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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Building An Army - The Canadian Expeditionary Force

Canadians were involved in two military conflicts prior to the outbreak of World War I.  In 1885, volunteers drawn mainly from existing militia units served alongside British regular troops during the Northwest Rebellion, a military campaign in which a Metis uprising led by Louis Riel was swiftly crushed.  From 1899 to 1902, over 7000 Canadians volunteered for military service during the Boer (South African) War, the first occasion on which Canadians fought in an overseas military conflict.  In both cases, British officers were in charge of the military action.  In fact, the British government assumed complete military responsibility for the Canadian volunteers who fought in South Africa, although their sacrifice - 267 men killed in action - is acknowledged in the Book of Remembrance currently displayed on Parliament Hill.

As it was still a British colony, Canada relied on the "Mother Country" for its defense during the early years after Confederation.  In 1909, two events marked small but important changes in this relationship.  British garrisons stationed at various fortifications across Canada - such as the Citadel in Halifax - were permanently removed from Canadian soil.  In the same year, the Liberal government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier passed the Naval Service Act, establishing the Canadian Naval Service.

Despite these developments, Canada possessed little in the way of formal military organization in 1914. Our navy contained fewer than 400 personnel and the naval fleet consisted of two used British cruisers, HMCS Niobe and HMCS Rainbow.  The state of our land forces was not much better.  In the aftermath of the Boer War, the Canadian government recognized the need for some type of military structure, in the event that men in arms were required.  As a result, steps were taken to create two separate structures from which such a resource could be drawn when a military conflict involving Canada occurred.

HMCS Niobe in Halifax Harbor, 1910
First, Canada formally established a "Non-Permanent Active Militia" as the basis for military contingents that could be mobilized as required.  While militia units had existed throughout our history, after the Boer War, standards for organization and training were established.  The approved size of militia forces grew from a total of 36,000 in 1903 to 77,323 in July 1914, although the actual strength was less than 60,000 when war broke out the following month.  Members of urban militia units participated in 16 days training annually, while rural units trained for 12 days - hardly sufficient to prepare men for actual combat.

In addition to reorganizing its militia, the Canadian Parliament annually approved expenditures to fund a small "permanent force" of regular soldiers.  For the year 1914, Parliament authorized a standing army of 3110 men and 684 horses, although the demand for labor made it difficult to attract a full complement of soldiers.  The force's main peacetime role was to garrison fortifications located throughout Canada and assist in militia training.  By 1914, Canada possessed two regiments, each with two squadrons of cavalry - the Royal Canadian Dragoons and Lord Strathcona's Horse.  In addition, there were two batteries of Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, five companies in the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery, one field company and two fortress companies of engineers, and one infantry battalion - the Royal Canadian Regiment. 

Equipping even this small permanent force was a challenge.  Canada possessed 200 modern artillery guns, sufficient for only one of its two artillery divisions.  Motor vehicles and horse-drawn carriages were virtually non-existent, nor were there sufficient uniforms for all members of the permanent force.  Canada had no domestic artillery industry, relying instead on British factories for such products.  This created a major problem once war erupted, as Canadian requirements took second place to British needs.  The Canadian government had developed a domestic firearms industry during the Boer War and was able to provide soldiers with a .303 rifle designed by Sir Charles Ross and manufactured by the Ross Rifle Co. in Quebec City after 1905.  The weapon, however, differed from the standard British Lee-Enfield, creating problems in terms of "weapons standardization" when Canadians were deployed in the front lines.  More controversially, the Ross Rifle proved unsuitable for combat conditions, often overheating and jamming when fired repeatedly.  Its longer barrel also created problems in the confined quarters of a muddy trench.  Despite stubborn support from Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, after two years of complaints from soldiers and officers, the Canadian government finally agreed to abandon its use and adopt the British Lee-Enfield rifle in 1916.

Ross Rifle


On August 4, 1914, Great Britain formally declared war on Germany.  As a British colony, Canada was automatically at war and - as with the Boer War - it was assumed that Canada would support the British war effort by sending men to the battlefront.  The Canadian government set about hastily organizing an initial contingent of 25,000 men aged 18 to 45, volunteers who met the requirements in terms of health, physical conditioning and military expertise.  Drawn from the existing permanent forces and militia rolls, the first contingent assembled at Valcartier, near Quebec City, and began training.

Camp Valcartier, September 1914
 The Canadian government eventually decided to send all available manpower - approximately 31,200 men - overseas as the "first contingent" of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  The men arrived in England in mid-October and spend the fall and winter months on Salisbury Plain in southern England. where they were organized into the First Division of the Canadian Corps.  In February 1915, the First Division crossed the English Channel to France and was deployed along the front lines in the area of Ypres, Belgium.

No sooner had the first contingent departed from Quebec than the government set about recruiting a second contingent, which sailed to England in the spring of 1915 and crossed the English Channel to France as the Second Canadian Division in September 1915.  A Third Canadian Division was created in December 1915, followed by a Fourth Canadian Division in August 1916.  By the end of 1916, the Canadian Corps consisted of more 300,000 men, 80,000 of whom had made the journey overseas.  This was an amazing feat for a country that possessed virtually no standing army before the outbreak of the war.

While the growth of the Canadian Corps in was impressive in the early years of the war, the pace of recruitment slowed significantly after 1916 for several reasons.  First, a significant number of the early recruits were English-born residents of Canada, men who felt a strong connection to the country of their birth and were eager to enlist.  Second, there was great demand for labor at home, both on farms and in factories, as domestic resources were mobilized in support of the war effort.  Single, able-bodied men had no difficulty finding work at a good wage, and often chose that option over military service, with its mediocre pay and inherent risk.  Finally, the early enthusiasm to enlist waned when it became apparent that the war would not be over quickly.  Moreover, descriptions of the dangers and horrible conditions of trench war, as described in soldiers' letters home, were becoming known.  All of these factors combined to create an enlistment crisis that became increasingly apparent in the early months of 1917.

At the beginning of the war, Prime Minister Robert Borden had promised that the Canadian government would not resort to compulsory military service of any kind.  Canada's army would consist entirely of volunteers.  As the conflict dragged on, the government was forced to re-assess its recruitment strategy.  At an Imperial Conference held in the spring of 1917, Britain pressured Canada to provide more manpower and urged Borden to implement conscription.  While volunteer enlistment had resulted in an estimated total of 525,000 enlistments by July 1917, increasing casualties and declining numbers of voluntary recruits as the year progressed forced Borden to abandon his earlier promise (see chart below).  In the first five months of 1917, 56,000 Canadian soldiers were either killed in action, wounded or missing in action.  There were fewer than 36,000 enlistments over the same time period.  Faced with the reality of a declining military force unable to meet the demands of Canada's role at the front lines, the Borden government introduced the Military Service Bill in the Canadian Parliament on June 11, 1917.

Borden's decision created a major political crisis at home.  The population of Quebec had never strongly supported Canadian involvement in Britain's "imperial" wars.  French Canadian voluntary enlistment lagged behind Canada's English provinces for several other reasons.  At the beginning of the war, there were no French Canadian units and very few French-speaking officers.  The few French Canadians who did enlist were placed in English speaking units commanded by English speaking officers.  Training manuals and other military documents were printed in English only.  Such practices did little to encourage French Canadians to enlist.  In response, the Canadian government made the decision to create a French Canadian regiment commanded by French Canadian officers - the 22nd or "Vandoos", as it soon became known - in October 1914.  Despite this concession, French Canadian enlistments were significantly fewer in number than English Canadian volunteers.

French Canadian politicians were openly critical of the Borden government's decision to adopt conscription.  Henri Bourassa, a French Canadian nationalist, had been an outspoken critic of Canada's involvement in "imperial wars" since the Boer War, and spoke out strongly against any form of compulsory military service.  Liberal leader and former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier had supported Canada's involvement in the war, but opposed any form of conscription as a potential disaster for national unity.  The Military Service Act was also unpopular in western provinces, where it threatened to "rob" farmers of the much needed manual labor required to harvest their crops.  Nevertheless, the Borden government persevered and the Military Service Act became law on August 29, 1917.

To accommodate men who were called to military duty, the government organized "Depot Battalions" to which men called to military service reported for training.  Nova Scotian conscripts were assigned to the 1st Depot Battalion, Nova Scotia Regiment, based in Halifax.  Upon completing military training, conscripts were assigned to a "reserve battalion" in England for further training.  From there, conscripts could be "taken on strength" by regiments at the front in France or Belgium as needed.  As the statistics below indicate, approximately half of the men called for duty remained in Canada, where they trained and performed military duties while awaiting transport overseas.  Only one in four conscripts actually reached the front lines in France or Belgium.   

Under the terms of the Military Service Act, all Canadian men aged 20 to 45 were required to register for military service.  The first "conscripts" were ordered to report in mid-October 1917 and began military training in January 1918.  In total, over 400,000 Canadian men registered under the Act, but more than half - 220,000 - were eventually granted exemptions on medical or other grounds.  Of the 180,000 deemed "fit" for military service, almost 25,000 never reported for duty when called to do so (referred to as "defaulters") and another 25,000 were never called to report.  In total, over 130,000 reported for military service, of which 120,000 were enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  This number was further reduced by the fact that some were determined medically unfit for military duty or were assigned to non-combat services.  The final tally of men available for military service was 105,106, almost 9000 of whom were discharged prior to November 11, 1918 for various reasons, leaving a total of 96,379 men "fit for duty".  Of this number, a total of 47,509 conscripts proceeded overseas to England.  Over half of this group - 24,132 - were "taken on strength" by units in France and fought at the front.

As a result of conscription, the size of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the front once again began to increase.  By January 1918, a total of 139,915 Canadians were deployed in France, with the Corps' numbers reaching a peak of just under 150,000 in July 1918.  While the majority of conscripts never saw active duty, the military commanders and Canadian government who oversaw their recruitment had no way of knowing that the war would be over by the end of the year.  Indeed, if the war had continued into 1919 - as many expected would occur during the early months of 1918 - all conscripted men would likely have found themselves at the front.


A total of 611,711 men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary force during World War I, 418,052 of whom were transported overseas to England, France or Belgium.  These are impressive numbers, considering that the total Canadian population in 1914 was approximately 7,900,000 and that the country possessed virtually no "standing army" before the war.  Almost half of the men sent overseas were physically affected by the experience, as the numbers below indicate.  Thousands more no doubt suffered from the psychological effects of modern war at a time when little was known and even less understood about this aspect of war's effects.  Their sacrifices - physical and emotional - deserve acknowledgement.  An entire generation of Canada's population was permanently affected by the catastrophe that became known as "the war to end all wars".

Canadian Expeditionary Force War Statistics

Killed in Action: 34,496
Died of wounds: 17,182
Presumed dead from enemy action: 4,960

Total Deaths: 53,746

Missing: 4,368
Prisoners of war (repatriated): 4,500
Wounded in action: 132,550

Total missing/prisoners/wounded: 141,418

Total CEF enlistments: 611,711

Total CEF forces sent overseas: 418,052


Berton, Pierre. Marching As To War - Canada's Turbulent Years, 1899 - 1953.  Doubleday Canada, 2001.

Cook, Tim. At the Sharp End - Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916.  Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2007.

Cook, Tim.  Shock Troops - Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918.  Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.

Henderson, Ian; Lawley, Peter; Probert, Norm; and Quinlan, Don.  World Affairs: Defining Canada's Role.  Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Martinello, I. L..  Call Us Canadians.  Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1976.

Nicholson, Col. G. W. L..  The Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-19.  Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1962.

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