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A National Response

Canadian soldiers marching

On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, as a member of the British Empire, was automatically at war, and its citizens from all across the land responded quickly. A month after war broke out, 32,665 volunteers arrived at the new camp at Valcartier, Quebec, in 100 special trains. Thus began the growth of the colony's peacetime army from a pre-war force of 3,110 regular and 74,213 part-time militia members. By the end of the war, Canada would have 619,636 service people in uniform, including more than 3,000 Nursing Sisters. The tiny peacetime force would grow nearly tenfold. It was a huge army for a population of less than eight million.

Four long years of war would transform Canada from a colony to a nation. At a cost of nearly a quarter of a million casualties—one in four of them fatal—Canada would grow, with sorrow for the fallen and the maimed, yet with a new pride and a more confident awareness of nationhood. It was a heavy price for national identity and peace in the world, a price Canada would pay again 20 years later and in the troubled years beyond. Eventually, Canadians would become peacekeepers to the world. Instead of fighting to restore peace, they would stand between combatants to preserve it. This prime military role supports Canada's foreign policy to this day.

Canada's major military contribution to what was called the Great War—"the war to end all wars"— was the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps. Its members were stationed on the Western Front, that jagged chain of trenches dug into the mud and clay of France, stretching 966 kilometres from the Belgian coast to the border of Switzerland. Here armed soldiers faced each other over the shell-torn, muddy and decaying landscape of No Man's Land. Daily, they were confronted with the cruel realities of disease and death. For most of those years, the front line scarcely moved, except a few metres at a time, gains that were hard-bought by continual courage and dogged endurance. Almost until the end, the Great War was fought as siege warfare, rather than a war of movement. It was very costly in terms of lives and wounds.

The citizen-soldiers of Canada adapted with innovative methods that were designed to stem the terrible tide of casualties. Their modern approaches earned them a remarkable reputation in France. In the First World War, 70 Canadians earned the highest award for valour, the Victoria Cross (VC). Many more would receive other decorations for gallantry.

In this largely static war of attrition, the Canadian Corps came to be valued as one of the most effective military formations on the Western Front, for they were masters of the grim and hazardous techniques of offensive warfare. Their first full-scale demonstration of this came in April 1917 at Vimy Ridge, which they captured with superb planning and preparation, resulting in casualty levels far below the norm. Vimy was the pinnacle of Canadian military achievement in the First World War.

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