While the Canadian Corps fought the battles of Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele, Canadians on the home front were focused on the issue of conscription for overseas service. There is much to be learned about this topic in a new book of essays in honour of historian Craig Brown edited by David Mackenzie. Titled Canada and the First World War, the book includes chapters by J.L. Granatstein and John English that re-examine conscription and the political leadership of Canada’s wartime Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden.
Granatstein, who has written about conscription “for more than 40 years” was long convinced the policy was a mistake that “never worked for Canada.” He changed his mind in 1984 when he read Denis and Shelagh Whitaker’s account of the Scheldt campaign, Tug of War. Their research convinced him of the necessity of obtaining a steady flow of trained reinforcements and he came to endorse the necessity of conscription in 1944.
In his new essay, Granatstein examines conscription in World War I, giving due weight to the military side of the argument. He concludes that the very real political costs of a bitter election campaign and a decisive general election must be weighed against the need to maintain the units of the Canadian Corps at full strength so that they could continue to play a major role in the final battles of 1918.
John English’s essay on political leadership in WW I examines Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s role, developing a theme first explored by Craig Brown in the second volume of his biography of the Canadian prime minister. English reminds us that Borden was a Canadian nationalist sharply critical of British war leadership. He told Lloyd George, the British prime minister “that if ever there is a repetition of the battle of Passchendaele not a Canadian soldier will leave the shores of Canada….”
Such comments did not mean that Borden had any doubts about the necessity or purpose of the war and throughout the last two years of the conflict he took whatever steps were necessary to maintain the fighting strength of Canada’s national army.
Borden led a deeply divided country whose citizens had reacted to the war news and the endless casualty lists in varying ways. In French-speaking areas of Quebec the war had never seemed of much importance and few young men had volunteered. The exploits of the one French-Canadian battalion, the 22nd, were featured in the daily newspapers, but public opinion remained generally indifferent or hostile to pleas for new recruits. Henri Bourassa and other nationalist leaders demanded redress from the ‘Boche’ of Ontario, where French-language schools had been abolished, but there is no evidence that a reversal of this policy would have altered French-Canadian attitudes towards the war. The Canadian victory at Vimy had no discernable nation-building impact in Quebec.
The situation was very different in most English-speaking communities. Hundreds of thousands of young men had joined and tens of thousands had been killed or wounded. Winning the war, thereby justifying these sacrifices, was a shared goal which few challenged. When the pool of able-bodied volunteers dried up in late 1916, public opinion favoured conscription long before Borden announced its introduction. The near unanimity of opinion in English-speaking Canada was evident in the 1917 federal election, when most opposition candidates, ostensibly loyal to Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party, campaigned on a win-the-war, pro-conscription platform. Laurier’s senior western supporter, Frank Oliver had two sons at the front and told Laurier that while he would not join Borden’s coalition, he would vote for compulsory military service. Other leading Liberals did not hesitate to join the new Unionist party.
General Arthur Currie worked to keep the Canadian Corps out of politics, but Borden’s political managers were determined to use the military vote to influence the outcome in marginal ridings. The manipulations of the soldiers’ vote for partisan political purposes should not be allowed to obscure the overwhelming endorsement the Canadian soldiers serving overseas gave to conscription.
The prospect of an Allied victory appeared remote in January 1918. The collapse of czarist Russia and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks led to negotiations to end the war in the east. Inevitably, the peace treaty, signed at Brest-Litovsk, was dictated by Germany and included vast transfers of territory. The German army could now bring large numbers of troops to the Western Front and seek victory on the battlefield before the American Expeditionary Force was ready for combat.
The United States entered the war in 1917, but significant numbers of American troops only arrived in Europe in the summer of 1918. The French government and military believed the best they could hope for was to withstand the expected German attack and prepare to renew the offensive in 1919, relying on the full force of the American army. The British government shared this view, though General Haig insisted that, after defeating a German attack, the Allies could win the war in 1918 by vigorous action.
In 1918 the Canadian Corps played a major role, out of all proportion to its relative size. One reason was the decision to maintain all four Canadian divisions at full strength rather than follow the British example and reduce the number of infantry battalions from 12 to nine. The Canadian Corps found the men it needed not through conscription but as a result of the decision to break up the 5th Division forming in England and use its battalions to reinforce the four divisions in the field. This move allowed the Corps to solve its manpower problems for the spring of 1918, though it was evident that if the war continued, tens of thousands of conscripts would be required. Currie was also responsible for improvements in the training and organization of the Corps, including a reorganization of Bruitnel’s machine-gunners into a mobile reserve mounted in armoured cars and directly under the control of the corps commander.
Between March and June 1918 the Germans unleashed four major operations, recovering all the ground gained by the Allies since 1914, capturing 250,000 prisoners, and inflicting more than a million casualties on the Allied armies. It was all in vain. The German commanders gambled everything on a collapse of Allied morale, but when the offensive ended in July, their armies, overextended and exhausted, faced a powerful and resolute Allied coalition under the command of Marshal Ferdinand Foch.
The Canadian Corps, holding ground well to the north of the main point of the German attack, was initially required to place divisions under British command, but after Currie protested, the Corps was reunited under his control. Although this policy was bitterly resented by the British senior officers, who were fighting a life-and-death struggle with the German army, Currie and Borden were adamant: the Canadians would fight together.
On Aug. 8, 1918, the Corps, deployed alongside Australian, British, and French formations, launched an attack at Amiens which was so successful that it became known as the Black Day of the German army. S.F. Wise, who is preparing a book-length study of the Amiens battle, emphasizes the effect the Allied advance had on the German high command. “They had struck,” he writes, “a crippling blow at the will of the enemy, surely the chief object of strategy.” The offensive soon lost momentum, but this time Haig agreed to break off the action and mount a new attack at Arras to be spearheaded by the Canadians. The period from Aug. 8 to Nov. 11, 1918, became known as the Hundred Days, a period in which the Allied armies made spectacular gains, defeating the German armies in a series of battles which many historians believed determined the outcome of the war. Throughout the Hundred Days, the Canadians were in action at Amiens, Drocourt-Quêant, Canal du Nord, Cambrai, Valenciennes and Mons. The cost of these victories, more than 40,000 casualties, was high, but they were seen as the necessary price of ending the war in 1918. Recently, British military historians have concentrated their research on this period, arguing that too much attention has been paid to the attritional battles of 1916 and 1917. Developing the themes first argued by John Terraine, historians associated with the Imperial War Museum in Great Britain have begun an assessment of every division which fought in the armies of the British Empire. Their preliminary work suggests that many British as well as the Canadian, Australian and New Zealand divisions were highly effective military organizations before and during the Hundred Days.
Canadian historians have long argued that the Canadian Corps, which was continuously in action during the last months of the war, was instrumental in the Allied victory. This theme has been reinforced by the publication of Shane B. Schreiber’s book, Shock Army of the British Empire, which portrays the Corps as an exceptionally effective, professional organization capable of sustaining successful operations over a three-month period. A somewhat different approach to the last phase of the war has been offered by University of Calgary historian Tim Travers, who is critical of the strategic and operational doctrines pursued by Haig’s armies in 1918. Bill Rawling, who never allows himself to forget the human consequences of military decisions and tactical innovation, provides another kind of balance to the military effectiveness school by analysing casualty rates, which were exceptionally high in 1918.
Canadians were not involved in the negotiations which led to the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, but it is evident that both Currie and Borden shared the views of British, French, and American diplomats, who were determined, in President Wilson’s words, “to make a renewal of hostilities on the part of Germany impossible.” This meant that Germany would have to surrender more or less unconditionally, and so it proved. Canada’s military effort in World War I allowed the prime minister to insist upon the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles and to secure separate membership in the League of Nations. Canada’s new international status was only one sign of the growing sense of nationhood felt by English-speaking Canadians.
The Canadian Corps and the Canadian people had accomplished great things together in what they believed to be a necessary and noble cause. Most Canadians held to this view of their war experience despite the rise of revisionist accounts of the causes of the conflict and efforts by poets, novelists, and historians to portray the war as an exercise in futility. When the decision to build a great memorial at Vimy Ridge was made, the purpose was “to commemorate the heroism…and the victories of the Canadian soldier.” The memorial was to be dedicated “to Canada’s ideals, to Canada’s courage and to Canada’s devotion to what the people of the land decreed to be right.” It was this view of the war that sent enthusiastic crowds into the streets when Haig visited Canada in 1925. It was this memory of the war that sustained the regular army and militia volunteers throughout the years of retrenchment and depression.
This is the last of my articles on the Great War. In the next issue of Legion Magazine, I will return to the story of the Canadian army in WW II with a series of essays on the Canadians in Sicily and Italy. As one who has argued that military history must be written from the ground up by historians with a detailed knowledge of the terrain I will offer an examination of the campaign in Sicily where I have walked the battlefields. Before I turn to the campaign on the Italian peninsula I will take the time to explore the approaches to Ortona, the Liri Valley and the Gothic Line in an effort to better understand the challenges confronting the Canadian soldiers in the longest land campaign of the war.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on July 1, 2005.