Canada and the First World War

This material was contributed by Tim Campbell & Sara Sewell.

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Canada's involvement in the first world war was one of immense proportions. However, this tremendous commitment introduced many battle-unsullied Canadians to the horrors of war. The Dominion of Canada sent over 625,000 men and several thousand women to the front from the years 1914-1918. This was an enormous contribution for a country with a total population of only 8 million. Of all the Canadians that went to fight in the great war, 1 out of every 10 died, and many of those who returned home were maimed either mentally or physically. During the war effort, Canadian solders gained fame for their assault capabilities on the Western front. For this reason, Canadian soldiers were often the ones that had to face the brunt of many battles in which they were pitted against huge odds, introduced to chemical warfare, and expected all the time to deal with the horrors of trench warfare.

Many of the names, places, people and events that Findley refers to in the Wars have actual historical significance . The Ypres Salient, for example, is the site of an actual battle in which the Canadians gained fame for their heroic action against the Germans in April 1915 (explained later in Question). Verdun is another battle which was mentioned in the Wars; this was a horrific battle in which half a million men were killed in less than eight months. It was also another instance in which the Canadian military performed at high standards. In Verdun many Canadians lost their lives. The town of Verdun, Quebec, is named after this famous battle ground. Tom Longboat was mentioned in the novel and he is a significant character in Canadian history. Longboat was an Onondaga Indian from a reservation near Hamiltion Ontario. He was a distinguished Canadian marathon runner. Kingston, Ontario, is where Robert Ross went to study military law and trajectory mathematics at The Royal Military College. In the novel the hospital where Canadian Soldiers were taken for medical services was Bois de Madelaine. This was an actual hospital located in France, located 4 miles from Bailleul which was a battle ground referred to as "the last place in civilisation." The Somme offensive was also mentioned in the Wars. This was an actual offensive in which the Canadians floundered in the mud and barbed wire; the Canadians main role in this operation was the amazing seizure of Vimy Ridge.

On April 15 soldiers of the Canadian army saw action in their first major battle of World War One. On the 22nd of April the German army advanced in the Ypres sailent. The Germans advanced towards the allied lines behind yellow masses of Chlorine gas. This gas suffocated the French division which were placed to the left of the Canadians. The French forces retreated and a large hole was created in the allied front. What is so significant is that, while the French troops fled, the troops of the Canadian Dominion stood strong. They thinned out their division in order to fill the gap left by the vacant French troops. The German offensive was halted but at an enormous cost. Over 6,000 Canadians lost there lives, many from breathing in chlorine gas. Those who survived were introduced to the true horrors of war.

In many respects Robert Ross could indeed be considered a model Canadian soldier during the First World War. The Canadians who fought in the war, especially those who saw action in the early battles were introduced to a situation that could only be described as hell on earth. The men of the Canadian military saw the horrors of war, the likes of which the world had never seen and have since never been seen again. Robert Ross was a young man from a young country, a country which prior to World War One had never engaged in a major war. Robert is a representative Canadian in the sense that he fits the mold of many of the Canadian soldiers that went overseas to fight, completely ignorant of what he was getting involved with. When Robert, found himself among the trenches of Europe, surrounded by death and destruction, he was introduced to an entirely new world filled with stupidity and consumed by death. Robert went through unspeakable conditions, conditions which not only affected men physically but mentally. Any young man who was lucky enough to return home from World War One was not the same man as when he left. The experience of WWI was more than a lot of men could handle. This was certainly the case with Robert Ross, but it was also the case with many other Canadian soldiers. Many Canadians returned home from the war disheartened and disenchanted with the world. The conclusion of World War One saw the creation of hospitals for veterans for soldiers for the first time in Canada. The First World War was the most tragic section ever in Canadian history. Departed were the old, half-somnolent attitudes which most Canadian communities were accustomed to. A total of 61,326 Canadians had been killed and over 172,950 had been wounded. Robert Ross was a fictional character, but one who could be viewed a representative of how seriously the horrors of World War One affected impressionable young Canadian soldiers.

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