I'm reading a book about the first world war, and makes it clear that the Canadian and Australian troops made quite a name for themselves. They acquitted themselves very well in many of the actions they participated in (within reason), and were regarded as Britain's crack troops, even by the central powers.

In the battle of Amiens in 1918 the British went into quite a lot of effort to hide the fact that specifically four Canadian divisions were being brought onto the scene.

It also seems like there is a very high concentration of good military commanders, such as Monash.

Why is this the case, when these colonies didn't really have any kind of military tradition at all and not that much experience in warfare in general?

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    Can you cite the book / source? Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 2:15
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    Keep in mind that England had very little (land-based) military tradition, so you've got a low bar.
    – C Monsour
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 2:30
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    Frontier areas tend to have people who are more familiar with firearms and are more comfortable away from modern amenities then areas that have been long developed.
    – user15620
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 2:36
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    Biased sources. When you write a book about certain units, you subconsciously try to make them somehow exceptional, to justify your effort. In reality, most Australian and Canadian divisions were just a run-of-the-mill troops.
    – rs.29
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 5:14
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    @rs.29 During the war Germans regarded Canadian, Australian, and Scottish divisions as dangerous enemies, so it's not a post-rationalisation at work here. German intelligence actually paid special attention to their movements, so after one successful offensive by Canadians (moved silently during the night), the captured German commander remarked that they couldn't be Canadians, because intelligence knew the Canadians were elsewhere.
    – user17846
    Commented Jun 12, 2019 at 15:20

4 Answers 4


The Australian historian and journalist LA Carlyon in his book Gallipoli reports Australian troops, a higher proportion of whom at that date had grown up in a rural, outdoor life (the same was probably true of Canadians), noticed that British troops who had grown up in the then smoky and crowded industrial cities of Britain often seemed less well nourished and healthy, even stunted in intellect.

This is not to say that the Australians were without faults. Vera Brittain who wrote about her experiences as a Nurse in World War 1 in 'Testament of Youth' said that if there was any trouble Australian troops were always ready to be part of it.

British War Correspondent Philip Gibb in his book 'Now it Can be Told' said that of British Empire troops the Scots and the Australians were more likely than others not to take prisoners but to kill enemy troops who had surrendered.

Britain recruited a higher proportion of its adult male population into the armed forces during the war, including by conscription from 1916, which meant that the British army probably came closer to 'scraping the bottom of the barrel' and taking some less suitable recruits. Australian, New Zealand and most Canadian soldiers were volunteers, hence more likely to be motivated.

Of course we should be cautious about accepting every generalisation made then or now about the qualities of soldiers of different nations, which can be biased by patriotism, stereotypes or chance as to e.g. which Canadian soldiers someone met and under what circumstances, as they were all individuals and doubtless some braver, more intelligent, better trained etc. than others.

  • A few Canadians (about 24,000) were conscripted and served in France , stating in January 1918 thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/conscription
    – DJohnM
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 6:30
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    @DJohnM: While true - did any of them see combat? My understanding is that (virtually) none of the conscripts saw action on the front line. Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 16:27
  • DJohnM I stand corrected about the (late and somewhat limited) use of conscription in Canada and have amended my answer. I am a little surprised that French Canadians tended to oppose conscription while Anglophones mostly supported it, given that France and partly French-speaking Belgium were Britain's allies, but that is a separate topic.
    – Timothy
    Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 14:51

One can make much of the prairie and frontier background of the Canadian troops - and one should, as they were 8 cm (3") taller, 5'7" (178cm) at age 21 compared to just 5'4" (170cm) for Brits of the same era - but in no small part the success of the Canadian Corps post-Somme must be credited to its commander, Sir Julian Byng, being likely the most competent and innovative corps commander in either the French or British army.

Amongst other qualities, it was the dogged effort of Byng, his successor-to-be Sir Arthur Currie, and their staff that solved the conundrum of perfecting a walking barrage; allowing Canadian troops assaulting Vimy Ridge to be in German trenches reliably just 30 to 45 seconds after the barrage lifted. And in contrast to British regiments where only captains and above received artillery schedules, Byng and Currie issued schedules to every NCO down to corporal, as a means of guaranteeing that no troops got left behind due to officer casualties.

Pay the price of victory in shells - not lives. -- General Sir Arthur William Currie (1875-1933)

Pierre Berton's excellent book Vimy has a couple of early chapters on the symbiosis between Byng and his Canadian troops that resulted in such success on the battlefield.

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    On another post: do you have 5 minutes for teaching Austrians to be on time at Rivoli if a Corsican invites to battle? Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 17:03
  • @LangLangC: Possibly; but that request is a bit cryptic. Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 17:17
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    @PieterGeerkens - history.stackexchange.com/questions/53176/… would seem to decryptify the comment.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 13, 2019 at 18:27

In the case of Australia, WW 1 was the first major war with significant contribution of Australia towards the war effort of the Empire. Prior to WW 1, Australia contributed troops to the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion Campaign.

So, on the part of the Australians we can expect a significant degree of propaganda highlighting the Australian contributions to WW 1. Especially, since the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front were so remote from mainland Australia. Thus, painting the ANZAC's as especially good troops serves to maintain morale and support at the homefront.

Sorry, for the large amount of conjecture and lack of sources. See this as more of a thought or comment, rather than a full answer to the original question.


It might also be worth making the points that:

a) The majority of Canadian troops were in any case recent British immigrants (estimated to be >70% in the early part of the war and >60 % in the latter part). A large proportion of these were fairly recent immigrants who had only been in Canada for < 8 years. A higher proportion of the officers were Canadian born because they were the doctors, solicitors, teachers, etc in pre-war towns.

b) The second point is that the cream of the British army were the regular forces (soldiers who were in the army before the war broke out). These soldiers, who were well trained, well fed (and consequently healthy and of good stature), and well equipped were killed or injured at battles such as Mons, Le Cateau, First battle of the Marne, First Battle of the Aisne, and First Ypres (and Gallipoli). The vast losses from these early battles were then replaced by the ill fed, poorly trained, poorly educated masses from Britain's industrial slums.

Nevertheless, many of these unheralded formations in Kitchener's army did extremely well (once trained sufficiently) including the 46th North Midland Division (North Staffs) who broke the Hindenburg Line in 1918 when other, more vaunted divisions, had failed.

  • These stats are absurd in light of the immigration to Canada between 1901 and 1911 being less than the population increase of about 1.9 million, the bulk from Continental Europe as the mass immigration wave from the U.K had ended more than a decade earlier. Of that 1.9 million immigrants it's unlikely even a third was male of serving age, to match the 640,000 or so Canadians who comprised the CEF. Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 21:54

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