By: Geoffrey Johnson, Kingston Whig-Standard
In our fast-paced, technologically driven age, we have a world of knowledge available to us in our smartphones, tablets and computers. And yet many of us know little of Canada's proud military history and the sacrifices made by those Canadians in uniform who defended freedom and democracy.
Remembrance Day is a time to remember and honour those sacrifices and to learn about the military campaigns that helped to shape Canada and sometimes even the world. Of course, it is impossible to do justice to the accomplishments of the Canadian military in a few paragraphs, but we can at least acknowledge some of the pivotal moments in our history.
First World War and the Battle at Vimy Ridge
"There is no question that Vimy Ridge was an unmitigated Canadian military success," University of Calgary military historian Prof. David J. Bercuson said in a telephone interview. "It was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together to achieve an objective.
"It wasn't a war-winning battle," continued Bercuson, who leads the university's Centre for Military, Security and Strategic Studies. "We didn't change the course of the First World War by winning the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I think we more proved that we were becoming a capable fighting force as a result of the Battle of Vimy Ridge."
According to the Veterans Affairs Canada's website, 100,000 Canadians fought in the battle. There were approximately 11,000 Canadian casualties, of which nearly 3,600 were fatal.
"By the end of the First World War, Canada, a country of less than eight million citizens, would have more than 650,000 servicemen," notes the website. "The conflict took a huge toll with more than 66,000 Canadians losing their lives and 170,000 being wounded."
Canada was recognized by the United Kingdom "as being a major contributor" to the U.K.'s forces in Europe and was permitted to sign the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the First World War, stated Bercuson. In addition, Canada's contribution to the war effort spurred London to enter into talks with Ottawa, which "eventually led to complete independent Dominion status for Canada in 1931."
Second World War and the Italian campaign
"Our importance to the British and the Americans in helping to win that war, led to their considering us a considerably important nation in the post-war period," Bercuson said of Canada's role in the Second World War. For example, Canada was included in the "very earliest discussions" that gave rise to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.
Canadians distinguished themselves during the Italian operations, their first sustained ground campaign of the Second World War. In the summer of 1943, Canadian forces took part in the Allied capture of Sicily, before moving on to the Italian mainland.
"The Italian campaign was a very difficult campaign," said Bercuson, noting that the terrain was hilly and mountainous with many river valleys. Given the easily defendable terrain, the Germans "fought a defensive battle from the very beginning." In December 1943, after intense house-to-house combat, the Canadians captured Ortona, a key Adriatic port.
The Germans blew up bridges and tunnels and culverts, and dug in around those positions. And that made taking those positions "very difficult," Bercuson said. "So every time the Canadians come to another river, they've got to fan out; they've got to bridge the river; they've got to cross under enemy fire." As a result, Canadian forces "took a lot of casualties in the Italian campaign." More than 26,000 Canadians were wounded and nearly 6,000 died.
Historians argue about the importance of the Italian campaign. One thing is for certain, said Bercuson, the Canadian offensive "drew off a number of German divisions that would've fought on the eastern front or faced us in France when we invaded in June of 1944."
Liberation of the Netherlands
Canada played a big role in the liberation of the Netherlands, sacrificing more than 7,600 Canadian soldiers in combat, including the Battle of the Scheldt and house-to-house fighting. "I think the Scheldt estuary battle was probably the most important Canadian victory of the war," Bercuson declared.
"The Battle of the Scheldt was a military operation in northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands that took place during the Second World War," states a Veterans Affairs Canada report, which is part of its online Remembrance Series. "On September 12, 1944, the First Canadian Army was given the task of clearing the Scheldt of German occupiers."
To put the importance of the Battle of the Scheldt in proper context, Bercuson compared it to the Vimy Ridge victory of the First World War. "It was far more important in comparison to Vimy Ridge, had a much greater impact on the outcome of the war in the west [of Europe] than did Vimy Ridge," he asserted.
The Scheldt estuary (tidal river) was the route to the strategic sea port of Antwerp, which was the second-largest port in northwest Europe at that time, explained Bercuson. After the D-Day Invasion in June 1944, the Allies advanced through Nazi-occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands. "Access to this port was essential to supply the Allied armies as they continued their push towards Germany to defeat Adolf Hitler's forces and free Western Europe from four years of Nazi occupation which had begun in April 1940," notes the Veterans Affairs Canada document.
The British captured the port of Antwerp in September 1944. However, said Bercuson, the Germans controlled areas along the Scheldt, giving them plenty of room to wage a defensive campaign.
"The Germans had mined the river, and they had fortified both sides of the river," Bercuson continued. "So it was impossible for the Allies to get supplies up the river into the port of Antwerp. The job was given to the Canadian Army to liberate the approaches to the port of Antwerp. And it was a long and very costly battle."
The fighting along the Scheldt finally concluded near the end of November 1944, just two weeks before the Germans launched their largest counteroffensive of the Second World War in Belgium, called the Battle of the Bulge. Because the port of Antwerp had been liberated and the Scheldt had been secured, "the Allies are able to pour reinforcements of troops and materiel into Antwerp to help beat the Germans back," Bercuson said.
Battle of the Atlantic
The Battle of the Atlantic was "one of the most important battles in the war," stated Bercuson of the Allies' struggle to keep shipping lanes open between Great Britain and North America. Were it not for the supplies and fuel shipped from Canada and the United States, the United Kingdom would likely not have survived.
In addition, Bercuson said, the Allies needed to ship millions of soldiers and thousands of tanks and trucks and aircraft across the Atlantic in preparation for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. "If the Germans were able to choke off the sea routes to the United Kingdom, it would have been very, very difficult for the Allies to win the war in the west," Bercuson said.
German U-boats or submarines mercilessly attacked merchant marine ships carrying supplies bound for the U.K., threatening to cut off the Brits lifeline to North America. "The Royal Canadian Navy played a significant role in keeping the sea lanes open by helping to escort convoys and by also helping to destroy U-boats," Bercuson said.
According to Veteran Affairs Canada, more than 1,600 Merchant Navy personnel from Canada and Newfoundland lost their lives in the Battle of the Atlantic. It is also important to remember the sacrifices of the brave men of both the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force. "Most of the 2,000 RCN officers and men who died during the war were killed during the Battle of the Atlantic, as were 752 members of the RCAF," according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Korea and Afghanistan
The Korean Conflict is often ignored by ordinary Canadians. "If the United Nations had not intervened with armed forces, including Canadians, to help South Korea fight off the invasion of North Korea, which occurred in June of 1950, if the North Koreans had conquered the Korean Peninsula, South Korea as we know it today wouldn't exist," Bercuson said.
After decades of development, South Korea has "become pretty well as free a society as anywhere on earth," he continued. "That never would have happened under Communist leadership."
Similarly, Canada tried to bring stability to Afghanistan. "I think people have to remember what our mission was in Kandahar Province," Bercuson said of Canada's role in the Afghan war launched after the jihadist strikes on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001. "Our primary mission was to take over from the United States under the auspices of NATO, to basically allow the Americans to shift more forces to Iraq."
Canada was largely successful in that mission. Bercuson pointed out that Canadian forces kept "most important parts of Kandahar Province free from the Taliban."
However, he acknowledged that we won't know for "a long time" how successful the Canadian and NATO mission has been in Afghanistan. After all, South Korea was a military dictatorship in the decades after the Korean Conflict, but it eventually evolved into a liberal democracy. "We can't really tell what the end result is going to be in Afghanistan at this stage of the game, because the war is still ongoing," Bercuson said.
Canadian contributions to the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean Conflict, and the Afghan campaign "weren't the largest by any means," Bercuson stated. "But I don't think that's important. The important thing is that those wars demanded that allied countries that share a common view of the world stepped up to the aggressor and said: 'You're not going to get away with this.'"
By fighting in those conflicts, said the history professor, Canada demonstrated that it was becoming a "mature and independent" nation. "As a mature and independent nation, as we are today, we have responsibilities that go beyond our own borders."
Does Bercuson have a message for Canadians about Remembrance Day?
"Yeah. Go to a ceremony."
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.
The Kingston Whig-Standard 2016 ©