On August 6, 1914, a grateful Empire sent word requesting that Canada's offer of soldiers be "dispatched as soon as possible." The next day, the Canadian Army Council advised that a "suitable composition" for Canada's overseas expeditionary force would be "one division."
Canada's first contingent comprised four infantry brigades mobilized from militia districts across the country.
On October 14, 1914, a total of 31,200 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived in Britain. Under the command of Lieutenant-General E.A.H. Alderson, Canada's first overseas division brought together infantry, supporting arms and specialist organizations, including artillery batteries of 18-pounder guns, militia engineering field companies, signal, medical and veterinary units, as well as the Army Service Corps tasked with delivering vital food, ammunition and fuel supplies.
On November 8, No. 2 Stationary Hospital became the first Canadian unit to see service in France. A fortnight later, a privately raised Montreal infantry battalion, the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry (PPCLI), arrived on the western front, but as part of the British 80th Brigade. The PPCLI would not return to the Canadian fold for nearly a year. It was to lose 75 percent of its effective fighting strength during a gallant defensive stand during the battles at Ypres, April-May 1915.
The western front, which the Canadians joined as part of the British 1st and later 2nd Armies, consisted of a complex, hand-gouged system of trenches, wooden planking, barbed wire and mud, which snaked from the English Channel to the Swiss border. Between 1915 and 1917, this line changed little more than 16 kilometres in either direction. Offensive victories were calculated in metres.
In February 1915, the 1st Division arrived in France with 610 officers and 17,263 other ranks. The 2nd Division followed in September of the same year under the command of Major-General R.E.W. Turner.
On September 13, 1915, Lieutenant-General Alderson opened the Canadian Corps Headquarters. The new formation comprised the 1st Division (Major-General A.W. Currie), 2nd Division (Major-General R.E.W. Turner) and Corp Troops under the command of Major-General M.S. Mercer. Mercer's Corp Troops included the Canadian Cavalry and the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Brigades, as well as a group of infantry and dismounted cavalry units, which would later form the 7th and 8th Brigades of the future 3rd Division. By the beginning of November 1915, the Canadian Corps comprised 1,354 officers and 36,522 other ranks.
By the end of December 1915, Major-General Mercer, a Canadian by birth, commanded the Corps' 3rd Division. He held this command until his death during the Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 1916. By the end of 1916, all staff appointments in this Division, but for three, were held by Canadians.
In April 1916, the 4th Division, under the command of Major-General David Watson, was created from units already overseas or soon to arrive. Like the 2nd and 3rd Divisions (the 3rd now commanded by Major-General L.J. Lipsett), the 4th Division did not at first have its own artillery. The 4th Divisional Artillery was not formed until June 1917.
A year later, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9-12, 1917, Canadian soldiers in the Corps totalled 97,184 men. For the first time, the Corps' 1st Division (Major-General Arthur Currie), 2nd Division (Major-General Harry E. Burstall), 3rd Division (Major-General Louis. J. Lipsett) and 4th Division (Major-General David Watson), under Commander Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Julian H.G. Byng, attacked as a single formation.
On June 9, 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, a Canadian by birth, and at 41, the "youngest officer to achieve Lieutenant-General's rank in the British armies," assumed command of the Canadian Corps. Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng took over the British 3rd Army.
In the following year, at 6:30 a.m. on November 11, 1918, a message reached the Canadian Corps Headquarters announcing that hostilities would cease five hours later at 11:00 a.m. At the moment of the armistice, Lieutenant-General Currie commanded 110,000 Canadian troops. Historian Jack Granatstein writes: "Arthur Currie was the best soldier Canada ever produced. The Canadian Corps under his command became the finest formation this nation has ever put in the field."
Granatstein, J.L. Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Nicholson, Colonel G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, Ltd., 1989.