Australian-Canadian parallel experiences during WWI

7 August 2014

When war broke out in August 1914, the sentiment in Canada and Australia was remarkably similar. Canada’s French-Canadian opposition leader, Wilfrid Laurier, captured the zeitgeist declaring that Canada’s answer to a call from Britain was ‘Ready, aye, ready’. Even French Canadian Henri Bourassa, who had opposed the Anglo-Boer War, favoured support for Britain in 1914.

In Australia, even the then opposition leader (and later Prime Minister) Andrew Fisher similarly made much of the fact that Australian resources were committed ‘to the last man and the last shilling’. In 1914, Canadians and Australians viewed their place in the world quite differently from the way they would do so by war’s end. Although legally distinct entities, government authorities in both Canada and Australia understood that their forces would become part of the Imperial army since British Dominions were automatically committed once Britain declared war on Germany.

Yet the ties and parallels between Canada and Australia were numerous. The Australian 1st Division, for instance, was initially commanded by Scottish-born and Canadian-educated Major-General Sir William Throsby Bridges. When the Canadian Corps was raised in 1915 by the grouping together of the Canadian divisions, it followed the precedent set by the Australians and New Zealanders with the ‘Anzac’ Corps. Australian and Canadian troops subsequently fought alongside each other on the ‘Western Front’ with a sense of being part of the Empire, even if rarely with a sense of close friendship.

Canadians and Australians took turns slugging it out on the slopes of Passchendaele in late 1917 and played a key role together in launching the final allied offensives of 1918 east of Amiens. There the two corps consisting of four Canadian and five Australian divisions delivered on August 8, 1918, what the German General Erich Ludendorff later described as ‘the black day of the German Army in the history of this war’. In total, over the period from 8 to 15 August, thirteen infantry and three cavalry divisions had destroyed or drawn into battle twenty-five German divisions. As one British historian, Gregory Blaxland, observed, ‘it was the sort of scene of which generals had been dreaming ever since 1914.’ Canadian historian, Desmond Morton, reflecting a national introspection typical in Australian military historians as much as those in Canada, asserted that for 47 days, the Canadians formed the spearhead of the British Army. In fact, for the crucial battle of Amiens, the spearhead had two sides–one Canadian and one Australian. The Canadian and Australian Corps together were ending the war playing a leading role in defeating the German Army.

Throughout the war, Australian and Canadian troops had fought alongside each other with a sense of being part of the Empire, but with a growing sense of distinctive national identities that was reinforced by British insensitivity to the Dominions’ desire for recognition and respect. By war’s end both Canada and Australia suffered approximately 60,000 soldiers killed. This proportionately equated to the 600,000 soldiers of both sides that perished during the American Civil War. By contrast, the United States suffered 53,000 soldiers killed in World War I.  However, even these figures pale in comparison with the 1,397,000 French combat deaths during the war. Still, almost one in one hundred Canadians were killed by enemy action, while Australian and New Zealand losses were proportionately higher.

A heightened sense of national identity was emerging in both Canada and Australia—borne out of an emerging maturity, self-awareness and reluctance ever again to let a great power dictate policies and strategies on their behalf. Many still liked to think that they were British as well, but most men in the Dominion forces outgrew the anonymity of imperial deference to Britain. At the Imperial War Cabinet in July 1918 (which the Canadian and Australian governments had called for), Prime Ministers Hughes and Borden resisted pressures to remain subservient to Britain, claiming that the Dominions were nations of equal status with Britain and that this relationship must be recognised, in Britain and on the world stage. Billy Hughes, went to Versailles in 1919 to represent Australia, he did so as ‘the little Digger’ who could, like his Canadian counterpart, declare right of place with the claim: ‘I represent 60,000 dead’. Performance in battle had fostered increased competence and the growth of military autonomy that was matched by more self-assured national identities and hatching of an independence status within the British Empire. By their actions, Canada and Australia had gained equal and unprecedented leverage at that important juncture on the world stage. British statesmen really had very little choice, observing ‘If these rising communities beyond the seas, which had sent formidable fighters by hundreds of thousands to reinforce the British armies, chose to demand the appurtenances of sovereignty, they would have to have them; there was no real possibility of resisting.’

The euphoria of victory was soon replaced by the growing anxiety and social disruption with wartime orders for industry abruptly cancelled, and thousands suddenly unemployed. These problems were exacerbated by the return of tens of thousands of troops from the war and a devastating influenza virus which killed many veterans before they could return home. While there had been no constitutional changes during the war, there had been a significant attitudinal shift away from the genuine sentiment of Imperial loyalty in 1914 that presaged the granting of de jure independence for the self-governing Dominions under the Statute of Westminster in 1931.


Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, School of International Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

He is the author of Strategic Cousins: Canadian and Australian Expeditionary forces and the British and American Empires (MQUP, Montreal, 2006).