Credits: UNT Digital Library Figures
Each year, we take time to remember the brave Canadians who fought in brutish wars to defend our freedoms and the Canadian way of life. From the Second Boer War in 1899, to the current mission in Afghanistan, Canadians have been quick to volunteer, eager to defend our values, and effective in the field. As Canada’s 7th Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier said, “Canada is free, and freedom is its nationality”. Canadians love freedom, it defines us.
And Canadians are the kind of guys you want on your side in a fight. During the First World War, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) developed a reputation for being courageous, rowdy, and spirited. Hence came the patriotic Canadian persona of lumberjacks and cowboys; fearless men from the great frontier, stalwart, hardworking, and ready for a good fight.
The CEF were proud Canadians. Many in those days were British-born and recent immigrants to Canada, eager to make a name for themselves. They liked being called “Canada”, “Canuck”, or just “Tommy” and resented being mistaken for a Brit or an Aussie. It was a religious army comprised of Anglicans, Catholics, Presbyterian, and Methodists, mostly from urban areas in Ontario and the West, and with diverse backgrounds from farmers to labourers to white-collar workers.
These young men became known as rebel rousers, typically involved in horseplay and pushing the boundaries of proper military decorum. They self-cultivated a reputation as a “rowdy Canadian”, typically engaged in brawling, restlessness, and indifference to traditional military etiquette. They were educated, literate, and brought their strong culture of music and singing with them overseas.
I like to imagine these men did enjoy themselves from time to time. They were proud of the lives they lived in Canada, and pleased to be representing—and defending—their country on the world stage.
This Canadian reputation carried on into World War II, where Canada further implemented its reputation as a vital part of the Allied forces. Canada was unprepared for war in 1939. They had an army of only 4,500 men and virtually no modern equipment. However, over 58,000 people volunteered in September of 1939 alone, and by 1942 Canada had a 250,000-strong military in Europe.
The Royal Canadian Navy had the third largest fleet in the world, with 100,000 men and 6,500 women operating 471 warships and fighting vessels. The RCN successfully sank 28 enemy submarines and numerous surface vessels during their effort, and approximately 3,600 Canadian sailors perished during the war.
The Royal Canadian Air Force became the fourth largest in the world, after the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain. 232,000 men and 17,000 women operated 86 squadrons, and over 17,000 Canadian airmen lost their lives.
Canada made an incredibly important contribution in the fight against fascism and tyranny during the wars of the 20th Century. We should remember Canada’s proud military history and remember the reputation of Canadian soldiers. I like thinking about the rowdy Canadians in the CEF, happy to leave home on the Canadian prairies in order to fight for freedom. Much like Canadians today, these men were eager to promote their Canadian identity and willing to fight for what they believed in.
They established the reputation that Canadians still carry today: strong, brave, loyal, and a little rambunctious from time to time. Much like the rowdy boys I played sports with in school, the gentlemen who shovelled snow from my walkway in college, and the men who teach their sons to play hockey and how to win a fight. Canadian men are first class.
And even in times of war and destruction, courageous Canadian soldiers were still in good spirits, roughhousing and singing songs while defending their beloved country.