History and Heritage
The information on this page serves as an overview of the origins of today’s Canadian Army and provides a launching pad to further explore its history.
“The history of the Army in Canada is as long as the history of the country itself, and forms a larger part of it than many Canadians realize. The Canadian soldier of today is the heir of a very old and a very proud tradition, and a tradition peculiarly his own. The Canadian Army shares many historical experiences with other forces - particularly the British Army - but some of those that helped to shape it are uniquely Canadian and are shared with nobody.”
From the Development of the Canadian Army - The First Two Centuries: The Old Militia by Col C.P. STACEY, O.C., O.B.E., C.D.
This forms the begenning of the first chapter of the classic work: Introduction to the Study of Military History for Canadian Students (Sixth Edition, 4th Revision) (PDF)
This is an excellent source for Canada’s pre-confederation military history as well as covering events to the end of the Second World War.
The Early Years (1600s-1800s)
The Canadian Army draws on a heritage of colonial militias dating back to the earliest European settlements in North America. For several generations prior to Confederation in 1867, Canada was garrisoned by British and French military units. European powers proved reluctant to fund a large standing army in Canada so, as settlers moved across Lower Canada, Upper Canada and the Prairies, small community-based Militia companies were established for local protection. These were comprised of local men as well as veterans of previous wars who were granted land in Canada.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 between the British and the Americans pre-dates the creation of the Canadian Army. At the time, Canada was defended by contingents of the British Army, the Royal Navy and companies of local volunteer Militia. From 1841 to 1871, Militia units effectively repelled raids by American-based Fenians in present-day New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. The Militia Act of 1855 began the process of creating infantry units by merging community-based companies into regional battalion-sized units. Larger garrisons fostered artillery units and some communities opted to form cavalry regiments.
The Canadian Army’s true beginnings came after Confederation. In 1871, the last British imperial units withdrew from Canada and the country effectively became responsible its own defence. In 1876, the Royal Military College of Canada was established in Kingston to professionalize the officer corps. Seven years later, Canada raised permanent infantry and cavalry units, mainly to train the part-time Militia and to act as an internal security force.
The Northwest Campaign (1884-1885)
In March 1885, Métis and Native grievances led to insurrection in the Northwest led by Louis Riel.
In the 15 years following the creation of Manitoba, most of the Métis people moved into the Northwest, settling in present-day Saskatchewan. Ottawa had denied the mainly French-speaking Métis land tenure and political rights, while the Cree and Assiniboine peoples suffered as a result of unfulfilled treaty obligations. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, who in 1884 returned from exile in the United States, the Métis and some of their Native allies took up arms.
To learn more, visit the Canadian War Museum's page
South African War (1899-1902)
Two South African republics had originally been settled by the Dutch, but fell under British control in the early 1800s. The original Dutch settlers – known as the Boers – resisted British rule, and tensions escalated as gold and diamond deposits were discovered. Responding to the British plea for support, Canada deployed a contingent of 1,000 volunteer soldiers. This would be the first time that Canadians were sent to an overseas conflict. As the war progressed, the demand for soldiers rose, resulting in the creation of several new Canadian Army units.
In total, more than 7,000 Canadians volunteered during the South African War. Two hundred and eighty Canadians died and more than 250 were wounded. Canada learned valuable lessons in South Africa, and adapted Militia training and discipline standards accordingly. In addition, engineers, signals, service support and ordnance functions were established, laying the foundation for the Canadian Army’s modern framework.
First World War (1914-1918)
When Britain and France declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was bound to support Britain because it was not yet fully independent. The First World War marked a watershed for the Canadian Army, which created a total of four frontline divisions within the Canadian Expeditionary Force. These included infantry, artillery, mounted and auxiliary units, in which nearly 620,000 men and women served, from a country of only 7.5 million people. For the first two years of the war, Canada relied on a voluntary system of military recruitment, but adopted a policy of conscription in 1917.
Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves during such battles as Ypres, Artois, the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele earning a reputation as formidable and effective soldiers. They were assigned increasingly important tasks within the Allied war effort and earned the moniker “storm troopers” among German forces. An important victory during the Arras campaign was the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 1917), where all four Canadian divisions operated together for the first time and seized heavily fortified German defences – a feat that other allies had previously attempted in vain. The Canadian Corps also spearheaded the Allied effort during the Hundred Days’ Offensive leading up to the Armistice in 1918.
More than 60,000 Canadians died during the First World War and another 172,000 were wounded. The Canadian Army emerged from the conflict as a well-regarded fighting force. In recognition of its sacrifices and of its support to Britain, Canada was granted independence over its foreign policy and sat as a distinct member of the League of Nations.
- Canadian military scientists also distinguished themselves with the invention of the gas mask. It protected our soldiers from the first mass use of poison gas by an enemy in the First World War Battle of Ypres.
- In 1917, the brave men of No. 2 Construction Battalion left Halifax to deploy overseas in support of Canada’s war efforts. Over 600 soldiers from across Canada and as far as the West Indies showed unrelenting courage and perseverance to enlist and serve their country in the face of racism, prejudice and hate. Despite their sacrifices, when they returned home, they were not entitled to any recognition. An entire community was deprived of its heroes.
Second World War (1939-1945)
After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Canada followed France, Britain and other Commonwealth nations in declaring war, but this time it did so independently. Canada would also later declare war against Italy and Japan. More than 1 million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served on land, at sea and in the air during the Second World War.
Canadian soldiers first engaged in battle in December 1941, while defending the British colony of Hong Kong against the Japanese. The Canadians at Hong Kong had virtually no chance of victory, but refused to surrender until they were overrun by the enemy. Many survivors endured torture, starvation and forced labour at the hands of by their Japanese captors.
In the European theatre, the Canadian Army played significant roles in Italy, Normandy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Canadian soldiers first set foot on the European mainland on August 19, 1942, as part of a raid on the French port of Dieppe. The purpose of the assault was to test equipment and tactics in preparation for the main Allied invasion, which eventually followed in 1944. Although valuable lessons were learned thanks to the raid, 916 Canadians lost their lives, 3,367 were casualties and 1,946 were taken as prisoners of war. In July 1943, Canadian regiments took part in the Allied amphibious landing in Sicily, an initiative designed to open a second front against Germany and draw forces away from Russia. Canadians fought up the boot of Italy, breeching many layers of German defences at a cost of 5,900 killed and 25,000 casualties. On June 6, 1944, Canadian soldiers stormed Juno Beach as part of the Normandy invasion, penetrating deeper inland than any other Allied formation that day. The Canadians eventually broke a stalemate at Caen and fought on the Allies’ northern flank in the push through Belgium and Holland and into Germany. They also accepted the surrender of the German forces in The Netherlands, freeing many seaport towns and liberating the population. The Canadian Army finished the war fighting into Germany and it contributed soldiers to the army of occupation.
More than 45,000 Canadians died and another 55,000 were wounded during the Second World War. Of those who died, 24,500 served in the Canadian Army. The creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1941 was a milestone in the history of women’s participation in the Canadian military, helping to set the stage for the integration of women into Canada’s post-war armed forces.
Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War:
Cold War, Korean War and Peace Support Operations (1947-1990s)
Soon after the Second World War concluded, tensions arose between democratic and communist countries, leading to the Cold War (1947-1991). During this period, Canadian foreign policy emphasized international cooperation and multilateral institutions, and Canada was a founding member of both the United Nations (UN) in 1945 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. As part of its commitment to support NATO defences, Canada mobilized companies from several Militia units and created additional Regular Force regiments to send soldiers back to Europe. Strong relationships were forged with the German people in regions such as Soest in the Rhineland, as Canadian Army soldiers and their families were stationed at CFB Lahr in West Germany until the early 1990s.
Following the invasion of South Korea by communist forces in 1950, the UN authorized an international military intervention. A total of 16 nations contributed soldiers to the mission and more than 26,000 Canadians served in Korea. Some of the heaviest fighting Canadian soldiers experienced took place during the Battle of Kapyong in April 1951, when Canadians helped repell a Chinese assault that could have resulted in the collapse of the UN’s central front. A total of 516 Canadians died during the Korean War (1950-1953).
Official History of the Canadian Army in Korea: Strange Battleground.
The Canadian Army also played a central role in UN peacekeeping operations during the latter half of the 20th century. In fact, Canadians deployed as part of the first UN-sanctioned peacekeeping mission during the Suez Crisis in 1956. Since then, more than 125,000 Canadians have served in peace support operations in over 35 countries as part of UN, NATO and other multinational task forces. More than 120 Canadians have died on peacekeeping missions. Contingents of Canadian Army personnel continue to serve on peace support operations today.
First Gulf War (1990-1991)
After Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the UN authorized the use of military force to liberate Kuwait in what became known as the First Gulf War. The United States and Saudi Arabia led a coalition of 35 countries, and over 4,000 Canadian sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen participated in the intervention. As this was primarily a naval and air force operation, the main contribution of the Canadian Army was a field hospital. After the war, however, Canadian soldiers were sent to Saudi Arabia to conduct peacekeeping roles with the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission. A field engineer unit and other personnel were sent to a buffer zone between the two countries, providing construction and mine-clearing services.
The Balkans (1992-2010)
From 1992 to 2010, some 40,000 Canadian military personnel served in the Balkan region, under difficult conditions, on peace support missions designed to protect the lives of civilians and allow for stabilization and reconstruction initiatives. This contribution did not come without a price; 23 CF members lost their lives while deployed in the Balkans.
UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (1993-1996)
The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) mission was established 05 October 1993 to monitor the cease-fire, security situation and process of repatriation of refugees; to assist with mine clearance, the coordination of humanitarian assistance and to contribute to the security of the city of Kigali. UNAMIR also contributed to the security of personnel of the International Tribunal for Rwanda and of human rights offices in Rwanda and assisted in the establishment and training of a now integrated national police force. The UNAMIR mandate came to end in March 1996. Information about the UNAMIR medal is available here.
Following the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the UN and NATO supported military operations in Afghanistan, which had hosted the al-Qaeda terrorist organization responsible for the atrocities. The Afghan campaign was the longest war in Canadian military history and some 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in this theatre of operation.
Canadian special forces were the first to deploy to Afghanistan in December 2001, supporting a multi-national task force. Regular Force Army personnel arrived in January 2002 and were initially based in Kandahar, fighting to topple the Taliban regime and eliminate terrorist operations. With the eventual fall of the Taliban, attention turned to establishing a new Afghan government and, in 2003, Canadian soldiers moved to the capital Kabul to conduct security, development and training activities.
In 2005, the Canadians shifted their focus from Kabul to Kandahar, to commence more offensive operations to counter the resurgence of Taliban activity. Soldiers regularly engaged enemy combatants while also supporting regional reconstruction efforts. Canadian tanks, artillery and infantry soldiers took part in many ground operations in Kandahar, the largest of which was Operation MEDUSA. This September 2006 offensive was designed to push out the Taliban from the Panjwayi district and included over 1,000 Canadians – making it Canada’s largest combat operation in more than 50 years. Canadian soldiers continued their combat role in Afghanistan until 2011.
From 2011 to 2014, Canada trained Afghanistan’s army and police force, mainly in Kabul. A total of 158 Canadians died in Afghanistan and approximately 2,000 others were wounded.
Canadians took part in a National Day of Honour on May 9, 2014 to mark the end of our country’s military mission in Afghanistan.
The Canadian Army of Today
The Canadian Army is the land component of the Canadian Armed Forces and the largest of its three elements, the other two being the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Through programs at bases, armouries and training centres across the country, the Canadian Army produces soldiers who are well-equipped, well-led and ready for operations at home and abroad. Canadian soldiers train and are ready for a wide range of scenarios. For the purposes of domestic or expeditionary missions, Canadian Army units are placed under the command of Canadian Joint Operations Command.
To learn more, visit our The Canadian Army of Today page.
Canadian Joint Operations Command: Past Operations
Directorate of History and Heritage: Operations Database
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