The game is six degrees of Canadian history. Take two seemingly unrelated pieces of Canadian culture and connect the dots through various people, places and events to discover how they’re distantly — or maybe not-so-distantly — related. Along the way, we visit the quizzical and curious, the tragic and comic, and everything in between.
The First World War of 1914–1918 was the bloodiest conflict in Canadian history, taking the lives of more than 60,000 Canadians. This collection brings together a number of our resources on the First World War. Image above: Canadians soldiers advancing through German wire entanglements at Vimy Ridge. April, 1917. Canadian Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001087.
The final 100 days of the First World War — from 8 August to 11 November 1918 — came to be known as the Hundred Days Offensive. But the Canadian Corps' significant contributions along the Western Front generated the name "Canada's Hundred Days." During this time, Canadian and allied forces pushed the German Army from Amiens, France, west to Mons, Belgium, in a series of battles — a drive that ended in German surrender and the end of the war.
Archivist Barbara M. Wilson explores the significance of a letter sent to Sir Sam Hughes by George Morton, a letter carrier, barber and civil rights advocate from Hamilton, Ontario. In his letter, dated 7 September 1915, Morton asked the minister of militia and defence why members of the Black community were being turned away when trying to enlist for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.
A major feature of the 1917 Halifax Explosion was the high loss of life among not just men but also women and children. The death of male heads of household, or of their wives, proved highly disruptive for family life and created a major challenge for those providing assistance to the survivors.
Among Canada’s defining events, the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War ranks high. It was a triumph — a major victory for the Allied side after a long, bloody stalemate — and a tragedy. In the four-day battle, 3,598 Canadians died and another 7,004 were wounded. In the century since it ended, on 12 April 1917, it has become something else: an event bordering on myth. “In those few minutes,” said Canadian Brigadier-General A.E. Ross of the victory, “I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
Guelph, Ontario, was typical of small Canadian cities during the First World War. Of its population of about 16,000, more than a third, 5,610, volunteered for military service; 3,328 were accepted. Today, 216 of their names are engraved on the city’s cenotaph. While Guelphites served overseas, the war had a profound and lasting effect on their hometown — an experience that provides an insight into wartime Canada.
Buckam Singh, labourer, soldier (born 5 December 1893 in Mahilpur, Punjab, India; died 27 August 1919 in Kitchener, ON). There is little information published about the role of Sikhs in Canadian military service during the First World War. The discovery of Buckam Singh’s Victory Medal led to his reclamation by his community, which commemorates him with an annual Remembrance Day service
The Battle of Passchendaele is a vivid symbol of the mud, madness and the senseless slaughter of the First World War. In the late summer of 1917, the British launched a major offensive against German forces holding Passchendaele ridge, overlooking the city of Ypres, Belgium. The battlefield became a quagmire. Canadian forces entered the fray in October, capturing the ridge and Passchendaele village at a cost of 15,600 casualties — a high price for a piece of ground that would be vacated for the enemy the following year.
Among the approximately 2,000 victims who died in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, one-quarter were children under the age of 18. Many other young people survived but would carry physical and emotional scars with them for the remainder of their lives. Dead and wounded children were the most poignant victims of the disaster.
The capture of Hill 70 in France was an important Canadian victory during the First World War, and the first major action fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander. The battle, in August 1917, gave the Allied forces a crucial strategic position overlooking the occupied city of Lens.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, during the First World War, is Canada's most celebrated military victory — an often mythologized symbol of the birth of Canadian national pride and awareness. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, attacked the ridge from 9 to 12 April, 1917 and captured it from the German army. It was the largest territorial advance of any Allied force to that point in the war – but it would mean little to the outcome of the conflict. More than 10,500 Canadians were killed and wounded in the assault. Today an iconic white memorial atop the ridge honours the 11,285 Canadians killed in France throughout the war who have no known graves.2
Canada’s war of independence was the First World War. Unlike the Americans, our war of independence was not fought against the country from which we became independent, but alongside it. We started the war as a colony of Britain and ended it as an ally. The remarkable performance of the Canadian Corps and its first Canadian commander made these gains in autonomy possible.
The First World War generated an abundance of writing, which in its entirety presents a complex and varied picture of the war. The popular point of view within Canadian literature, however, generally depicts an overtly patriotic and unified perspective of Canada’s involvement in the war.2
Few words conjure the futility and the staggering losses of the First World War like the Somme. In the summer of 1916 the British launched a major offensive against German lines. The battle lasted five months, killed or wounded approximately 1.2 million men, and produced little gains.