Remembrance Day is always a sombre and vitally important occasion to mark, but it is particularly significant this year because 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of the end of World War One.
Over 66,000 Canadians, including about 330 from Wellington County, died during the Great War, from 1914 to 1918.
No one could have predicted the war would take such a toll – it involved 30 countries, with about ten million military deaths worldwide, not to mention millions of civilian casualties as well.
The war begins
Many assert with resounding conviction the Great War began on June 28, 1914, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip.
Ferdinand’s assassination was no doubt a factor, but in and of itself was not the sole cause of the war. The assassination did, however, expedite action in an already hostile environment of distrust – characterized by existing defence alliances, an escalating arms race, militarism and mobilization plans, trade barriers, ethnic and political rivalries, and economic imperialism.
After Serbia rejected at least one of a list of ten demands included in an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, Austria-Hungary declared war on July 28. Germany declared war against Russia on Aug. 1, and on France two days later.
Germany then violated Belgium’s neutrality by advancing through it to Paris, which brought the British Empire into the war.
Canada joins the conflict
Because of its imperial ties to Britain, Canada was obliged to participate, yet the war – bolstered by the belief it would be short lived – was embraced with optimism and an almost unanimous spirit from coast to coast in Canada.
The country had a regular army of just over 3,100 men and an inexperienced navy, yet according to Veterans Affairs Canada, within weeks of the war declaration over 32,000 men had volunteered.
In fact, during the first two years of the war, voluntary enlistment was sufficient to supply Canada’s need for troops on the front. Stories even surfaced about some would-be volunteers being turned away.
Members of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, mostly ex-British Army regular soldiers, were the first Canadians to land in France in December 1914. About two months later the 1st Canadian Division reached France.
Conscription and distinction
As the reality of the trench warfare set in, the need for additional troops grew.
In January 1916, British Prime Minister Lloyd George introduced conscription And about 15 months later, in response to heavy losses, particularly in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden introduced the Military Service Act in an effort to replace the dead and wounded.
Canadian soldiers fought with great distinction at Vimy Ridge, which is regarded as a turning point in the war and also a coming of age for Canada. The victory marked the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps had fought together.
However, Canadian soldiers were also heralded for their roles prior to Vimy, including battles at Ypres, Festubert, and Givenchy in 1915, and the Somme in 1916. After Vimy Canadians also played prominent roles at Hill 70, Passchendaele, and Cambrai.
Canadians also played a particularly significant role in the air. Over 25,000 Canadians served with the British air service as pilots, observers, and mechanics, in every theatre of the war. The names of Canadian fighter pilots like “Billy” Bishop became household names in Canada and beyond.
The end of the war
In the spring of 1918, German forces launched a major offensive on the western front, aiming at dividing the French and English forces. At first it was quite successful, but Allied forces responded to halt the advance.
And on Aug. 8, the Allies launched a counteroffensive, now known as the Hundred Days Offensive, in which the Canadian Corps played a key role. The corps spearheaded a successful yet costly attack near Amiens (over 9,000 casualties), and accompanied by British soldiers, helped smash through the Hindenburg Line – Germany’s main line of defence – in September.
By October, an Allied victory was imminent. Having suffered over six million casualties, Germany was increasingly outnumbered on the battlefield and thus moved toward peace.
The entry of the United States into the war in 1917 helped to expedite the collapse of the Central Powers.
Bulgaria was the first to sign an armistice on Sept. 29, 1918 and the Ottoman Empire followed suit a month later. Austria and Hungary signed separate armistices in early November and Germany signed Nov. 11.
At 11am on Nov. 11 – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – a cease fire came into effect. Opposing armies on the Western Front began to withdraw from their positions.
Canadian George Lawrence Price, born in Nova Scotia and drafted in Saskatchewan, is traditionally regarded as the last soldier killed in the Great War. He was shot by a German sniper on Nov. 11, and died at 10:58am.
While a formal state of war persisted until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the cease fire of Nov. 11, 1918 is widely regarded as the true end to the Great War.
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, 65 million men from 30 nations were involved in the war; at least 10 million men were killed; 29 million more were wounded, captured or missing; and the financial cost was measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.
And despite a population of just eight million people, a total of 619,636 Canadian men and women served in the war – of which 66,655 gave their lives and another 172,950 were wounded.
The nation’s impressive war record won Canada a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles, signifying Canada had achieved national status.
In 1914, Canada entered the war as a colony with just one division of citizen soldiers under the command of a British general, and by 1918 was its own nation with a respected fighting force led by a Canadian.
Statistical sources: Veterans Affairs Canada (www.vac-acc.gc.ca) and wikipedia.org.