We cannot forget the First World War. Even though more than 90 years have passed since the guns fell silent, we are still shocked by the savagery of that conflict. The butcher’s bill worldwide was 10 million combatants, with countless more millions of civilians perishing through starvation, violence and even genocide. For Canada, a Dominion of the British Empire, with a population of fewer than eight million and not yet 50 years old at the start of the war, the country paid a terrible price. More than 60,000 Canadians were killed in the cataclysm from 1914 to 1918. In terms of today’s population, with Canada more than four times as large, the equivalent ratio of losses would be 250,000 dead.
It is impossible to comprehend death on that scale and the waves of grief that rolled over the nation. Nearly every city, town and village across Canada sent community members overseas. Too many of those Canadians never returned. We can still see the evidence of the war in those same communities, where the stone memorials stand with the engraved names of the fallen. The Great War continues to haunt us, as a people and as a nation.
With a professional army of less than 3,000, it would be citizen-soldiers who filled the ranks and they came in droves, from across the country and from all walks if life. The age stipulations were 18 to 45, but many underage and overage men lied about their birthdays.
The Western Front trenches were stitched across Europe from Switzerland to the North Sea, but they extended back kilometres from the front, with communication trenches to the rear connecting different lines of the enormous system in a labyrinth of mazes.
The first major Canadian engagement of the war was a defensive battle. The Germans launched an attack east of Ypres, Belgium, against the Allied held salient jutting into their lines. The raw 1st Canadian Division held its ground against chlorine gas and overwhelming German forces.
After the terrible battles of 1915 and 1916, the infantry were taught to advance on their own, moving in rushes, in classic “fire and movement” tactics. By 1917, this how the infantry would fight, and they could destroy strongpoints with sufficient firepower from their light Lewis machine guns and rifle grenades.
Stretcher-bearers raced across the battlefield delivering first aid and a shot of rum, an injection of morphine (if any was left), and a comforting word but there were too many broken men, and not enough carriers. Most often it was the bleeding soldier who limped toward help.
The first Canadian service personnel to die in battle were four sailors serving on HMS Good Hope, a light cruiser sunk in the Battle of Coronel on Nov. 1, 1914. Canada never fought a major sea battle during the war, and that was a good thing.
With flight in its infancy, the first rickety planes seemed closer to flying coffins of wood, glue and tarp than fighting machines. But almost immediately the plane had distinguished itself in gathering intelligence.
A nation of less than eight million suffered more than 60,000 dead. Those losses left gaping holes across society. Another 172,000 soldiers were wounded while in service. For many, there were amputations of limbs, jaws shot away and blindness.