J.L. Granatstein is a former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum and author of many books, including Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace.
From party politics to standard of living to national identity, the Great War transformed Canada
The Great War, lasting from August 1914 to November 1918, had a huge effect on Canada. In the hothouse atmosphere created by the conflict, attitudes changed faster, tensions festered more quickly and events forced governments and groups to take new positions at an unheard-of pace. The war changed everything.
First, there was the military aspect. In 1914, Canada had a tiny standing army, a two-ship navy and no air force. By the end of the war, 620,000 men and women had put on a uniform, an extraordinary effort from a population of just eight million.
The army had a corps of four divisions and 100,000 men fighting in France and Flanders and winning laurels, while the casualty toll over four years approached almost a quarter-million killed and wounded. Some 22,000 men served in the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force, and the navy patrolled Canadian waters with some effectiveness.
The war’s impact on the relatives of those serving at the front was incalculable. The Canadian Patriotic Fund raised money to help families whose breadwinner was overseas, but nothing could compensate for the war’s losses. One mother in Winnipeg had seven sons in the army and two were killed; countless families lost fathers, sons, brothers and uncles. Did Canada lose a soldier who might have been a great prime minister? One who would find a cure for cancer? Or one who would have written the great Canadian novel?
In economic terms, the impact of the war was more measurable. As the war went on, munitions and other war-related factories sprang up across the country. The need for uniforms and soldiers’ equipment was huge, and initially patronage and shoddy work determined almost everything. The Imperial Munitions Board, founded in November 1915 with financial magnate Joseph Flavelle in command, soon had more than 600 factories churning out vast quantities of artillery shells, fuses and explosives, and building aircraft and naval vessels.
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