Desmond Morton, Canada as a Military Power (Ottawa, 1982); Jean-Pierre Gagnon, Le 22e bataillon (canadien-français), 1914-1919, Une étude socio-militaire (Québec, 1986); Desmond Morton, "French Canada and War: The Military Background to the Conscription Crisis of 1917" in J.L. Granatstein and R.D. Cuff, War and Society in North America (Toronto, 1971); Mason Wade, The French Canadians, 1760 1960 (Toronto, 1968), vol. II, pp. xxx.
5 On internment: Desmond Morton, "Sir William Otter and Intern¬ment Operations during the First World War", Canadian Historical Review, LV, 1, 1974; David Smith, "Emergency Government in Canada", ibid., L, 4, 1969; Lubomyr Luciuk, A time for Atonement (Ottawa, 1988); Wilson, Ontario and the Great War, pp. xxx.
6See Pickersgill, J.W., The Mackenzie King Record, vol. I 1939-1944 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960, pp 43-44).

Desmond Morton
Professor of History at McGill University

Desmond Morton is Hiram Mills professor of History at McGill University and the author of thirty nine books on Canadian military, political and industrial relations history.