- Introduction:Canadian Perspectives on the First World War
FEW EVENTS had more impact on Canada than the First World War. A thumbnail sketch would include unprecedented government economic intervention, new national social programmes, accelerated urbanization and industrialization, new rights and roles for women, growing autonomy from Britain, intensified integration with America, bold challenges to civil liberties, and the flowering of Canadian nationalism. For decades, the common refrain was that Canada entered the war as a colony but emerged from it as a nation. Sacrifices and accomplishments on the battlefield and massive contributions on the home front buoyed national pride and confidence. This awareness intensified Canada’s demand to stand as an equal to Britain, a conviction that led to a separate signature for Canada on the Treaty of Versailles, a separate seat for the dominion at the League of Nations, acceleration of the shift from Empire to Commonwealth, and Canada’s autonomy over its own foreign policy with the 1931 Statute of Westminster. But the First World War also brought to the fore complexities based upon factors such as region, ethnicity, class, gender, and ideology that, as never before, threatened national unity.
Not until quite recently has the multi-dimensional impact of the First World War on Canada become evident in historical works. At the outset of the conflict, Canada had few professional or academic historians. Military history was characterized by stirring accounts of battlefield prowess and adventure. During the First World War, Canada’s government did not appoint an official historian. Still, reams of documents were deposited with the London-based Canadian War Records Office. Its director was Sir William Maxwell Aiken, an expatriate Canadian millionaire and British newspaper mogul who was determined to raise Canada’s profile in the Mother Country. In March 1915, he was also appointed as Official Eye Witness for Canada’s army, meaning that his accounts became a principal source of public information about the country’s military exploits. Although rarely getting close to the front, he turned military reports such as unit war diaries into tales of triumph. He did the same in Canada in Flanders,1 a book released in January 1916 that told [End Page 283] of Canada’s military accomplishments up to the end of the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. So slanted was the work that some British commanders demanded that it be censored for giving the impression that the Canadians were winning the war on their own. Two more volumes of Canada in Flanders followed, the first by Aitken and the next by the well-known author and poet Charles G. D. Roberts, which took the heroic tale to end of 1917.2 The end of the war and its immediate aftermath brought the publication of Fred James’ Canada’s Triumph and J. F. B. Livesay’s Canada’s Hundred Days, both of which focused on Canada spearheading the final push, resulting in Germany’s surrender, and the six-volume Canada and the Great War published by the Makers of Canada (Morang) Limited, which had a military advisory board and, not surprisingly, was entirely uncritical of Canada’s war effort.3
After the war, some 10,000 boxes of military records were transferred from London to Canada. The federal government planned a multi-volume official history, one that was to be balanced and meticulously documented. To lead the project, it turned to E. A. Cruikshank, who had written of the militia valiantly defending Canada during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In 1919, Cruikshank published four volumes of documents on the war; without accompanying analysis, however, they generated little interest. He retired in 1921 with basically nothing completed.
Cruikshank’s replacement, Colonel Archer Fortesque Duguid, was a curious appointment, being an engineer by training. He was meticulous, however, determined to cover every fact before writing any material. As a result, Duguid got bogged down in minutia; compounding the delay, he became sidetracked in a multi-year battle of correspondence with Britain’s official historian, James Edward Edmonds, whose works Duguid felt did not give adequate credit to the Canadians at 2nd Ypres, and he provided...