Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

Americans in the CEF

Bear with me here. I know that I’ve used an acronym in the title with no prior explanation. ‘CEF’ stands for ‘Canadian Expeditionary Force’, and I probably need to explain what that means, too.

When Canada went to war in 1914 the nation had only a few thousand regular soldiers, many of whom only performed ceremonial duty. Until the late 1800’s there had been British regulars stationed at key places in Canada to defend the country. There had been a long tradition of local militia units, akin to the 19th century American model, and some of these had even served in the South African War (1899-1902).

From the onset of WW1 the politicians wanted a distinctly all-Canadian army, which also had to be built on the contemporary European model as adapted by the British: battalions with a strength of about 950 men, brigades with four battalions and divisions with three brigades plus an extra battalion of Pioneers.

The militia organization was of little use as a basis for the CEF because the size of the ‘regiments’ varied too much: some had over a thousand members, some had less than 200. It was decided by Sir Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence, to create a whole new force, the CEF, whose battalions would be filled with volunteers from the ranks of the militia plus, of course, the throngs of new recruits.

The first twelve battalions were established on August 10th1914 and the first creation, totaling 56 infantry battalions, began shipping out for Europe in October. Ultimately there would be 260 infantry battalions, five battalions of mounted rifles and one cavalry brigade in the CEF. Many of the higher-numbered battalions were broken up to provide replacements to veteran battalions, so the peak fighting strength of the Canadian Corps was about 100,000. Ultimately 619,636 served in the CEF, 418,052 went overseas and 60,661 were lost.

At last I get to tell how many Americans served in the CEF. Recent estimates range from 40,000 to 60,000.

The official Canadian government figure, published in the 1920’s, is 35,612, which is the number of persons born in the US or Alaska (Alaskans didn’t get American citizenship until 1924) who enlisted in the CEF.  However, the actual number is thought to be much higher. There may also have been as many as 10,000 American citizens or residents born elsewhere, including some born British or even Canadian. At first, recruiters were located in border towns but later operated in the US, ostensibly to sign up British subjects living in the US.

Furthermore, anyone who enlisted in the Canadian military was required to pledge his loyalty to the Crown, which under American law was a renunciation of American citizenship. Wanting to avoid legal consequences, Americans gave false identities, claimed to be Canadian or British and other subterfuges. There were examples of Americans who joined in Canada but went on to British service and examples of Americans who transferred from Canadian to US service in 1917.

There were five all-American battalions formed in the CEF: the 97th, 211th, 212th, 213th and 237th. The Canadian press labelled these as ‘American legions’ which drew a diplomatic protest from Germany and so the all-American units were disbanded in 1916.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), about 2,700 persons buried in their sites were either Americans or had next of kin who were Americans. There are hundreds of Americans who died in or as the result of Canadian service who are buried in the US.  At least four Americans serving in the CEF were awarded the Victoria Cross.

The CWGC Cross of Sacrifice at Arlington National Cemetery recognizes Americans lost in the war while serving with Commonwealth forces. This is the only example of a Cross of Sacrifice that isn’t in a CWGC cemetery, and there are no CWGC graves at Arlington. The cross was dedicated on Nov. 11th, 1927.

 

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.

3 Comments

  1. Harriet Callanan

    I am trying to find information about my grandfather, Joseph Polaski, who I was told served in the Canadian Army during WWI. He was born in German occupied Poland, emigrated to the US, and became naturalized. He volunteered for service in Canada. I have a picture of him with his wife Stella, and my father Stephen, and others at the time of his discharge (not sure time is accurate). Can I share? Any help would be appreciated.

    • James Patton

      I can’t give you any information about your grandfather. However I’m allowing your request to post so that other readers might respond.

    • Daniel Murphy

      Hello Harriet,
      These are the Polaskis listed in the CEF database. While none are named Joseph, it doesn’t mean it’s not him. People sometimes gave alternate names, so I would cross-check their place of residence or country of birth with the facts you already have. Below is the web page from the archive where all the Polaskis are listed…

      https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/list.aspx?SurnameSearch=Polaski&
      Each file has in it the complete service record of each soldier.
      Hope this helps.
      Best,
      Daniel Murphy

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