Canadian Military Effectiveness in the
First World War
by Andrew B. Godefroy
After beginning the twentieth century with expeditionary forces fighting in South Africa, Canada spent an additional four and a half years as a major combatant with Allied forces in the First World War. This conflict, described at the time as simply “the Great War” or more naïvely as, “the war to end all wars”, witnessed the largest deployment of Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen into combat in the country’s history. In total, 619,636 men and women served in uniform overseas. At its end, 59,544 Canadian soldiers lay dead, mostly in France and Belgium, while another 154,361 men and women returned home wounded and forever scarred.
The First World War changed Canada in every way. As Canadian military historian C.P. Stacey once wrote: “Politically, economically, and socially it was a different place when the war was over. In some respects, the First War was more important to Canadians than the Second, simply because it was the first.”1 At home, the Dominion matured as it faced internal political and cultural challenges, while overseas, its armed forces melded into one of the most professional and successful allied formations in the European theatre of war. After breaking its teeth at Ypres, Mont Sorrel, and the Somme during the first two years of conflict, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) brought a series of watershed victories to the allies at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, and Passchendaele in 1917. Again in the fall of 1918, Canadian units were at the forefront of the last push against Germany’s Western Front armies, winning successive set-piece battles at Arras, Amiens, Canal du Nord, and Cambrai. On the last day of the war, Canadian soldiers led the way into Mons, the town where the war began. Everywhere it seemed General Sir Arthur Currie’s four Canadian divisions brought success. In fact, the title CEF was then, and remains, synonymous with Canada’s greatest military achievements.