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What Should We Remember?

Formal records tell us about the size and strength of armies, military strategy, and the outcome of battles. Such information is vital, yet to fully appreciate military history we must try to understand the human face of war. Loss of comrades, extreme living conditions, intense training, fear, as well as mental, spiritual and physical hardship helps illuminate what the individual sailor, soldier and airman experienced in battle.

The First World War 1914-1918

In the First World War, the Canadians' first major battle occurred at Ypres, Belgium, on April 22, 1915, where the Germans used poison gas. As approximately 150 tonnes of chlorine gas drifted over the trenches, Canadian troops held their line and stopped the German advance in spite of enormous casualties. Within 48 hours at Ypres and St. Julien, a third of the Canadians were killed. One of those who survived described the aftermath of a dreaded gas attack:

The room was filled with dying and badly wounded men; trampled straw and dirty dressings lay  about in pools of blood. The air, rank with the fumes of gas, was thick with the dust of flying plaster and broken brick, and stifling with the smoke from the burning thatch.6

Using outdated 19th century military strategy, Allied generals believed that sending wave after wave of infantry would eventually overwhelm the enemy. Soaring casualty rates proved that soldiers attacking with rifles and bayonets were no match for German machine guns. Each side dug in and soon the Western Front became a patchwork of trenches in France and Belgium stretching from Switzerland to the North Sea.

In April 1917, Canadians helped turn the tide of battle when they won a major victory at Vimy Ridge. This triumph came at high cost: more than ten thousand casualties in six days. Even with this victory, the war continued for more than a year. Finally, on November 11, 1918, the Armistice was signed and the Canadians took part in the triumphant entry into Mons, Belgium. Throughout this conflict, Canadians proved that they could pull their weight, and by their effort earned for Canada a new place among the nations of the world.

The Second World War 1939-1945

Wounded Canadian officer on his return to England after the Raid on Dieppe (Library and Archives Canada 8225)

During the Second World War, Canadians fought valiantly on battlefronts around the world. More than one million men and women enlisted in the navy, the army and the air force. They were prepared to face any ordeal for the sake of freedom. When the war was over, more than 42,000 had given their lives. On the home front as well, Canadians were active as munitions workers, as civil defence workers, as members of voluntary service organizations, and as ordinary citizens doing their part for the war effort.

In December 1941, Canadian soldiers were participants in the unsuccessful defence of Hong Kong against the Japanese; 493 were wounded and 557 were killed in battle or at the hands of the Japanese as prisoners-of-war (POWs). The situation faced by the Canadian POWs was horrible; they laboured long hours and were given very little to eat. The daily diet was rice—a handful for each prisoner. Occasionally, a concoction of scavenged potato peelings, carrot tops and buttercups was brewed. The effect was obvious:

Sidney Skelton watched the 900-calorie-a-day diet shrink his body from 145 to 89 pounds. And whenever  a group of prisoners could bribe a guard into giving them a piece of bread , they used a ruler to ensure everyone got an equal share.7

Canadians played a leading role on the European front. On August 19, 1942, Canadians attacked the French port of Dieppe. Canadians made up almost 90 per cent of the assault force. The raid was a disaster. Out of a force of 4,963 Canadians, 3,367 were killed, wounded, or became POWs. Lucien Dumais was there and described the beach upon landing:

The beach was a shambles, and a lot of our men from the second wave were lying there either wounded or dead. Some of the wounded were swimming out to meet our flotilla and the sea was red with their blood. Some sank and disappeared. We stood by as they died, powerless to help; we were there to fight, not to pick up the drowning and the wounded. But the whole operation was beginning to look like a disaster.8

Canadians played an essential role as the war continued. They participated in the conquest of Sicily in 1943, and defeated the Nazis in Italy despite fierce resistance especially at Ortona and Rimini. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Canadians were in the front lines of the Allied forces who landed on the coast of Normandy. All three Canadian services (navy, army, and air force) shared in the assault. In Normandy, the fighting was fierce, and the losses were heavy. Approximately 14,000 Canadians landed on Juno Beach and suffered 1,074 casualties (including 359 fatalities).

Canadians encountered fierce resistance from the German occupiers as they fought through Northwest Europe, particularly at Caen and Falaise, France, as well as the formidable task of clearing the English Channel ports in France and Belgium. They also saved the Allied advance from stalling by defeating the Nazis in the Scheldt estuary of Belgium and Holland—intense fighting over flooded terrain.

In May 1945, victory in Europe became a reality and millions celebrated V-E Day. Still ahead lay the final encounter with Japan. Then, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki. On August 14, 1945, the Japanese accepted the Allied terms of unconditional surrender and the Second World War was over.

The Korean War 1950-1953

Troops of 2nd PPCLI during patrol, March 1951.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 115564)

The hard-fought end to the Second World War did not provide Canadian troops with a long peace. By 1950, Canadian soldiers were mobilized on behalf of the United Nations (UN) to defend South Korea against an invasion by North Korea. By 1951, the People's Republic of China had joined North Korea against the UN force. In Korea, the Canadians fought at Kapyong, at Chail-li, in the advance across the Imjin River, and in the patrolling of the Chorwon Plain. When the hostilities ended in 1953, Canadians stayed as part of the peacekeeping force.

The conditions in Korea were often difficult, with harsh weather, rough terrain, and an elusive and skillful enemy. In their own camp, they had to deal with casualties, illness and limited medical facilities. The winter of 1951 was especially severe. They were living twenty-four hours a day in trenches, which provided some protection but little comfort. As one soldier recalled, the weather aggravated what was already a demoralizing experience:

Rain was running down my neck, my hands were numb, and I never seemed to be dry. Kneeling  in the snow, or advancing in the rain, my knees and the front of my legs became wet. Then the dampness soaked right through and the skin underneath became tender and raw.9

Altogether, 26,791 Canadians served in the Korean War and approximately 7,000 continued to serve between the cease-fire and the end of 1955 when Canadian soldiers were repatriated home. There were 1,558 casualties, 516 fatal. While Canada's contribution formed only a small part of the total United Nations effort, on a per-capita basis, it was larger than most of the other nations in the UN force.

"It (Canada's participation in Korea) also marked a new stage in Canada's development as a nation. Canadian action in Korea was followed by other peacekeeping operations which have seen Canadian troops deployed around the world in new efforts to promote international freedom and maintain world peace."10

From all of these records of wars, the observations of the individuals who took part stand out as reminders of the true nature of conflict. Through knowledge of the realities, we may work more diligently to prevent them from happening again.

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