A brief look Canada’s military history and how it’s evolved over the past 100 years

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to travel to Europe and see some of the areas where Canadians fought in World War I and World War II.

The most shocking aspect of that trip came when we visited four Canadian cemeteries in France—Dieppe, Bretteville-sur-Laize, Neuville-Saint-Vaast, and Bény-sur-Mer. It was unfathomable seeing the graves of Canadians who never made it back home. Even more overwhelming was the sheer number of unmarked graves.

We learned about the soldiers who fought and died, many of whom were no older than I was at the time. That trip really emphasized why an annual event like Remembrance Day is important, because it allows us to thank and honour those that had to spend their teenage years fighting a battle so we would not have to.

Having the opportunity to see Dieppe Beach and Juno Beach was surreal. Everything seemed so peaceful and beautiful. It was difficult to fathom the destruction and damage that occurred there so many years ago. Time may have erased most of the visible damage caused during the battles, but the stories of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for their country should never be forgotten.

Photos: Emily Cecchetti.

Remembrance Day is an opportunity to remind people who fought for Canada and the difficulties they endured.

It’s also a chance to reflect on how our nation’s military has changed over the last century, from the muddy fields of Ypres to the desolate deserts of Afghanistan, and everything in between.

The first heroes

While Canada’s first involvement in overseas combat took place during the Boer War, the real test for the young nation’s military came twelve years later when Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914.

Since Canada was still considered a colony of the British Empire at the time, our country was given no choice but to contribute to the war efforts. However, unlike past conflicts, the Canadian government was able to control the extent and degree of their contribution.

Professor Serge Durflinger, an expert in Canadian diplomatic and military history from the University of Ottawa, views the Canadian government’s decision to offer mass support to Britain as “a representation of the high levels of will and desire that most Canadian people had to help Britain.”

Contributions from Canadians could be separated into two categories: the first being enlistment in the Canadian forces, and the second being the contributions Canadians made while at home to support the war.

By the end of the war, 619,000 people—seven per cent of Canada’s total population at the time—had been in uniform at some point during the war, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians contributed domestically.

While Canada made several military contributions during the First World War, two events helped establish Canada as a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield: the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place two years later.

At the Second Battle of Ypres, Canadian soldiers had to endure chlorine gas attacks—a first in military history. Despite enduring treacherous conditions and large casualties, Canadians were able to prevent the Germans from advancing, which established their reputation as being a formidable fighting force.

“The Battle of Second Ypres helped to create the Canadian’s reputation on the western front for stout defense,” noted Durflinger.

In the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Canada was able to finally capture an important German-held position along an escarpment near Arras, France. This signaled an important victory for the Allied Powers, because it gave them an advantageous view of the land that easily exposed the opposition.

This battle became a defining moment for Canadians, because military leaders such as Julian Byng pioneered new military techniques that allowed Canadians to successfully capture the ridge—a feat that the French military had previously failed.

Durflinger views Vimy Ridge as a pivotal piece of Canada’s military history because “It was a major Canadian advance, with British assistance that helped create a greater sense of national feeling amongst the Canadian corp and those at home.”

While the battle injured and killed more than 10,000 Canadians alone, it became a symbol of Canadian ingenuity, capability, and sacrifice. From the moment Canada entered the war efforts to the moment the war ended, Canadians were an integral part of the defining moments of World War I.

By the end of the war, almost 61,000 Canadian soldiers had lost their lives in battle and 172,000 returned home injured.

Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. marked the signing of an armistice to cease fighting between parties in World War I. Canadians now commemorate this day as a time for reflection and remembrance.

“Following the catastrophic loss of life of more than 60,000 Canadians, the idea of Remembrance Day became a national symbol of remembrance for an event that touched so many Canadian households,” said Durflinger. “It’s not some politicized moment, it was for many Canadians from the very beginning a day of national grief.”

World War II

Twenty one years after the First World War, Canada made the Parliamentary decision to support Britain again when France and Britain declared war on Germany, following its invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

The most challenging difference between these two international conflicts was how geographically large it was. Unlike the World War I, which was predominantly involved players from Europe, World War II involved nations from almost every continent on Earth.

“The response to the Second World War was partly the result of the nature of the threat and advances in technology,” said Durflinger. “Canada’s contribution reflected a change in the nature of warfare, such as airpower and submarines.”

This time around, Canada’s war contributions greatly expanded.

War efforts at home continued to feature the production of military equipment, but this time Canada also established naval, air, and army bases that would allow for easier communication between the homefront and those fighting overseas. Additionally, women took on essential duties that were considered exclusive to men in order to maintain the Canadian economy by filling labour shortages on the homefront.

Canada’s naval and air contributions were most prevalent in Atlantic operations against German U-boats and the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, which allowed for aircrew to train in Canada.

Durflinger stated that “Canada organized its military response in accordance with the new developments of the military reach of the Germans. The First World War was a ground war for us. In the Second World War it became a war on ground, air, and sea”.

While overseas, Canada proved itself useful once again in army operations. One of Canada’s most influential sacrifices was the Battle of Dieppe in 1942, which served as the Allies’ first attempt to take back Europe from the Nazis following the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

Unfortunately, the battle brought about tragic losses, since the Germans had expected the Canadian attack.

Of the 5,000 Canadians involved in the Battle of Dieppe, only 2,110 returned to Britain.

While this was a devastating loss for Canada, the disaster served as a lesson for the Allied Powers in how to improve strike techniques. These new tactics proved effective during the Battle of Normandy, a ten-day campaign in which the Allied powers were able to get ashore five German-held beaches.

Canada, responsible for the invasion of Juno beach, relied heavily on air and naval support, as well as on the use of specialized armoured vehicles, to overcome German defense mechanisms and fire.

As a result of the Juno beach invasion and the four other beach attacks, the Allies were able to push German artillery into a position where they were surrounded on all sides.

Due to the efforts of all Allied armies in the years that followed, the Canadians were then able to liberate Northwest Europe. By April 1945 the Canadians had liberated most of the Netherlands and continued to push east. These advances contributed to Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.

On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.

By the end of the war, 45,400 Canadians lost their lives while serving the military. The sacrifices of these Canadians stressed the importance of honouring those who have served and continue to serve Canada’s military.

After the conclusion of this second cataclysmic conflict, Durflinger remarks how Remembrance Day became a broader occasion for more Canadians to remember that many more died.

“When looking at the Remembrance Days during the Second World War, a lot of those First World War veterans marked Remembrance Day while having sons or daughters in uniform,” said Durflinger. “The Second World War just deepened the impact of war on ordinary Canadians and broadened and widened the meaning of what war’s cost to more and more Canadians.”

Beyond combat

While Canada continued to make military contributions to war efforts such as the Korean War, Canada began to distinguish itself as a nation that was primarily interested achieving international peace.

In the 1950s, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, and future prime minister, Lester B. Pearson suggested that Canada assemble a peacekeeping force that would embark on missions to aid countries in midst of conflict achieve alternative solutions and avoid war.

Since then, the Canadian Armed Forces have been present in 35 countries around the world with approximately 125,000 members contributing to these peacekeeping operations. The achievements of Canadian Armed Forces in peacekeeping missions continues to showcase that the work Canadians do overseas is as vitally important as the efforts of the Canadians who served during the First World War, Second World War, and the Korean War.

“Peacekeeping became something Canada undertook, be we never yielded our military attitude. We took on peacekeeping operations because they served an important purpose, but we never shed our war fighting tradition,” said Durflinger.

“We took on other roles while maintaining a robust participation in Western defence. The Canadians who died in peacekeeping are worthy of remembering on Remembrance (Day) because those operations were just as dangerous.”

The landscape of warfare drastically changed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the United States suffered an act of terrorism that left thousands dead and sent shock waves throughout the world.

Following the attacks, Canada joined war efforts to combat terrorism and bring stability to Afghanistan.

“After 9/11, we had a war on terror, which is not a standard war that we had been accustomed to,”  said Durflinger. “The ways in which Canada assisted in combating that included: small-scale operations, special forces, increased technological capabilities.”

“Warfare became much more pinpoint focused, precise, and technologically advanced war.”

Canadian combat efforts ceased in 2011 when the focus became training Afghanistan’s army and police.

In 2014, the last of the Canadian soldiers left Afghanistan. Between 2001 and 2014, more than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan and 158 lost their lives.

To Durflinger, this controversial conflict serves as a stiff reminder of the kind of hardships that Canadian military men and women have to deal with in the year 2016.

“The Afghanistan war makes Remembrance Day much more immediate historically and modern.  Remembrance day is now younger, the veterans are now younger, and an awful lot of kids have parents who served in Afghanistan and knew people who were killed there. The new generation of Canadian veterans are those who served in Afghanistan.”

Remembrance Day in Ottawa

Durflinger views Canada’s military history as being essential to “understanding how Canada developed, how Canadians thought and how Canadians had a mass movement toward a common cause. The history provides the value and Remembrance Day itself becomes a tangible, historic symbol.”

In his mind, the impact of Canadian efforts in past conflicts is only understood through reflection.

“Understanding the past in terms of who served, in what capacity, at what cost allows you to more fully grasp the significance, seize history and make it your own. The act of education is a solemn act of remembrance,” said Durflinger.

These days, Remembrance Day celebrations vary across the country, but as every local Ottawan knows it holds special meaning to the nation’s capital.

One of the city’s biggest yearly events is the large-scale gathering at the National War Memorial near Parliament Hill, where thousands of people come to pay their respects to the individuals who have served and those that continue to serve in Canadian Armed Forces.

Despite the fact that many years have passed since Remembrance Day began, the importance has not wavered and many would say has grown.

“I have been attending Remembrance Day (in) Ottawa for 25 years,” said Durflinger, estimating that more people attend the festivities than ever before. “ It has become a much more personal day for some and an opportunity to think about family.”

Durflinger went further to explain that it is especially important to remember these days since “the First World War veterans are all gone, the Second World War veterans are in their 90s, so there is a changing face of who the veterans are and who is celebrating Remembrance Day”.

So this Nov. 11, whether you put on your poppies, venture down to the National War Memorial, tune in to the media coverage, or go to visit a loved one, keep in mind that Remembrance Day is a window into Canada’s past.

Through the lens of history we are able to give this day personal importance and gain a deeper appreciation for the men and women who sacrificed their lives to preserve Canadian freedoms.

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Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik