Canadian Expeditionary Force

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Canadian Expeditionary Force
Canadian Red Ensign 1868-1921.svg
Active August 1914–1920
Country  Canada
Type Army
Size 619,646 enlistments during existence

The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was the designation of the field force created by Canada for service overseas in the First World War. The force fielded several combat formations in France and Flanders, the largest of which was the Canadian Corps, consisting of four divisions. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Independent Force, which were independent of the Canadian Corps, also fought on the Western Front. The CEF also had a large reserve and training organization in England, and a recruiting organization in Canada. In the later stages of the European war, particularly after their success at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, the Canadian Corps was regarded by friend and foe alike as the most effective Allied military formation on the Western Front.[1] The Germans went so far as to call them "storm troopers"[2] for their great combat efficiency. In August 1918, the CEF organized the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, which reinforced the anti-Bolshevik garrison in Vladivostok during the winter of 1918–19.


26th Battalion of the Second Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915

The Canadian Expeditionary Force was mostly volunteers, as conscription was not enforced until the end of the war when call-ups began in January 1918 (see Conscription Crisis of 1917). Ultimately, only 24,132 conscripts arrived in France before the end of the war.

Canada was the senior Dominion in the British Empire and automatically at war with Germany upon the British declaration. According to Canadian historian Dr. Serge Durflinger at the Canadian War Museum, popular support for the war was found mainly in English Canada. Of the first contingent formed at Valcartier, Quebec in 1914, 'fully two-thirds were men born in the United Kingdom'. By the end of the war in 1918, at least 'fifty per cent of the CEF consisted of British-born men'. Recruiting was difficult among the French-Canadian population, although one battalion, the 22nd, who came to be known as the 'Van Doos', was French-speaking ("Van Doos" is an approximate pronunciation of the French for "22nd" - vingt-deuxième)

Private Joseph Pappin, 130 Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.[3]

To a lesser extent, several other cultural groups within the Dominion enlisted and made a significant contribution to the Force including aboriginals of the First Nations, Black Canadians as well as Black Americans.[4] Many British nationals from the United Kingdom or other territories who were resident in Canada also joined the CEF. A sizeable percentage of Bermuda's volunteers who served in the war joined the CEF, either because they were resident in Canada already, or because Canada was the easiest other part of the Empire and Commonwealth to reach from Bermuda (1,239 kilometres (770 miles) from Nova Scotia). As several CEF battalions were posted to the Bermuda Garrison before proceeding to France, islanders were also able to enlist there. Although the Bermuda Militia Artillery and Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps both sent contingents to the Western Front, the first would not arrive there 'til June of 1915. By then, many Bermudians had already been serving on the Western Front in the CEF for months. Bermudians in the CEF enlisted under the same terms as Canadians, and all male British Nationals resident in Canada became liable for conscription under the Military Service Act, 1917.

The CEF eventually numbered 260 numbered infantry battalions, two named infantry battalions (The Royal Canadian Regiment and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry), 13 mounted rifle regiments, 13 railway troop battalions, 5 pioneer battalions, as well as numerous ancillary units including field and heavy artillery batteries, ambulance, medical, dental, forestry, labour, tunnelling, cyclist, and service units.

A distinct entity within the Canadian Expeditionary Force was the Canadian Machine Gun Corps. It consisted of several motor machine gun battalions, the Eatons, Yukon, and Borden Motor Machine Gun Batteries, and nineteen machine gun companies. During the summer of 1918, these units were consolidated into four machine gun battalions, one being attached to each of the four divisions in the Canadian Corps.

The Canadian Corps with its four infantry divisions comprised the main fighting force of the CEF. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade also served in France. Support units of the CEF included the Canadian Railway Troops, which served on the Western Front and provided a bridging unit for the Middle East; the Canadian Forestry Corps, which felled timber in Britain and France, and special units which operated around the Caspian Sea, in northern Russia and eastern Siberia.[5]

Major battles[edit]

The Battle of Ypres, 1915[edit]

Enlistment form for a soldier of the 71st Battaion CEF, who saw action at Ypres. This young man would be gassed and lose an eye.

The 1915 Battle of Ypres, the first engagement of Canadian forces in the Great War, changed the Canadian perspective on war. Ypres rushed young Canadian soldiers out of their former naïve ideal of glory and showed them common themes of war. As a testament to its gruesome nature, Ypres is also considered the grounds upon which poison gas in the Great War ceased to be irregular. Possibly the most impressive of the Canadian forces was the Second Brigade under the command of Arthur William Currie, who would later attain the rank of general. This first battle spat them out the other end as professional and skilled soldiers (especially at improvisation on the battlefield), with a high morale and confidence. The battle cost the British Expeditionary Force - BEF (of which the Canadian Corps was a part of) 59, 275 men.[6]

The Battle of the Somme, July–November 1916[edit]

“The Somme offensive had no great geographical objectives. Its purpose was threefold – to relieve pressure on the French armies at Verdun, to inflict as heavy losses as possible on the German armies, and to aid allies on other fronts by preventing any further transfer of Germany troops from the west.” [7] The Canadian Corps was formed after receiving the 2nd and 3rd division; its first commander was Major-General M. S. Mercer. On 1 July a seven-day assault began and British losses numbered 57, 470. During this time the 1st Newfoundland Regiment was decimated when attacking German trenches. The Mark I Tank first appeared in the Battle at Somme. Though premature, the psychological impact of it was astounding, and the sheer sight made many German soldiers surrender immediately. The toll of the 5-month campaign cannot be statistically verified by a single reliable source however historians have come into the range of German losses roughly 670,000 and an Allied total of 623,907.[7]

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9–12 April 1917[edit]

The Battle of Vimy Ridge had incredible significance for Canada as a young nation. For the first time ever the Canadian Corps, with all four of its divisions attacked as one, under Canadian leadership with sole members from Canada.[note 1] This tactical victory clearly showed how effective and powerful the Canadian Expeditionary Forces had become. This one Canadian offensive amounted to the capture of more land, prisoners and armaments than any previous offensive.[8] The main offensive tactic was the creeping barrage, an artillery strike combined with constant infantry progression through the battlefield.[note 2]

Passchendaele, October – November 1917[edit]

Led by Lieutenant General Arthur Currie, the first offensive of the Canadian Corps in Passchendaele or the Third Ypres, was on October 26, 1917, cost 2,481 Canadian soldiers and made little progress. The second assault on October 30 took the lives of 1,321 soldiers and also made small gains. However on November 6, the third attack won the town of Passchendaele, forfeiting 2,238 killed or wounded. The final assault to capture Passchendaele Ridge began on November 10 and was completed the same day. The Canadian Corps did in two weeks what the other Allied forces were not able to do in three months. Canadian Corps suffered 15,654 battle casualties in the muddiest stalemate battle of the Great War.[9]

The final count[edit]

After distinguishing themselves in battle from the Second Battle of Ypres, through the Somme and particularly in the Battle of Arras at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, and Passchendaele the Canadian Corps came to be regarded as an exceptional force by both Allied and German military commanders. Since they were mostly unmolested by the German army's offensive manoeuvres in the spring of 1918, the Canadians were ordered to spearhead the last campaigns of the War from the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918, which ended in a tacit victory for the Allies when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force lost 60,661 men during the war, representing 9.28% of the 619,636 who enlisted.

The end of the CEF[edit]

The CEF was legally distinct from the Canadian Militia which did not mobilize in 1914. The Militia remained active in Canada during the war. After 1918, it was decided (after lengthy dissertation by the Otter Committee) that units of the CEF would be disbanded, and that the Militia would be reorganized. Individual units of the Canadian Militia, notably infantry and cavalry regiments, were permitted to perpetuate the battle honours and histories of the CEF units that had actually fought the war.[10]

After the war, the Canadian Military Hospitals Commission reported on provision of employment for members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on their return to Canada, and the re-education of those who were unable to follow their previous occupations because of disability.[11]



Armoured carriers and armoured tractors

Mark I tank training tank, UK

  • Mark IV tanks in battle were operated by CEF crews, but they belonged to the British Army

Small arms[edit]

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Martini Henry 1870s-end of World War I  United Kingdom
Winchester rifle 1870s-end of World War I  United States

.303 rifles

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Ross Rifle Mark I and Ross Mark II (multiple * variants) 1905–1913  Canada
Ross Rifle Mark III 1913–1916  Canada
Lee-Enfield (SMLE) Mark III 1916–1943  United Kingdom
Service pistols
Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Colt "New Service" Revolver—1900-1928 (also used by the NWMP and RCMP from 1905–1954)  United States
Colt Model 1911 Pistol—1914-1945  United States
Smith & Wesson 2nd Model "Hand Ejector" Revolver—1915-1951  United States
Approved private purchase and secondary side-arms
Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Webley Mark VI Revolver  United Kingdom
Enfield No. 2 MkI Revolver  United Kingdom
Bayonets and combat knives
Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Pattern 1907 bayonet
Ross Bayonet (for 1905 and 1910 rifles)  Canada

Machine guns, light machine guns and other weapons[edit]

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Colt Machine Gun 1914-1916 USA
Vickers Machine Gun 1914-1950s UK
Lewis Machine Gun—1916-c.1945 USA


Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
.303 British  United Kingdom
.455 Webley  United Kingdom

Uniforms, load bearing and protective equipment[edit]

See also: Battledress, Uniforms of the Canadian Forces

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Service dress 1903-1939
Canadian pattern and British pattern

Load bearing equipment

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Oliver Pattern Equipment 1898-19??
1908 pattern web equipment

Head dress

Model/Type Period or Years in Use Manufacturer/Origins
Glengarry  United Kingdom
Tam o'shanter  United Kingdom
Field Service Cap  United Kingdom
Brodie helmet  United Kingdom

See also[edit]


  1. ^ British regular army officers made up the majority of staff - including senior staff -positions in the corps.
  2. ^ The Canadian artillery was reinforced with British units and its planning was directed by a British officer, Major Alan Brooke, serving with the Corps HQ.


  1. ^ Godefroy, A. (April 1, 2006). “Canadian Military Effectiveness in the First World War.” In The Canadian Way of War: Serving the National Interest Bernd Horn (ed.) Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-1-55002-612-2
  2. ^ Comeau, Robert (November 12, 2008). "Passchendaele cemented Canada’s world role". National Defence and the Canadian Forces. The Maple Leaf. Archived from the original on July 3, 2013. 
  3. ^ Original author is unknown. The photo comes from a private family collection. They would have been taken in late 1915 or early 1916, before their deployment.
  4. ^ Morton, Desmond. When Your Number's Up
  5. ^ Stacey, C. & N. Hillmer Canadian Expeditionary Force. The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  6. ^ [Dancocks, Daniel G. Welcome to Flanders Fields: the First Canadian Battle of the Great War : Ypres, 1915. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1988]
  7. ^ a b [Nicholson, Gerald W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: R. Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962.]
  8. ^ Nicholson, Gerald W. L. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: R. Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962.
  9. ^ [Bercuson, David Jay. The Fighting Canadians: Our Regimental History from New France to Afghanistan. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2008.]
  10. ^ Otter committee article
  11. ^ The Provision of Employment for Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Their Return to Canada, and the Re-Education of Those Who Are Unable to follow their previous occupations because of disability. Canada Military Hospitals Commission Nabu Press August 2010. This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923.

Further reading[edit]

  • Berton, Pierre (1986). Vimy. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-1339-6
  • Christie, Norm. For King & Empire, The Canadians at Amiens, August 1918. CEF Books, 1999
  • Christie, Norm. For King & Empire, The Canadians at Arras, August–September 1918. CEF Books, 1997
  • Christie, Norm. For King & Empire, The Canadians at Cambrai, September–October 1918. CEF Books, 1997
  • Dancocks, Daniel G. Spearhead to Victory – Canada and the Great War, Hurtig Publishers, 1987
  • Cook, Tim. "At the Sharp End - Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916 Vol. One", Viking Canada, 2007
  • Cook, Tim. "Shock Troops - Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918 Vol. Two", Viking Canada, 2008
  • Morton, Desmond and Granatstein, J.L. Marching to Armageddon. Lester & Orpen Dennys Publishers, 1989
  • Morton, Desmond. When Your Numbers Up. Random House of Canada, 1993
  • Newman, Stephen K. With the Patricia's in Flanders: 1914–1918. Bellewaerde House Publishing, 2000
  • Nicholson, Col. G.W.L. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914–1919, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Queen's Printer, 1964
  • Schreiber, Shane B. Shock Army of the British Empire – The Canadian Corps in the Last 100 Days of the Great War. Vanwell Publishing Limited, 2004
  • Canada Military Hospitals Commission The Provision of Employment for Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Their Return to Canada, and the Re-Education of Those Who Are Unable to follow their previous occupations because of disability. Canada Military Hospitals Commission Nabu Press August 2010. This is a reproduction of a book published before 1923.

External links[edit]

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Museums and Media Links[edit]

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