Fighting For Empire: 5 WWI Battles Fought by British Commonwealth Soldiers

The Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of the Somme. Wikipedia

The 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is upon us, marking the centenary of what is arguably the greatest victory in Canadian military history. The contribution of Canadian soldiers – crucial to the final victory of the Entente forces – has never been forgotten north of the 49th Parallel, and their role in forming an independent Canadian identity can never be overstated, but the wider role of soldiers from the Commonwealth is often overlooked in the retelling of the story of the First World War.

Some two million from the colonies – which would later become the Commonwealth – answered the call of the British Empire and estimates hold that a full quarter of those who died fighting for King and Country were not British at all. There were Australians and New Zealanders, Irish and Canadians, Indians, West Indians and Africans. As much as Onward Christian Soldiers was sung by those going to the front, it might well have taken in the thousands of Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and Hindus who also made up the British ranks. Even the famed lines “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row” that mark Remembrance Day throughout the world were written by a Canadian doctor, serving in Belgium.

In 2013 the British government made a special pledge to further the story of the colonies and dominions in the First World War, bringing their sacrifices to the fore in commemorations. Here we tell the stories of some of the most significant battles of the Great War that were fought by soldiers from the Commonwealth of Nations.

Canadian soliders advance at Vimy Ridge. Wikipedia.

1 – Canadians at Vimy Ridge

To understand the importance of Vimy Ridge in the history of Canada, one must first understand the story of Canada itself. Back in 1917, Canada was not an independent nation, rather a confederation of British colonies – broadly corresponding to the modern day provinces – grouped into the Dominion of Canada. While they had held this status since 1867, Canada remained part of the United Kingdom with no foreign policy of its own, and thus when the British went to war with Germany in 1914, Canada went with them.

As the vast majority of Canadian residents had British ancestry, recruiting to fight for the King was not hard and the Canadian Expeditionary Force would assemble over 600,000 soldiers over the course of the war. Of those, it is estimated that two thirds had been born in Britain. As Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister of Canada from 1896-1911 put is: “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”

Their greatest contribution would come at Vimy Ridge. The town of Vimy, situated just outside Arras in Northern France, lay in a section of the line that had been commanded by Canadians since late 1917. With Arras of huge strategic importance in the British advance, it was necessary to capture the high ground around Vimy – the ridge above the town – in order to shield other areas from artillery fire. As the weather cleared in the spring, the Canadians occupying the trenches around Vimy were asked to take the high ground.  

The attack was scheduled for the morning of April 8, and then postponed due to French requests not to begin on Easter Sunday, which was to be marked that day. At dawn on April 9, the barrage began. Using the tactic of the creeping barrage – in which infantry slowly marched forward, with artillery laying a platform in lockstep – the Canadians advanced, while hundreds of pre-laid mines under the German lines were detonated. Every artillery gun that the Canadians had was put to use, resulting in an attack that allowed them to capture their initial positions in just over an hour. The plan then called for secondary units to overlap the forward parties and take further objectives, which they did amid severe casualties. With the German third defensive line set strong, they held for the night.

The next two days would continue with ferocious fighting, before finally on the evening of April 12, the whole of Vimy Ridge was under Canadian control. The offensive marked the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had fought together under Canadian commanders. Of the near 100,000 Canadians who fought at Vimy Ridge, some 3,598 lay dead and another 7,000 were injured. Four would later receive the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour the British Empire had to give. The trenches that still mark the site of the battle – now Canada’s largest war memorial – are still too dangerous for the public to enter because of the unexploded ordnance found throughout them.

One area that is open is marked by a maple leaf, carved into the chalk walls. The significance of Vimy Ridge to the formation of a Canadian national identity cannot be understated. As the first place where all Canadian units fought as as whole, it can be seen as emblematic of the moment at which the disparate settlers and migrants that made Canada came together as Canadians. At the end of the war, the Canadians sat separately from the British, a key moment in the gradual move towards independence.