On August 4, 1914, Great Britain responded to Germany’s invasion of neutral Belgium by declaring war. There was no question that Canada would join the fight against the Kaiser. Like most combatants, English Canadians first responded with patriotic enthusiasm. When Minister of Militia Sam Hughes summoned 25,000 volunteers to gather immediately at the base of Valcartier near Quebec City for overseas service, 33,000 showed up. With some 300 former York Rangers among them, the First Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) sailed for England in early October. By February 1915, its men had already joined the Allies in the trenches of Flanders. Their baptism of fire came two months later, when at the Second Battle of Ypres in late April the Germans released chlorine gas in the world’s first attack with chemical weapons.
As the war progressed, the York Rangers would provide volunteers for a number of other battalions that went overseas, including the 35th, 83rd, and the 127th, the latter as railway troops. The Rangers’ most notable contribution, however, was with “The Twentieth.” Mobilised in October 1914, the 20thBattalion was formed from Central Ontario’s various county regiments who trained over the winter months on the grounds of the Toronto Exhibition (now the CNE). After further instruction at Kent in England, The Twentieth landed in France in September 1915 as part of Canada’s Second Division and was soon on the Allied front lines. At the time, its commanding officer was a descendant of Robert Rogers, LCol C. H. Rogers.
Over the next three years The Twentieth participated in many of the Western Front’s murderous battles. In summer 1916 they joined the massive offensive on the Somme River. The following spring, the battalion was part of the Canadian force that finally captured Vimy Ridge, in a surprise assault that marked the growing tactical supremacy of the Canadian Corps on the Western Front. Fall 1917 found The Twentieth finally finishing up the costly mud-soaked battle of Passchendaele.
The Twentieth’s most important contribution to victory in the Great War came in the final year, in August 1918 at Amiens. The Canadian and Australian Corps launched the most brilliant attack of the war, crunching through every German defence line in a single day and finishing off by shooting up headquarters and burning supply dumps deep in the German rear. General Erich Ludendorff, the German Commander-in-Chief, called August 8 his army’s “black day.” The Rangers’ historian, Major Bull, wrote in 1984:
There is no record of any 20thsection, platoon, or company fleeing from the battlefield. And over half a century later, we are still awed by the incredible courage of these ordinary Canadian citizens – heroes all, though none of them would have liked to be so called.
Armistice at 11:00 am, 11 November 1918 found the Twentieth advancing on the southwestern Belgian stronghold of Mons. The battalion then marched into Germany and joined the Allied occupation for several months, encamped near Bonn until January. On May 24, 1919, 700 of its officers and men returned to a hero’s welcome at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. They were the lucky few. Another 855 had perished and thousands were wounded. Demobilised in May, the 20thBattalion was disbanded on September 15, 1920.