The early military history of Canada can be traced back to hundreds of years of inter tribal raids and battles in the territory encompassing modern Canada, the fight between the French and British for control of the territory and in the 20th Century the interventions by the Canadian armed forces in two World Wars and post war peacekeeping operations across the Globe.
Courage knows no national boundaries - four Canadian soldiers who had been born in the USA won the Victoria Cross in World War I while some 60 Canadian citizens serving in the US Army have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
At Danville, Quebec on June 9, 1866, a railway car containing 2000 pounds of ammunition caught fire. Twenty year old Timothy O'Hea, a Rifleman in the 1st Bn, Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort's Own) quickly took charge, opened the locked railway car, and single handedly brought the fire under control. The Victoria Cross was awarded to O'Hea – an Irishman in a British regiment - is the only one awarded for bravery on Canadian soil.
Canadian forces have seen action around the world and notable battles in World War I include the Second Battle of Ypres and Vimy Ridge, in World War II the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the strategic bombing of German cities, the Dieppe Raid, Ortona in Italy, the Juno Beach in the D-Day Landings, the Battle for Caen, and the Battle of the Scheldt in Holland.
Second Battle of Ypres
Early in April 1915, the 1st Canadian Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) moved up to reinforce the Ypres salient . On April 22, following an intensive artillery bombardment, the Germans released 160 tons of Chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches in first use of poison gas in the war. The gas induced a condition known as "dry land drowning" as mucus and blood filled the lungs. French colonial troops panicked and fled but many Canadians manned their trenches and consequently suffered lower losses than the French. A Canadian soldier discovered that pressing urine soaked rags over their noses and mouths neutralised the effect of Chlorine. Two days later the Germans launched another chemical attack. In the 48 hours of battle, the Canadians suffered over 6,000 casualties, one man in every three, of whom more than 2,000 died but the Germans failed to breakthrough to Ypres. Four divisions of the CEF would continue to defend the salient and in 1917 through grim Third Battle of Ypres in just 16 days of fighting at Passchendaele cost the Canadians 15, 654 casualties of whom over 4,000 were killed.
For the attack on the heavily defended Vimy Ridge in France on April 9, 1917 the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions were grouped as a Canadian Corps. Careful planning and rehearsals an excellent and well coordinated artillery fire plan and intelligent infantry tactics produced one of the triumphs of World War I and a defining moment in Canadian national and military history. Advancing in a series of phase lines the Corps had secured the ridge by April 12.
The corps had suffered 10,602 casualties of whom 3,598 were killed and 7,004 wounded. However the German Sixth Army had suffered an unknown number of casualties and approximately 4,000 had been captured. In the fighting four VCs had been won by the Canadians. The Germans did not attempt to recapture the ridge, even during the 1918 offensive.
The Dieppe Raid in August 19, 1942 launched by the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division with supporting Allied troops stands out in Canadian military history for courage and tragic losses. There had been pressure from Ottawa for Canadian forces to be used and also from the USSR for some action in the West. On the raid some 3,367 men from the division were killed, wounded or captured landing craft, vehicles and aircraft were also lost. Two Victoria Crosses were won on the raid, but despite Admiral Mountbatten's insistence that valuable lessons had been learned and that "for every one man who died at Dieppe two lives were saved on D-Day". The Germans claimed with some justification that they were the victors at Dieppe.
Fought in bitter weather between December 20–28, 1943 – a month remembered as "Bloody December" - the battle for this Adriatic coastal town has been called "A Little Stalingrad". Ortona was held by German Paratroops of 3rd Bn, 3rd Rgt 1st Parachute Div commanded by Generalleutnant Richard Heidrich a veteran of Crete and the Eastern Front. The men tasked with capturing the port were men of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division under Major General Chris Vokes. On 28 December, after eight days of bitter close quarter fighting, the depleted German troops - who had not been reinforced - finally withdrew. The Canadians suffered 1,375 dead in the fighting in and around Ortona, almost a quarter of all Canadians killed during the Italian Campaign - German losses are unknown.
Fourteen thousand young soldiers in the Canadian 3rd Divisdion landed under fire on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944 on D-Day. Their courage, determination and self-sacrifice were the immediate reasons for the success in those critical hours, but they paid a heavy price 340 killed and 574 wounded. In Six Armies in Normandy, John Keegan, eminent British historian says of the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: "At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division. The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride."
The Norman city of Caen had been the D-Day objective of the British 3rd Infantry Division. In the end the fight for the city would last for a month and been a slugging match that would absorb the bulk of the German forces on the Normandy front. British and Canadian forces were composed of three armoured divisions, 11 infantry divisions five Armoured Brigades and three Tank Brigades. German forces were seven infantry divisions, eight Panzer Divisions and three heavy tank battalions. When the heavily bombed city finally fell the Allies and Germans had lost about 50,000 casualties but the Germans had also lost 550 tanks. The fighting was particularly brutal and 156 Canadian prisoners-of-war were shot near Caen by the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend in the days and weeks following D-Day and 20 Canadians were killed near Villons-les-Buissons, north-west of Caen in Ardenne Abbey.
Battle of the Scheldt
The Battle of the Scheldt was a series of operations in northern Belgium and south western Netherlands in grim weather from October 2 and November 8, 1944 by 60,000 men of the Canadian 1st Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds. The fighting was critical to open up access to the Belgian port of Antwerp. The Canadians were up against the German 15th Army which though numerically superior at 90,000 was starved of supplies and stores. The Canadians launched a series of amphibious assaults against heavily defended islands and by the close of the fighting for a total loss of 12,873 had cleared the approaches to Antwerp and inflicted losses of between 10-12,000 on the Germans with 41,043 captured.
Canadian soldiers including those from Newfoundland and men serving with British units would win 94 Victoria Crosses in the two World Wars. The first to won by a Canadian in World War II was in the doomed but heroic defence of Hong Kong and it was on August 3, 2005 that Ernest "Smokey" Smith the last surviving Canadian holder of the VC passed away.
Smith had won the decoration on the night of October 21/22, 1944 at the River Savio in northern Italy, when he was in the spearhead of the attack which established a bridgehead over the river. He knocked out a German Panther tank at a range of 30 feet (10 metres) with a PIAT infantry anti-tank weapon, and while protecting a wounded comrade, destroyed another tank and two self-propelled guns, and using his Thompson SMG routed the supporting enemy infantry. During his career, Smith had been promoted to Corporal nine times, but subsequently busted to private nine times prior to the action at the River Savio. He later achieved the rank of Sergeant. ** There was an unconfirmed rumour that the night before the ceremony when King George VI was to decorate "Smokey" Smith – that he was jailed for the night to ensure that he was sober on the day!
Since 1947, Canadian military units have participated in more than 200 operations worldwide, and completed 72 international operations. During the country's integral participation in NATO during the Cold War, First Gulf War, Kosovo War, and in United Nations Peacekeeping operations, such as the Suez Crisis, Golan Heights, Cyprus, Croatia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Libya . Canadian servicemen and women have earned a reputation for efficiency and professionalism.
However long before the triumph and sacrifice of Vimy Ridge for thousands of years, the area that would become Canada was the site of sporadic inter-tribal conflicts among First Nation peoples. The north American land grab in the 17th and 18th Centuries by European powers – a reflection of national rivalry at home meant that over nearly 70 years Canada was the site of four colonial wars and two additional wars in Nova Scotia and Acadia between New France and New England.
In 1763, after the final colonial war - the French and Indian War - he British emerged victorious and the French civilians, whom the British hoped to assimilate, were declared "British Subjects". After the passing of the Quebec Act in 1774, giving the Canadians their first charter of rights under the new regime, the northern colonies chose not to join the American Revolution and remained loyal to the British crown. The Americans looked to extend their republic and launched invasions in 1775 and 1812. On both occasions, the Americans were rebuffed by British and local forces; however, this threat would remain well into the 19th century and partially facilitated Canadian Confederation in 1867.
in a controversial book published in 2011 Johns Hopkins University professor Eliot Cohen, a senior adviser to former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, writes in Conquered Into Liberty that, "ultimately, Canada and Canadians won the War of 1812". He asserts that the successful fight by British, English- and French-Canadian and First Nations allies against the American invaders - at battles such as Queenston Heights in Upper Canada and Chateauguay in Lower Canada - set the stage for the creation of a unified and independent Canada a half-century later.
The war also gave Canada a military heroine - Laura Secord the wife of a wounded Canadian veteran who ran and walked nearly 20 miles in the night of June 21, 1813 to alert the British that an American force was going to launch a surprise attack at Beaver Dams on the Niagara Peninsula. A joint force of British soldiers and Mohawk warriors ambushed the US Army Regulars and for the loss of between five and15 killed and 20 to 25 wounded they killed 25 and took over 500 prisoners
It was at the Siege of Lucknow that 30 year old William Nelson Hall became the first black person, first Nova Scotian, and third Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. The son of slaves who escaped from the United States in 1812 and who had been brought to freedom in Nova Scotia by the Royal Navy he had joined the Royal Navy in 1852. His ship HMS Shannon had formed a composite unit of sailors, gunners and Royal Marines that went to relive the siege of Lucknow. In action against the India mutineers the naval guns took heavy fire and the crews were reduced to two men – the battery commander Lt Young and Hall. Their citation for the VC reads.
Lieutenant (now Commander) Young, late Gunnery Officer of Her Majesty's ship " Shannon," and William Hall, "Captain of the Foretop," of that Vessel, were recommended by the late Captain Peel for the Victoria Cross, for their gallant conduct at a 24-Pounder Gun, brought up to the angle of the Shah Nujeff, at Lucknow, on the 16th of November, 1857
After Confederation, and amid much controversy, a full-fledged Canadian military was created. Canada, however, remained a British colony, and Canadian forces joined their British counterparts in the Second Boer War and World War I. While independence followed the Statute of Westminster, Canada's links to Britain remained strong, and the British once again had the support of Canadians during World War II. Since then, however, Canada has been committed to multi-lateralism and has gone to war within large multinational coalitions in Korea, the Gulf, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. (See Canada at War post World War 2)