Canada’s historiography of the First World War has generally been marked by an understanding of the conflict as a coming of age event in which the war is seen as unifying and a means of breaking away from colonial status. The theme of transformation through war has been applied to several aspects of Canada’s participation. As a consequence of this sense of growing to national maturity through the proving ground of the First World War, the narrative has generally tended to be heroic and patriotic, emphasising unity, sacrifice and victory.[1]

Several themes in the First World War historiography of other countries have had little place here. There is very little analysis of the lead-up to the war or of the idea of culpability in its outbreak.[2] The earliest works on the war were official histories. G.W.L Nicholson’s Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1918, though it was not published until the 1960s, has been influential on much later writing. Tim Cook discusses the difficult, fraught and lengthy process of writing official histories, some of which were never completed, in Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars.[3]

Biographies of prominent figures have also been a part of the historiography. Robert Craig Brown’s biography of the prime minister during the war, Robert Laird Borden: A Biography, sheds light on government motivations and decision-making. Arthur Currie (1875-1933), the first Canadian commander of the unified Canadian Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, is remembered as one of the ablest generals of the war. A.M.J. Hyatt’s General Sir Arthur Currie: A Military Biography, is a key work here. Tim Cook’s The Madman and the Butcher examines the war of reputations between Currie and Minister of Militia Sam Hughes (1853-1921), who has been remembered less fondly.[4]

Battles and Conscription

Canadian writing on the First World War has emphasised certain battles, in particular the battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917. Geoffrey Hayes, Andrew Iarocci and Mike Bechthold’s study is important here, building on work by Brereton Greenhous among others. Because of the pivotal place of the battle in the patriotic narrative of the war, there are a great many popular histories of this subject as well, such as Pierre Berton’s Vimy. General histories of the war devote space to Canadian participation in the Battle of Ypres and Passchendaele as well and to the last “hundred days” when Canadians were particularly active. J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton’s Marching to Armageddon is an important early study of the fighting overseas, and the first to integrate it with a discussion of actions and responses on the home front. In When Your Number’s Up Morton addresses the war from the perspective of the soldiers fighting it, a vantage also taken by Tim Cook in his two-volume series At the Sharp End and Shock Troops, which examine the evolution of the Canadian fighting force in Europe.[5]

As in other countries involved in the First World War, conscription was a highly contested issue. J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman have addressed this topic in their longer-term history of conscription in Canada. The measure, initiated partly by a sense that French-speaking Quebecers were not enlisting in sufficient numbers, was particularly unpopular in that province, and sharply divisive in terms of French-English relations. Elizabeth Armstrong addresses this in The Crisis of Quebec. The election of 1917, for which conscription was the main issue, was one of the most bitter in Canadian history. The draft was also protested by many farmers’ groups and elements of labour.[6]

Home Front and Minorities

The Canadian home front is a somewhat more recent area of scholarship. Aside from the divide over conscription, early work here emphasised a unified response of shared sacrifice. The more recent trends of local and regional studies offer insights into some of the commonalities of experience across a very large country and also address interesting divergences. Useful examples of this approach can be found in the work of Robert Rutherdale, Ian Miller and John Herd Thompson.[7]

Along with regional diversity, the experience of the war was often shaped by ethnicity. Canada experienced a great deal of growth through immigration in the years just before the Great War. The diverse experiences of minorities, at home and fighting overseas, have thus also drawn attention. This includes examination of the experiences of and reactions to Canadians of “enemy alien” background as well as their internment.[8] Internment took place under the auspices of the War Measures Act, which gave broad powers to the Canadian government, including that of censorship, as discussed by Jeffrey Keshen in Propaganda and Censorship during Canada's Great War.[9]

Recent scholarship by Katherine McGowan, Timothy Winegard and Robert Talbot among others, has discussed First Nations’ attitudes to and participation in the conflict. Much of this work challenges earlier presentations of a broad patriotic reaction and emphasizes the variety of First Nations’ responses and the degree to which, despite First Nations’ participation, unfair treatment persisted after the war.[10]

The experience of Canadian women is another recent addition to the historiography. Studies such as those of Susan Mann have focused on wartime nursing overseas and on the experiences of women’s paid work, especially in non-traditional occupations during the war.[11] The importance of voluntary and traditional work is an emerging focus. Transformation – the degree to which the war could be understood as a liberating event for Canadian women, many of whom received the franchise in 1917 – has also been a question addressed here, especially by Joan Sangster, as well as Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw.[12]

Medical and Economic

The ways in which medicine and the medical profession were affected by the First World War has been studied by several historians but more work on this topic is needed. Andrew MacPhail’s official history of the medical services was published soon after the war ended, though it has been met with a critical reception.[13] Susan Mann discusses the absence of an official history of nursing in her biography of the matron-in-chief of Canada’s overseas nursing service.[14] Mark Humphries’ study of the influenza epidemic examines provincial and municipal responses and its effect on the creation of a federal department of health. Esyllt Jones examines the epidemic with a local focus on Winnipeg and an analysis of its gender and class-based effects.[15]

Although the war brought significant and lasting changes to the Canadian economy, this is another area of scholarship in which there is room for growth. Michael Bliss’s biography of Joseph Flavelle (1858-1939), A Canadian Millionaire, is useful here, as is his work on Canadian munitions production.[16] R.T. Naylor examines increasing government intervention in the economy and industrial and agricultural expansion in “The Canadian State, the Accumulation of Capital, and the Great War,” and Douglas McCalla, among others, addresses the history of the war in terms of its place in longer term economic history.[17] Economic changes have also been analysed as part of regional histories, those studying labour and women’s history, and are also discussed in general histories of the war, especially Brown and Cook’s important Canada 1896-1921: A Nation Transformed. International approaches, such those in Alexander Anievas’ Capital, the State, and War are also, of course, relevant.[18]


The place of the First World War in Canadian memory and identity is yet another area of study. Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble examines commemoration in its various forms and sees a tendency in Canada to continue older, more Victorian forms of mourning and commemorative practices which felt familiar and comforting in the face of the tremendous losses of the war. This analysis is somewhat at variance with the sharp break in language and ways of remembering noted by Paul Fussell. Mourad Djebabla has done important work on commemoration in Quebec and there are several interesting discussions of memorials and ceremonies of remembrance, including Alan Young’s ‘We Throw the Torch’: Canadian Memorials of the Great War and the mythology of Heroic Sacrifice.[19]


The First World War is an event which has received a great deal of attention from Canadian historians and which has an important place in Canadian popular memory. In spite of this there are many areas which still require examination, especially studies that go beyond a narrowly national focus and those which delve more deeply into the social and cultural aspects of the conflict and responses at home. The broadening of military history and collaboration between military, social, intellectual, cultural and gender historians has been fruitful and will continue to yield new insights into Canada’s experience of the First World War. Studies of longer-term trends and comparisons with other countries will help us better understand the place of the war in Canadian history. As diversity, contestation and grief are recognized as responses to the war that are just as fundamental as patriotism and pride, we gain a more nuanced and mature understanding of the conflict and what it meant for Canadians.

Amy J. Shaw, University of Lethbridge

Section Editor: Tim Cook