"We were walking on dead soldiers ... I saw poor fellows trying to bandage their wounds... bombs, heavy shells were falling all over them ... it is the worst sight that a man ever wants to see." Canadian soldier Frank Maheux
On August 4th, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Canada as a member of the British empire, was automatically involved alongside the mother country. Canada was free to determine her military contribution, but Canada under Prime Minister Robert Borden generously contributed to the war effort. In total, more than 600 000 Canadians served in the First World War.
Canadians at the front
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Horror on the Battlefield
At the beginning of the war, Canada had no difficulty recruiting volunteers. Patriotic enthusiasm and economic hard times kept volunteer recruitment numbers high.
On October 3, 1914, the first wave of recruits - 31,000 Canadians - set sail for the battlefields of Europe, the largest convoy ever to cross the Atlantic. The troops were poorly equipped and hastily prepared but three months of training awaited them in England.
Canadians soldiers fought on the frontlines in the biggest battles of the war. In 1915, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the army Canada sent to Europe) distinguished itself at the battles of Ypres, Festubert and Givenchy. In 1916, after the battles of Saint-Éloi and Mont-Sorel, they participated in the offensive in the valley of Somme, one of the most deadly of the war.
Victory at Vimy
Canada's great victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge during the spring of 1917 was a key event in Canada's development as a nation. Vimy became a shared symbol for Canadians and a source of national identity and pride.
In 1916, Prime Minister Borden increased Canada�s military commitment to Britain from 250,000 to half a million men. All were to be volunteers, Borden pledged. But as casualties mounted and enrolment continued to drop, he retreated from his promise of no conscription and a crisis unfolded on the homefront.
At the front, the Canadian troops fought in the muddy fields of Passchendaele in November 1917, and contributed to the final victory against Germany and its allies the following year. L'Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour. The triumph was at a price: almost 60 000 Canadians lost their lives.
Towards a greater autonomy
During the war, Canada obtained a greater autonomy from Great Britain. Elected Prime Minister in 1911, Robert Borden wanted to give Canada a stronger voice in the development British imperial policy. The war only reinforced his convictions.
According to Borden, the dominions of Britian should have power proportional to their military contribution. At the Peace conference of Paris, in 1919, Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles and obtained a seat at the League of Nations.
After the war, the William Lyon Mackenzie King's government, elected in 1921, wanted to ease tensions within the country. Canadians were tired of the war and the country was still divided by the conscription crisis. When Great Britain solicited military aid from Canada against Turkey in 1922, King refused. For King, harmony in Canada was more important than unity within the Empire.
In 1926, King helped further redefine relations with Great Britain. The Balfour declaration defined the British dominions as equal partners in the Empire.