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First World War

The Canadian soldiers went off to fight at the beginning of the First World War brimming with enthusiasm and patriotism. They were confident that they would soon be returning home victorious. Instead, they found themselves immersed in a bitter and bloody war that bore little resemblance to their romantic expectations. The war would last four years and would change the lives of the soldiers and their country forever.

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Canadian Casualties during the First World War.

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Canadian Soldiers Killed in Action during the First World War.

The Defence of Sanctuary Wood, by Kenneth Keith Forbes.
Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 8157).

The Defence of Sanctuary Wood, by Kenneth Keith Forbes.

At Sanctuary Wood, soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) were trapped in an exposed salient, where they were decimated by enemy fire. Of the units ordered to reinforce the PPCLI, only the 49th Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Griesbach, arrived in time. Acting alone, the 49th successfully relieved the PPCLI. This painting of the defence of Sanctuary Wood, 1-3 June 1916, vividly portrays the almost surreal qualities of the First World War battlefield. Several soldiers man their machine guns and return fire against a not-too-distant enemy. Some attend comrades who have fallen during the furious fighting; others, who have not survived, await stretchers to take them off to casualty stations. The battlefield, once dense forest, has been reduced to charred tree stumps.

The very nature of warfare had changed. Conscription, mass production and advances in military weaponry in the previous decades had not been attended by significant changes in military tactics. As a result, soldiers were slaughtered by the millions. The carnage was unimaginable. Those not killed or wounded suffered through the nightmare of life in the trenches. In these damp, disease-ridden, rat-infested hell holes, the soldiers' lives alternated between mind-numbing boredom and abject terror, with their lives hanging in the balance.

Eventually, further advances in technology and new battle tactics would help to end the war. By then, 59,544 Canadians had been killed and 172,950 more had been wounded. The carnage claimed a large percentage of an entire generation of young Canadian men. The brave soldiers were marked for life by their experience, and Canada was a different nation.

Virtual SceneSlide Show
National Archives of Canada (C-080027).
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 12 October 1918. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 7 July 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
National Archives of Canada (PA-000627).
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 27 March 1915. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 30 November 1918. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 27 January 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 7 April 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc.
National Archives of Canada (PA-000324).

Toll of War.

Contrary to many naive predictions, the First World War was anything but a glorious war. The conflict exacted a tragic price from all involved.

The extraordinary accomplishments of Canadian soldiers gave the country a new-found confidence. Canadians now saw themselves not as British but as citizens of a separate Canadian nation.

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