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Military history of Canada

Canada's history is one of the most peaceful of any nation, but war and the military has still played an important role in the nations history, from the early conflicts between the First Nations, the battles between the French and the English through to the First and Second World Wars, and finally to international peacekeeping.

The First Nations

In the beginning, there was indigenous peoples’ warfare. Although initially tending to be formal and ritualistic in nature, entailing relatively few casualties, over time it tended to become bloodier and more decisive, especially as these peoples increasingly became caught up in the economic and military rivalries of the European settlers. Native tribes were to become important allies of both the French and English in the struggle for North American hegemony during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

First meetings with Europeans

The first fighting between Europeans and native peoples occurred around 1006 when parties of Norseman attempted to establish settlements on the coast of Newfoundland. The native Inuit (or skraelings as they were known to the Norse) responded so ferociously that the newcomers withdrew, and evidently gave up intentions to settle.

European Colonization

The French under Samuel de Champlain first founded a settlement at Quebec in 1608, while further to the south the English began their first settlement at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. From these original footholds much larger colonies were to emerge. But while the French colony on the St. Lawrence River, based primarily on the fur trade, and enjoying only lukewarm support from the French monarchy, grew only slowly amidst its tough and unyielding geographic and climatic circumstances, the more favourably situated English colonies to the south developed more diversified economies and flourished. The result was that by the 1750s, when the their ongoing economic, political, and military rivalries came to a head in the climactic struggle of the Seven Years War, the population of the thirteen English colonies was 1,500,000, where as that of their rivals to the north was only about 60,000.

For nearly all of the first century of its existence, the chief threat to the inhabitants of New France] came not from the English to the south, but rather from a mighty confederacy of Native tribes, the Iroquois, and particularly form its eastern-most component, the Mohawks. These French and Iroquois Wars continued intermitently saw great brutality on both sides.

In response to the Iroquois threat the French govenrment dispatched the Carignan-Salières Regiment, the first group of uniformed professional soldiers to set foot on what is today Canadian soil. After peace was obtained they were sent back to France, but were replaced by the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, which became a permenanent fixture in New France, and were thus Canada's first professional standing army.

French English Conflict

During the seventeenth century there were only minor skirmishes between the two great powers. In 1629 a group of English marauders actually captured and burnt the stronghold at Québec and carried off Champlain and its other leaders into captivity in England. These leaders returned in 1632, however, rebuilt their capital and resumed their endeavours. The next most serious threat to Québec in the seventeenth century came in 1690 when, alarmed by the attacks of the la petite guerre, the new England colonist armed an expedition under Sir William Phips and sent them north to capture the source of the problems, Québec itself. This expedition was poorly organized and had little time to do its work, as it arrive in mid-October with little time left before the St. Lawrence would freeze over. The expedition was responsible for eliciting one of the most famous pronouncements in all of Canadian military history, however. When called upon by Phips to surrender, the aged Governor Frontenac, who was then serving his second term in that position, replied “I will answer … only with the mouths of my cannon and the shots of my muskets.” In truth, though, the only evidence for his having made this response comes from Frontenac’s own self-congratulatory writings, recorded some time after the event. At any rate, after a single abortive landing on the Beauport shore to the east of the city, the American force withdrew down the icy waters of the St. Lawrence at the end of October.

During the eighteenth century matters became much more serious. As British-French struggles came to a head in Europe, local rivalries became absorbed into these much larger struggles waged in Europe between the respective mother countries in Europe. As concerns grew, the French government poured more and more military spending into its North American colonies. Expensive garrisons were maintained at distant fur trading posts, the fortifications of Québec were improved and augmented, and an entirely new fortified town was built on the east coast of Ile Royale, or Cape Breton Island - the fortress of Louisbourg, the so-called "Dunkirk of the North."

Three times during the 18th century the French and English North American Colonies found themselves at war with one another, in local off-shoots of larger European conflicts - the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713), the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-48), and the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Each witnessed attacks by the English colonists on French areas of settlement, while the petite guerre of the Canadiens left a trail of terror and devastation through northern towns and villages of New England.

In 1713 a British force managed to capture Port Royal, the French capital of Acadia in present-day Nova Scotia. And by the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the war in 1713, France was forced to cede control of mainland Nova Scotia to Great Britain, leaving present-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton Island in the hands of the French.

During the War of the Austrian Succession was actually a force of New England militia under one of its officers, William Pepperell, and Commodore Peter Warren of the Royal Navy, succeeded in capturing Louisbourg in 1745. Yet by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that ended the war in 1748, France got Louisbourg back by trading off other of its conquests in the Netherlands and India. The New Englanders were outraged, and as a counterweight to the continuing French strength at Louisbourg, the British founded the military settlement of Halifax in 1749, with a strong naval base in its spacious harbour.

In the meantime the depredations of the petite guerre had continued, and perhaps even more importantly the French had begun to challenge the claims of the New England colonists for supremacy in the Ohio country to the west of the Appalachian mountains, into which increasing numbers of the latter were moving to find cheap homesteading land. By 1755 the English had determined to eliminate what they saw as this northern menace once and for all. Two regiments of the line were sent to New England and another three were raised on the spot. The French responded by sending six of their own regiments of troupes de terre or line infantry to Québec in the same year. In 1756 these came under the command of the newly-arrived general, the 44 year old Marquis de Montcalm. Accompanying him were another two battalions of troupes de terre, bringing the total number of French professional soldiers in the colony up to about 4000. This was the first significant aggregation of trained professional soldiers on what was to be Canadian soil.

Under their new commander, the French at first achieved a number of startling victories over the British, first at Fort William Henry to the south of Lake Champlain where in 1757 over 2400 men, mostly British regulars surrendered to his forces. In the next year an even greater victory followed when the British army, numbering about 15,000 under Major-General James Abercrombie, wasted itself in attacking a French fortification at Carillon (later renamed Fort Ticonderoga by the Americans) at the southern tip of Lake Champlain. The French numbered no more than 3500, and before the British withdrew at the end of the day they had lost about 2000 men, mostly regulars, for a total French loss of about 350.

In the meantime the British war effort had bee galvanized by the appointment of William Pitt as Prime Minister, a man who was determined to win battles, and who also determined that the crux of the British war effort would be in North America. In June 1758 a strong British force of 13,000 regulars under Major-General Geoffrey Amherst, with James Wolfe present as one of his brigadiers, landed and captured, the Fortress of Louisbourg, this for time for good.

An even greater victory occured a year later when at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham a British force under Wolfe defeated the French lead by Montcalm and took Quebec City. At the end of the Seven Years' War the entire area of New France was given to the British.

The American Threat

With the French threat gone, Britain's own eastern seaboard colonies became increasingly restive, as they were now found themselves taxed to pay for a much larger military establishment than previously, with no obvious enemy in place against which it was needed to defend. The result was the American Revolution, and their war of independence from British rule of 1776-1783. American attempts to take Québec and a number of posts in the Maritimes during this conflict, were repelled by superior British military and/or naval power. The American failure to achieve success in these areas and their peoples' own continuing allegiance to Britain resulted in the splitting in two of Britain's former North American empire, with the independent republic of the United States emerging to the south and a series of loyal British colonies remaining in place in along its northern border, collectively referred to as British North America.

War of 1812

After the cessation of hostilities much animosity and suspicion continued between the United States and Great Britain, focused especially on the latter’s retention of its North American colonies. This erupted into a shooting war in 1812 when the Americans, seeing Britain involved in a major war in Europe against Napoleon, and irked by what they perceived to be British harassment of their ships on the high seas, declared war on the British. The time seemed ripe to eliminate their former imperial rulers from North America altogether, and with this aim in mind they launched an invasion across the northern border in July. With seven and a half million Americans facing an opposing population of just half a million, this was truly a war of survival for the hard-pressed British North Americans.

The battle raged back and forth along the border of Upper Canada, on land as well as on the waters of the Great Lakes. The British succeeded in capturing Detroit in July, and in October a major American thrust across the Niagara frontier was defeated at the battle of Queenston Heights by a combined force of British regular troops and colonial militia under Sir Isaac Brock, who lost his life in the battle. The year 1813 was the year of American victories, with their retaking Detroit and enjoying a string of successes along the western end of Lake Erie, culminating in the battle of Moraviantown October 5th. Further east they succeeded in capturing and burning York (later Toronto) and taking Fort George at Niagara, which they held until the end of the year. In the same year, however, two American thrusts against Montreal were defeated - one by a force of British regulars at Chrysler's Farm to the west of the city on the St. Lawrence; the other by a force of mostly French Canadian militia under the command of a native son, Charles de Salaberry at Chateauguay to the south of the city on the River Richelieu.

Valued allies of the British throughout the campaign were the Iroquois tribes of the Upper Canada, as well as Caughnawagas from near Montreal, and western tribes under the great Ojibwa chief, Tecumseh. These First Peoples played an important part in many battles, and often had psychologically debilitating impact upon the enemy.

In December of 1814, the two exhausted opponents signed a peace treaty. The borders that had existed before the war remained as they were, and the American scheme to fulfill their manifest destiny to dominate the continent through the seizure of the Canadas had been thwarted. Sir Isaac Brock became a martyred Canadian hero, and although the war had been won largely by British regular troops and by her navy, the conviction took root in Canada that it had been accomplished by its own militia. The resulting so-called "militia myth", that a citizen militia was preferable to disciplined regular troops, was to weigh heavily in Canadian defence councils into the next century.

British Withdrawal

The fear that the Americans might reactivate their wish to conquer Canada remained a serious concern for at least the next half century, and was the chief reason for the British maintaining a large garrison here. The years of the 1820s-40s witnessed fairly extensive fortifications building in the colonies, as the British attempted to create strongpoints around which defending forces might centre in the event of an American invasion - such as the Citadels at Québec and Halifax, and Fort Henry in Kingston. The Rideau Canal was also built during these years, to allow ships in wartime to travel a more northerly route from Montreal to Kingston. The customary peacetime route was the St. Lawrence River, which, of course, constituted the northern edge of the American border, and hence was vulnerable to enemy attack and interference.

By the 1850s fears of an American invasion had begun to diminish, and the British felt able to commence reductions in the size of their garrison. A free trade or Reciprocity Treaty negotiated between the Canada and the United States in 1854 further helped to alleviate concerns. Tensions picked up again during the American Civil War of 1861-65, however, reaching a peak probably with the Trent crisis of late 1861 early 1862. This was touched off when the captain of a U.S gun boat stopped the Royal Mail steamer Trent and removed a couple of Confederate officials who were bound for Great Britain. The British government was outraged and, with war seeming imminent, took steps to reinforce its British North American garrison, which in the end expanded from a strength of 4000 before the crisis to 18000 afterwards. In the end cooler heads prevailed, war was averted, and the sense of crisis subsided. This incident in fact proved to be the final episode of Anglo-American military confrontation in North America, as thereafter Britain increasingly became persuaded of the benefits of amicable relations with its onetime colony.

In the meantime, Britain was becoming concerned with military threats closer to home, and disgruntled at paying the costs of maintaining a garrison in colonies what were becoming increasingly self-assertive, and that after 1867 were united in the self-governing Dominion of Canada. Consequently in 1871 the troops of the British garrison were withdrawn from Canada completely, save for Halifax, where a British garrison remained in place until 1905 for purely British imperial-strategic reasons.

Fenian Raids

Ironically, it was during this period of re-examination of the British military presence in Canada and its ultimate withdrawal that the last American invasion of Canada in fact occurred. It was not carried out by any official U.S government force, however, but by an organization called the Fenians. This was a group of Irish-Americans who believed that by seizing Canada and holding her hostage concessions could be wrung from the British occupiers of the Irish homeland. They were not an inconsiderable threat, as most of their number were veterans of the Union Army of the American Civil War and they were well armed. They made two attacks in 1866, one on Campobello Island in New Brunswick and the other in the Niagara region. Both attacks fizzled, that in New Brunswick due to the presence of a strong force of British regulars, and that in Niagara at least partially due to the Fenians' own ineptitude in not following up a victory over the Canadian militia at Ridgeway. (Two later attacks along the Québec-Vermont frontier in 1870 proved similarly fruitless.)

Despite these failures, however, the raids had some impact on Canadian politicians then locked in negotiations leading up to the Confederation agreement of 1867. The raids reinforced amongst them a sense of military vulnerability, especially in light of the fact that the British were known to be seriously considering the downsizing of their garrison, if not its outright withdrawal. Thus the Confederation Debates were to some degree held in an atmosphere of military crisis, and the greater military security that would be brought about through the pooling of colonial resources was one of the factors that weighed heavily in Confederation’s favour.

The Canadian Militia

With Confederation in place and the British garrison gone, Canada assumed full responsibility for its own defence (with, of course, Britain being prepared to send aid in the event of a serious emergency and the Royal Navy continuing to provide oceanic defence). Small professional batteries of artillery were maintained at Québec and Kingston, and in 1883 a third battery of artillery was added and small professional schools of cavalry and infantry created. These were intended to provide professional backbone to the much larger force of militia which was to form the bulk of the Canadian defence effort. In theory every able-bodied man between the ages of eighteen and sixty was liable to be conscripted for service; but in practice the defence of the country rested on the services of volunteers who made up the so-called Active Militia, which in 1869 numbered 31,170 officers and men.

During the remaining decades of the century this force spent its time consolidating itself, attending summer camps, parading about in colourful uniforms, and occasionally being mustered to serve in times of strikes or other civil emergencies. Although they did mange to undertake a large expedition against the rebel forces of Louis Riel in the Canadian Northwest in 1885 (the largest military effort undertaken on Canadian soil since the end of the War of 1812), there was little in these men's activities and responsibilities in this period to foretell the awesome efforts that were to be required of their heirs and successors in the violent century that was to come.

The Creation of a Canadian Navy

Canada in WWI

Canada in WWII

Canada in Korea

After the Second World War Canada rapidly demobilized. When war broke out in Asia, Canada took a number of months to bring its force up to strength. Canada thus missed most of the early back and forth only arriving in 1951 once the war of attrition had begun. Once there Canadian troops played a successful role in the fighting.

Canada sent over 25,000 troops to fight in the Korean War. There were 1,558 casualties including 516 dead in this war. It has often been described as "The Forgotten War" due to the fact that it's history and Canada's part in the war is not well-known by most Canadians compared to the world wars. Canada is a signatory to the original 1953 armistice, which means that Canada would be forced to defend South Korea in the future if need be.


Canada in the Gulf War and Afghanistan

The 1991 Gulf War was a conflict between Iraq and a coalition force of 34 nations led by the United States. The result was a decisive victory of the coalition forces.

Canada was one of the first nations to agree to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and it quickly agreed to join the U.S. lead coalition. In August Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent the destroyers HMCS Terra Nova and HMCS Athabaskan to enforce the trade blockade against Iraq. The supply ship HMCS Protecteur was also sent to aid the gathering coalition forces. When the UN authorized full use of force in the operation Canada sent a CF18 sqaudron with support personel. Canada also sent a field hospital to deal with casualties from the ground war.

When the air war began Canada's planes were integrated into the coalition force and provided air cover and attacked ground targets. This was the first time since the Korean War that Canadian forces had participated in combat operations.

Canada suffered no casualties during the conflict but since its end many veterans have complained of suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.

Canada also joined a U.S. coalition in the 2001 Attack on Afghanistan. The war was a response to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks and its goal was to defeat the Taliban government and rout Al-Queda. Canada sent special forces and groud troops to the conflict. Four Canadian were killed in a friendly fire incident when an American plane bombed a group of Canadian soldiers. After the war Canada formed an important part of the NATO lead peacekkeping force.

In 2003 Jean Chretien's Liberals refused to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq angering their American allies. This move was a popular one at home, however.

See also