THE FIRST WORLD WAR (1914–1918)
Canada entered the First World War on August 4, 1914. It did so because it was part of the British Empire, which was at war with Germany and the Central Powers.
Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Colonel Sam Hughes, assembled the Canadian Expeditionary Force to fight overseas on the Western Front, cobbled together from militia units from across Canada.
Hughes was initially unenthusiastic about air power until he met con man Ernest Lloyd Janney, who convinced Hughes to create an air force and put Janney in charge. Hughes created the Canadian Aviation Corps (CAC) on September 16, 1914, and made Janney provisional commander with the rank of captain. Hughes authorized him to spend up to $5,000 on an aircraft.
Janney bought a second-hand Burgess-Dunne biplane in Massachusetts and a company pilot flew the aircraft — with Janney as a passenger — to Valcartier, Quebec. After a hair-raising journey, the aircraft was disassembled and shipped to Great Britain where it gradually rotted away on the Salisbury Plain, near Stonehenge in England. By January 1915, the CAC had simply faded away.
Despite the shaky beginnings of Canada’s air force, Canadians enthusiastically joined Great Britain’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Canadian pilots serving in the British forces would truly astound the world with their flying and shooting skills, earning more than 800 decorations. Three were awarded the highly coveted Victoria Cross, arguably the most revered decoration for bravery in the world: Captain William (Billy) Bishop, Second Lieutenant Alan McLeod and Captain William Barker.
Canadians took to combat flying so well that, by the spring of 1918, the government of Prime Minister Robert Borden pressed for the development of a wing, consisting of eight squadrons, for service with the Canadian Corps in France. But Britain wanted to keep talented Canadian pilots and groundcrew within the RFC and they succeeded in limiting the number of Canadian squadrons.
DID YOU KNOW…
Famed aviator Douglas McCurdy, who flew the Silver Dart in 1909, spoke to Colonel Sam Hughes about forming a Canadian Air Force in August 1914 when the First World War broke out. Hughes, not yet a believer in air power, declared, “My boy, the aeroplane is the invention of the devil…and will never play any part in such a serious business as the defence of the nation!”
FOCUS ON…THE CANADIAN AVIATION CORPS
The CAC was a corps in name only. In addition to Captain Janney, it included Staff Sergeant Harry Farr, an aircraft mechanic from Victoria, British Columbia, and Lieutenant William Sharpe, a pilot from Prescott, Ontario. That was the sum total of its personnel!
Janney was removed from the roll of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January 1915 when Hughes lost patience with him. Farr joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), ending the war with a Distinguished Service Cross and a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Sharpe died in a crash in February 1915 while flying with the Royal Flying Corps and his body was returned to Prescott for burial. He was the first Canadian military aviator to give his life in war.