In 2017, the Government of Canada recognizes three significant events of the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945) which have touched the lives of many Canadians and left a lasting legacy in the history of our country.

First World War: centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9-12, 1917

Canadians at Vimy Ridge
Canadian troops advancing through German wire entanglements at Vimy Ridge, April, 1917.
© Canadian Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-001087

Over two years into the Great War, a formative moment for Canada came when all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first time, assigned to capture Vimy Ridge as part of a larger British offensive in France known as the Battle of Arras. The strongly fortified ridge had repelled earlier British and French attacks.

After months of meticulous planning, the Corps sprang into action at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, attaining all of its objectives a few days later. Success was achieved by many acts of bravery, including by Private John George Pattison who singlehandedly overtook an enemy machine gun. Pattison was one of four Canadians to earn the Victoria Cross, the Empire’s highest honour, at Vimy.

More than 10,500 of Pattison’s compatriots were killed, wounded or missing at Vimy; Pattison himself fell in combat weeks later. Mount Pattison in Jasper National Park was named in his honour, while Vimy Peak and Ridge in Waterton Lakes National Park commemorate the fight. In France, a portion of the battlefield is now a National Historic Site of Canada and home to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.

First World War: centennial of the Battle of Passchendaele, July 31 - November 10, 1917

Canadians in shell holes at Passchendaele
Personnel of the 16th Canadian Machine Gun Company holding the line in shell holes during the Battle of Passchendaele
© William Rider-Rider / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002162

Three years into the Great War, the Allies launched a ghastly—and ultimately failed—offensive campaign in the Flanders region of Belgium on July 31, 1917, trying to dislodge German forces from the area around Ypres and go on to eliminate enemy submarine bases along the Belgian coast.

In early fall, the Canadian Corps, fighting as part of the British imperial forces, joined the offensive. Incessant rain and heavy shellfire had turned the battlefield into a sea of mud. With little time to prepare, the Corps began their attack on October 26. Despite a slow advance through the thick mire and intense enemy fire, the Canadians captured Passchendaele Ridge November 10, but with great sacrifice. The battle resulted in nearly 16,000 Canadians killed, wounded and missing.

Many acts of valour allowed the Canadians to overcome stiff resistance, including by Private Cecil John Kinross who charged and captured a strategically located German machine gun. A mountain among the Victoria Cross Ranges in Jasper National Park was named in tribute to Kinross, one of nine Canadians awarded the Victoria Cross—the highest military honour in the Empire—for their courage at Passchendaele.

Second World War: Dieppe Raid, August 19, 1942

A reconnaissance vehicle at Dieppe
An abandoned reconnaissance vehicle along the beach at Dieppe
© Canadian Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / C-029861

One of the most harrowing episodes in Canadian military history occurred along a 16 kilometer stretch of coast centered on the French town of Dieppe. After nearly three years of warfare, the situation was bleak for Allied forces with Nazi Germany well entrenched throughout Western Europe.

In an effort to test the means for a future invasion, the Allies mounted a large, surprise amphibious raid, code named “Operation Jubilee.” Five thousand Canadians—who had seen little fighting on the western front since war began in 1939—made up the majority of troops for this Allied attack. Launched before dawn the morning of August 19, 1942, the three-pronged assault on a heavily defended shore quickly became a debacle.

Overwhelmed by enemy fire, a retreat was ordered. Only 2,200 troops, many of whom were wounded, returned to England, while nearly 2,000 became prisoners of war. Honorary Captain John Weir Foote, who cared for and helped evacuate the wounded, stayed behind to share the fate of his fellow countrymen. For his actions, Reverend Foote became the first Canadian chaplain awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest military distinction.