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Canada and Great Britain standing united

Canada and Great Britain standing united

In 1914, Canada was still considered part of the British Empire and once Britain declared war, Canada was automatically involved. The First World War opened with great enthusiasm and patriotism, with tens of thousands of Canadians rushing to join the military in the first months of the conflict.

By the spring of 1917, Europe had been at war for more than two and a half years. As part of an Allied offensive, a major attack was planned for April in the area of Arras, France. In this attack the Canadians were tasked with capturing Vimy Ridge a key defensive position for the German military, with a complex system of tunnels and trenches manned by highly skilled soldiers with machine guns and artillery pieces. Assaults on Vimy in 1914 and 1916 had cost the British and French hundreds of thousands of casualties and been largely unsuccessful.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. The first wave of 20,000 Canadian soldiers, each carrying up to 36 kilograms of equipment, attacked through the wind-driven snow and sleet into the face of deadly machine gun fire. Advancing behind a “creeping barrage” the attack was timed to the minute allowing them to capture German positions in the critical moments after the explosions but before the enemy soldiers emerged from the safety of their underground bunkers.

The Canadian Corps, together with the British Corps to the south, captured more ground, prisoners and guns than any previous British offensive of the war. Canadians would act with courage throughout the battle. Four Canadians would earn the Victoria Cross, the country’s highest medal for military valour, for separate actions in which they captured enemy machine gun positions. They were: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge would prove a great success, but would come at a great cost. By the end of the First World War, Canada, a country of less than eight million citizens, would have more than 650,000 servicemen. The conflict took a huge toll with more than 66,000 Canadians losing their lives and 170,000 being wounded.

The Second World War officially began on 1 September 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. Britain and France declared war on the Nazi Third Reich, two days later, on 3 September 1939. Seven days later, on 10 September 1939, Canada likewise declared war on Germany, the country’s first independent declaration of war after the 1931 statute of Westminster and the beginning of Canada’s participation in the largest combined national effort in its history. By the war’s end, over 1 million citizens would serve in military uniform (out of a prewar population of 11 million) and Canada would possess the fourth-largest air force and fifth-largest naval surface fleet in the world. Of these more than 45,000 lost their lives and another 54,000 were wounded.