Canadian Army Canadian Army

Canadian Army – A Remarkable History(1600s-Present)

Origins of the Canadian Armed Forces

The title Canadian Army was first used in the history of Canada when it was officially used in November 1940, during the second world war before which the Canadian forces were referred to as the Canadian Militia. Originally, before the Canadian Confederation in 1867, defense for the colonies comprising present-day Canada was garrisoned by French and British military units.

Post-British conquest of new France in 1760, which consists of present-day Ontario, Quebec, and St. John’s Island, and constituted the French colony of those days, was also defended by the British troops. Post-Canadian Confederation, the term ‘Militia’ was used to refer to the ground forces in Canada.

Image Source: Bing

The war of 1812

This war between the United Kingdom and the Americans was one of the major turning points which preceded the formation of an independent Royal Canadian army, where the Royal Navy, veteran members, and local volunteer militia successfully stood aboard with the regular units of the British Army and its soldiers against repeated incursions from 1841 to 1871 against American-based Fenians in present-day New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba; finally coming to end with an American withdrawal.

The militia act of 1855 which followed the pulling out of the British garrison and artillery from British North America as a consequence of the Crimean War led to the creation of the active militia that was in charge of all the major operations.

However, the protection provided by them was limited. This was an act to merge community-based companies into regional battalion-sized units to create infantry units.

After 1867, the British operations in command gradually began withdrawing their garrisons and artillery from Canada. The ‘active duty militia’ created under the Military Act of 1855 became the nucleus of the militia of United Canadas, which was formed by merging the active-duty militia, along with those of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia under the Military Act of 1868.

Only in 1871, after the Treaty of Washington, 1871 did Canada become responsible for its own defense services after the last British Imperial units withdrew from Canada. The major reason being re-stationing the troops in other parts of the Empire.

Additionally, the British had developed friendly relations with the only neighboring country, the United States, which could invade Canada. To strengthen the military command, the Royal Military College was formed in 1876, where officers for the Permanent Active Militia had to undergo military training.

The early 1870s-

After the early 1870s, there was little change in the Canadian forces due to heavy political involvement. In fact, the British officers described it as an incompetent militia that received support and directions from political officers.

In 1885, Canada took up military action for the first time, without any backing from the British military to subdue the Northwest Rebellion, through the creation of a North-West Field Force. However, the soldiers of these troops were under the command of British officers.

Boers War

In 1899, in 2 South African Republics, the drift between the initial Dutch settlers(Boers) and the British escalated and threatened war. These areas, primarily in the hands of the Boers were taken over by the British in the early 1800s. Evidently, the majority of the English-Canada wished for Canada to fight alongside the British in South Africa while the French-Canada opposed it.

Caught in the middle of counter-pressuring politics, Laurier decided that an equipped, all-volunteer force will be raised by Canada which shall operate under the British command and be paid for by the British.


Canadian Army
Project Gutenberg by Howard C. Hillegas Bing – Copyright,2021

For the first time in history, Canadians assisted in an overseas feud and were credited for the full victory. It was in this South African war where the main need for better equipment, weapons, and uniform was realized and brought under review by Lord Dundonald who commanded the Canadian forces after the Boer War.

The Canadian troops were deemed as inexperienced and inadequate by the British officers. To dissolve this problem, Lord Dundonald suggested forming a reserve of well-trained officers in command who would form the core of the militia in the future when a war situation arises.

In the year 1904, a new Militia Act was passed which disjointed the governor-general from holding the decisive command over operations and put the Canadian forces on the same footing as the British officers.

It was the reforms taking place during this time that laid out the basic framework for the modern-day Canadian Army; such as upgrading the medical officer corps to avoid the loss of life due to poor hygiene support that was seen in the South African War, formation of the engineer corps, signaling corp, service corp, and Ordanance stores corp.

I World War(1914-1918)

After the declaration of war against Germany in 1914, Canada was tied to be aboard with Britain. The Canadian Expeditionary Force(CEF) was the specific operational force created for this purpose and was disbanded right after the war ended.

The Canadian Armed Forces gained recognition through the war and were also referred to as the ‘storm troopers’ by the German troops for the threat they posed. The Canadian forces lost more than 60,000 soldiers in the war and more than 172,000 soldiers were injured.

 In detail: WWI

II World War(1939-1945)

In the year 1939, Britain, France, and other commonwealth nations declared war after Poland was invaded by Germany, following whom, the Government of Canada also declared war independently not only against Germany but also Japan and Italy.

The onslaught of World War II brought tremendous changes in the Canadian Militia that was renamed in the year 1940 as the Canadian Army.

The year 1940 saw the renaming of various Canadian Armed forces:

  • CASF(Canadian Army Service Force) was renamed the Canadian Army(Overseas) which ceased to exist after WWII.
  • The Permanent Force was renamed The Canadian Army (Active)
  • NPAM(Non-Permanent Active Militia) was renamed The Canadian Army(Reserve).

The mobilization scheme of the Canadian troops in WWII was based on regionality. The 6th, 7th, and 8th divisions were formed for home defense largely made up of conscripted troops. The National Resources Mobilisation Act(NRMA) stated these home defense divisions were not permitted to serve overseas. However, in 1944, the government did decide to send conscripted soldiers overseas.

Due to instances of the divisions mixing up and no communications done regionally to resolve it, Western Canada witnessed the deployment of irregular forces.

In 1941, the Canadian soldiers engaged in defending Hongkong, a British colony then, against the Japanese. Although this battle was a lost cause from the beginning, the Canadian forces refused to surrender and were henceforth taken as prisoners of war and suffered torture at the hands of the Japanese.

The Canadian army also assisted significantly in Europe by participating in the Allied Amphibians Landing in Sicily,1943, where it cut through numerous layers of the German Defence.

Inclusion of women in forces

The Canadian Women’s Corps was formed during WWII in the year 1941. This was the first step towards including women in the Canadian Forces. It remained a separate corps of the army until the 1960s after which the Canadian women forces were integrated into the Canadian Army.

Canadian army - women's corps
Library and Archives Canada Bing – Copyright, 2021

Similar to the Home Guard, in the early stages of WWII, the Veterans Guard Canada was formed to protect the Canadian land in case of attack and mostly consisted of veterans from WWI. The Veterans Guard of Canada was dissolved in 1947.

Cold  War, Korean War, and Peace Support Operations (1947s – 1991)

Cold War

After WWII, the major challenge was acquiring and training professional, well-educated officers unlike before WWII where the Canadian Forces mostly comprised of volunteers and conscripts.

Accompanying this problem was the soaring tension between democratic and communist nations. This tension eventually led to the Cold War that lasted from 1947-1991.

In detail: Cold War

In its efforts to build and promote international cooperation, Canada formed the United Nations (UN) in the year 1945, and also the North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) in 1949.

Korean War

In the year 1950, 16 UN authorized nations contributed troops to fight against the communist invasion of South Korea. The government of Canada had to admit that their Mobile Strike Force was gravely undermanned.

Instead of resorting to a difficult move like conscription that increased trouble, the government decided to raise an all-volunteer Army Special Force to be sent to South Korea.

During the Battle of Kapyong, 1951 in South Korea, the Canadian Armed forces established a strong presence by successfully driving back the advancing Chinese troops; hence earning widespread honor and fame.

In detail: Battle of Kapyong,1951

During the early 1950s, the number of men serving in the Canadian Army surged dramatically under the vision of L.Gen. Guy Simonds, the Chief of the General Staff. The justification for this striking increase in the number of service personnel was the necessity to sustain a strong, persistent presence of the Canadian Armed forces in Germany to fulfill the commitments made by Canada in NATO while concurrently deploying forces in the Korean War.

It was under the guidance and broad perspectives of L.Gen. Guy Simonds, who sought to sow a seed in the hearts of all the men serving in the Canadian Army, that would germinate and nourish a sense of pride in what they do for their country, its heritage, and culture. These sentiments would motivate the army personnel to voluntarily step forth to earn badges and serve for the honor of their troops and their country.

Peace Operations

Canada also sent a component of the Canadian army brigade-27th Canadian Infantry Brigade to West Germany which was later retitled 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in the early 1950s. 

The brigade was sent to West Germany as a part of Canada’s NATO commitment. The brigade rested stationed in West Germany until the unification of Germany and the end of the Cold War; its members worked under the British Operational Command.

In the year 1968, the formation of an around-the-clock parachute regiment took place-the Canadian Airborne Regiment, founded to improve the army’s combat power on a suggestion made by the Suttie committee. The Canadian Army was also a key member force in the UN Peacekeeping Operations.

Even in the 1950s, only the Canadian Army (land forces) made efforts to integrate French-Canadians. To make an inclusive environment for the French-Canadian officers the Collège Militaire Royal de Saint-Jean was opened in 1952 to train French-Canadian officer candidates in the french language.

It is to be noted that before this step, all the candidates were trained only in English at the Royal Military College. In 1967, the formation of 12e Régiment blindé du Canada, a French-speaking Regular Force armoured regiment, and 5e Régiment d’artillerie légère du Canada, an artillery regiment, took place.

In 1968, Under Pierre Trudeau, the new Liberal Prime Minister, the Regular Forces of the army were downsized and the focus was shifted to reducing the budget spent on military training and defense.

Furthermore, the unstable government and the constant change in the defense leadership from 1971 to 1977 led to the deterioration of Canadian forces’ combat efficiency.

In 1985-

The uniform of the Canadian forces was restored under Brian Mulroney and the first defense minister guilty of improper behavior was replaced by a WWII veteran, Erik Nielson. Perrin Beatty, the newly appointed defense minister in 1987 proposed a significant expansion in the financial budget.

An effort to improve integration between the Regular and Reserve Forces was seen towards the end of the Cold War. The Canadian Forces also played a pivotal role in the First Gulf War from 1990-1991.

In detail: First Gulf War

Invasion of Afghanistan in 2001

Canada actively participated in the invasion of Afghanistan, 2001 post attacks on the United States, under military operations aided by the UN and NATO. Field operations conducted by the Multi-National Tasks Force against Taliban and terrorist undertakings were successful after which the Canadian Army was moved to Kabul to assist in the establishment of the new Afghanistan Government.

Department of Defense Bing copyright, 2021
Staff Sgt. Robert Hyatt, Department of Defence Bing-Copyright, 2021

The Canadian Army regularly engaged in combat in Afghanistan after the restoration of Taliban operations, the most critical offensive being the MEDUSA operation, one of the largest combat operations by the Canadian Army in more than half a century. After being stationed in Afghanistan for more than a decade, the military mission of the Canadian Army in Afghanistan came to an end in 2014.

 In detail: Invasion of Afghanistan

Present Day Canadian Armed Forces


Canadian Army - Airforce
U.S. Army Europe Images Flickr-Copyright, 2021

Today, the Canadian Armed Forces, the unified military of Canada comprises 3 segments – The Canadian Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In August 2011, the government decided to restore these 3 titles to the pre-existing land force, air force, and maritime commands in the Canadian Armed Forces while retaining the unified command and the structure of the CF.

The structure of the Canadian Armed Forces consists of:

– 1st Canadian Division (part of Canadian Joint operations command)
-2nd Canadian Division (Quebec)
-3rd Canadian Division (Western Canada)
-4th Canadian Division (Ontario)
-5th Canadian Division (Atlantic Canada)
-Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre

Last Updated on by alishbarehman


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