Canada at War
Very early in its history, Canada fought battles to mark its emergence as a nation. Today, Canada engages in peacekeeping efforts to help other countries avoid war. When Canada was a colonial outpost of British North America, it chose not to join the Americans in their War of Independence (1775-1783).
The War of 1812
After the American War of Independence, the new United States had a list of outstanding grievances. Among other things, they suspected, with justification, that the British sought to establish an aboriginal territory as a buffer between Canada and the United States. In response, General Andrew Jackson, later U.S. President, claimed that Canadians were eager to join the United States.
However, when American forces invaded Southern Ontario, Canadians supported the British forces under General Brock. They and their aboriginal allies triumphed in the hard-fought Battle of Queenston Heights. The aboriginal leader was the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. He and General Brock respected each other greatly, but, unfortunately, neither survived the war. Brock fell at Queenston Heights in 1812 and Tecumseh in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The French Canadians also resisted an American invasion. Under Charles-Michel de Salaberry, they defeated a large American army at Châteauguay, near Montréal, in 1813. After another setback at Chrysler's Farm, the Americans withdrew.
There were other battles fought on land and on the lakes. An American force landed near Fort York, stormed the fort, and burned Toronto. In retaliation, the British forces drove south and burned government buildings in Washington, D.C., including the White House. With the Treaty of Ghent at the end of the war in 1814, the United States and Britain agreed to return to the pre-war territorial divisions. Canada's security from future United States incursions was assured.
The Boer War
Canada's next international war arose from a dispute far away. South Africa had been colonized first by Dutch farmers, called Boers, and then by the British. The interests of the two clashed and erupted into war in the late nineteenth century. In 1889, the British provinces of Natal and Cape Colony, and the Boer areas of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, began their second war. The British forces found the war more difficult than they had expected. However, the Canadians fought well. In their first battle, Sunnyside, they defeated their enemy and also distinguished themselves in battles at Lillefontein and Paardeberg. In 1902, the war ended and the British absorbed the Transvaal and the Orange Free State into South Africa.
World War I
Canada was soon involved in a much greater conflict—the Great War, now known as World War I. The causes of the war did not directly involve Canada, but they did involve Britain, and Canada's fortunes were still linked to Britain's. Britain went to war because it felt threatened by Germany, particularly when Germany invaded Belgium. Germany went to war because its ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was threatened by Russia. France was at war because it feared Germany and wanted to support Russia. One reason this confusing situation developed into a war was that there was no international body to mediate in military disputes and help maintain peace.
The Canadian prime minister, Robert Borden (elected in 1911) was very willing to support Britain in the new conflict. At the outbreak of war, he promised 25,000 troops. His Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes, raised a mighty force and soon had 32,000 men training at the camp at Valcartier. In October 1914, thirty-two ships, the largest fleet to cross the Atlantic up to that point, set out carrying Canadian and Newfoundlander troops to England. After training in England, they arrived in France and Belgium by the spring of 1915. The second contingent followed in the late summer.
Four Important Battles
Canada's involvement in four major battles indicates how important the country's contribution was to the Allied war effort: Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele.
The Canadians fought in the second battle of Ypres in Flanders, Belgium, in April 1915. They held their ground even though German forces used poison gas against them. They suffered 6,035 casualties including more than 1,000 deaths.
The loss of life in the next battle, the Somme, in northern France, was even worse. The British were trying to break through German lines in an offensive that lasted from July to December 1915. These six months of fighting produced 600,000 casualties on the Allied side and only gained about 9.7 kilometres (6 miles) of ground. However, in these terrible circumstances, the Canadians and Newfoundlanders did very well, capturing the two key positions. This success was at a high price as the First Newfoundland Battalion suffered nearly seventy percent casualties in one day. Canadian casualties totaled 24,029.
Canada's most famous contribution to the Allied effort was the taking of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The French army had tried three times and failed at the price of 100,000 casualties. General Arthur Currie, mindful of the need to minimize his losses, planned and prepared meticulously. He devised the "leapfrog" method by which his men would advance in waves, each wave pausing to allow the one behind to go past it. This meant that the troops stayed relatively fresh and less likely to be driven back. The assault was deservedly successful: the Canadians captured more prisoners, gained more ground, and captured more artillery pieces than anyone had previously.
The next major conflict involving the Canadians was at Passchendaele in southwest Belgium. The battle lasted from October to November 1917. British attempts to advance had failed. The Canadians, again under General Currie, did much better despite heavy rain. In two weeks they captured the village and an important ridge. This was at great cost as they suffered 16,000 casualties.
The Last Year of the War
The Canadians continued their successes in 1918 until the war's end. From August to November they pushed the enemy back starting at Amiens and advancing through Arras, Cambrai, and Valenciennes, capturing 48 kilometres of territory.
World War II Begins
Almost twenty-one years after World War I ended, the world was at war again. On September 1, 1939, Britain, Australia, France, and New Zealand declared war on Germany after Germany invaded Poland. Canada and other nations soon followed suit. These nations were known collectively as the Allied Forces.
The war had begun with a series of Allied defeats. Britain had to retreat precipitously from France, Norway, Crete, and Libya in the face of the German onslaught. Singapore fell to the Japanese. Earlier, the Japanese Air Force had launced a surprise attack on the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Canada had its own setbacks. When the Japanese Imperial Army stormed Hong Kong in 1941, 290 Canadian soldiers died and 493 were wounded. Two hundred and sixty of the survivors died in prison camps during the rest of the war.
Convoys from Canada
Because Germany soon controlled continental Europe, Britain depended on supply lines across the ocean for materials to sustain its war effort and feed its population. Many supplies came from Canada, particularly from the ports of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Saint John's, Newfoundland. German submarines, or U-boats, waited in the Atlantic Ocean to sink ships coming out of Canadian ports. Ships sailed in groups, or convoys, protected by small, highly maneuverable, anti-submarine, Royal Canadian Navy war ships called corvettes. Later, more air cover was provided. The struggle between the convoys and the U-boats was called the Battle of the Atlantic and lasted from early 1941 to late 1942. When the U-boats were defeated, the convoys had an easier passage. Many supplies and military personnel crossed the Atlantic from U.S. ports as well.
Once they arrived in Britain, the Canadians wanted an independent role. In 1942, they took on the task of landing in the French port of Dieppe, which the German army had fortified. The raid failed for several reasons. In one day, 907 Canadians were killed and 946 were taken prisoner. There is controversy today as to whether the raid was a complete failure or not. The Allies did learn a lot about landing troops on the French coast that would help in the successful Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, known as "D-Day".
The Alaska Highway
In 1942, the United States became concerned about a possible Japanese invasion of Alaska. There was no suitable road for moving soldiers and equipment quickly to the region. The solution was the construction of the Alaska Highway, a portion of which passed through Canada and was built and funded with Canadian help.
In 1943, the Canadians joined the Americans and British in the invasion of Italy. Soon after landing, they were heavily engaged in fighting the Germans at Ortona. Their success at Ortona paved the way for the advance on the capital city of Rome. All engaged armies fought hard until Italy was free of German control in 1945.
On June 6, 1944, 130,000 Allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy in northern France. Canada's status as an independent participant in the war was signaled by the fact that the Canadian forces landed on Juno Beach rather than landing as part of the British force. Although Canadian forces suffered over 1,000 casualties, they gained more ground than their allies did. The successful Allied landings meant that Paris was liberated from German occupation only two months later.
The Canadians, advancing east toward Germany, liberated the Netherlands from German occupation. Canada has had a special relationship with that country ever since. The allies entered Germany from the west while the Russians entered from the east. The war in Europe ended with the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945, remembered as Victory in Europe, or VE, Day.
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
The most distinctive Canadian contribution to the Allied war effort was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan that Canada set up. The plan trained aircrews for the air forces of Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Canada's wide open spaces and remoteness from the front lines made it an ideal location for training air crews. The plan set up fifty-eight training centres and provided over 10,000 instructors. Approximately 131,000 trainees graduated from the plan, among them 72,825 Canadians. Although most Canadian fliers flew in Britain's Royal Air Force, more and more units of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) flew as the war progressed.
The victors of World War II established the United Nations as a way of preserving international peace. The first major test of the United Nations came in Korea in 1951, when North Korea crossed the border at the 38th parallel and invaded the south in an effort to reunify the country. Canada acted with countries including Britain, Australia, and New Zealand under the banner of the United Nations to support the United States in resisting the invasion. Before the Canadians could arrive, the fortunes of war changed drastically more than once. The fighting surged from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other. The Chinese army joined the fighting when the United Nations forces approached the Korea-China border at the Yalu River. The United Nations forces were driven back a long way south. The Canadian contingent arrived in time to join a push to drive the Chinese and North Korean forces back into the north. The Canadians were all volunteers, some of whom had fought in World War II. They later joined the 27th Commonwealth Brigade and eventually more Canadian units joined them. They saw action in places such as Kapyong and Koree's Hill 355. The two sides fought to a standstill. When hostilities ceased, both sides were back at the old border at the 38th Parallel.
Since the Korean conflict, Canada has worked to prevent or manage conflicts by devoting its military to peacekeeping operations. Canadian peacekeepers have served in many countries: Egypt, Cyprus, Syria, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, East Timor, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Afghanistan. Canada did not support the invasion of Iraq in 2003 because the United Nations did not sanction it. In spite of its long military history, Canada today presents itself to the world as a peace-loving country that seeks international stability and development.