Many Canadians suffered personal tragedies during the Great War. The War tore families apart, heightening emotions of sorrow, fear and hate. In addition to the personal sorrow that befell individual Canadians, there were some tragedies that were experienced on a grander, national scale. The Fire of the Parliament Buildings brought, on a symbolic level, the destruction of war to the very heart of the country. The Halifax Explosion, on the other hand, brought the carnage and horror of war to Canada in a very real sense. The Quebec Bridge Disaster and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic were examples of man-made and natural disasters that were worsened through their impact on a war-weary society. The events listed above are just a few examples of some of the disasters that gripped the Home Front. If you want to know about these events, click on the links below. However, if you would like to know more on other wartime tragedies, be an explorer and investigate some of the many books and Web sites that there are on the First World War.
Fire of the Parliament Buildings -- 4 February 1916
On the evening of February 3, 1916, a mysterious fire engulfed the elegant Gothic-Revival Centre Block of Parliament Hill. The intense flames consumed the building rapidly with the interior of the central tower collapsing just after midnight. While most were able to safely exit, the Ottawa Citizen reported that seven people were known to have perished in the blaze. The Parliamentary Library, and the priceless collection of books within, was fortuitously saved through the closing of heavy metal doors which separated it from the rest of the original Centre Block.
Many of the newspapers of the day playing to public fears of German conspiracy immediately published that the fire was a deliberate act of sabotage. The Toronto Globe reported that while "officially" the cause of the fire was a carelessly left cigar, "unofficial Ottawa, including many Members of Parliament, declare 'the Hun hath done this thing.'"
The Victoria Memorial Museum, now the home of the Canadian Museum of Nature, was chosen as the site for Parliament until the structure could be rebuilt. On September 1, 1916, the Governor General of Canada, His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught, laid the cornerstone for the new Centre Block. This act was one of Connaught's last as Governor General as he soon left Canada to a command in the British forces.
Library and Archives Canada, Photographer: J.B. Reid, C-010079
Parliament Building Fire. Taken at 12:30 AM, a few minutes before the tower fell on February 4, 1916.
Although a German conspiracy was originally suspected, the fire that destroyed the Centre Block was later reported as being caused by an unattended cigarette, or cigar, being left too close to loose papers. The photo, taken by J.B. Reid, is one of many of the blaze found in the Canada Patent and Copyright Collection
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: John Boyd, RD-000237
Firemen spraying water on the Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, February 4, 1916
In the mid-winter temperatures of February, the water from firefighters' hoses transformed the burned-out ruins of the Centre Block into a beautiful, crystalline Gothic-Revival palace.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: Samuel J. Jarvis, PA-024985
Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, Ont. February 4, 1916 after the fire which started the night before
A view from the West Block shows the extent of the devastation the day after the fire. In the foreground of the Centre Block is the tower which the familiar Peace Tower now replaces. In the back of the photo the silhouette of the Library, which survived the blaze, can be seen.
Library and Archives Canada. POS-199
Fathers of Confederation, 50th Anniversary Stamp of Confederation 1917
The fiftieth anniversary of Confederation should have been a high point in Canadian history; however, it fell during some of the darkest moments of the War. The Post Office issued this three-cent commemorative stamp featuring Robert Harris’ famous painting of the Fathers of Confederation. The original of this work was destroyed in the devastating fire of the Centre Block.
Library and Archives Canada. MG 27 II B3, vol.1
Speech Given by His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught at the Re-Laying of the Cornerstone of the Parliament Building, 1 September 1916
In this speech, the Governor General tries to raise the spirits of Canadians by saying that Canada's troublous times are at a "turning point" and that Canadians should be proud of their young soldiers who continue to fight valiantly for, honour, liberty, justice and humanity. He concludes with a hope that the new Parliament building will be graced, as the old one was, with many distinguished gentlemen promoting the good and advancement of the nation.
Quebec Bridge Disaster -- 11 September 1916
When the Quebec Bridge collapsed in September 1916, a horrific sense of déjà vu was felt throughout the city. The bridge, which was conceived to be one of the most advanced in the world, had already collapsed nine years earlier. Eighty-five workers perished in that tragedy prompting a Dominion Royal Commission to investigate the catastrophic failure. To this day, all graduating engineers from Canadian universities receive iron rings to remind them of this event and the responsibility they have in the proper design and execution of projects.
The second collapse came just as the final section was being lowered into place between the rebuilt iron spans. Several photographers were in place to capture what was to be a triumphant moment. Unfortunately, what they did photograph was the spectacular fall of the middle section into the St. Lawrence River, leaving 11 dead in its wake.
Immediately fears of a German sabotage were reported; however, it was soon clear that another tragic construction accident had befallen the structure. Re-construction began almost immediately after the accident and special permission granted for the bridge builders to acquire the steel that was in high-demand because of the War effort. After the bridge's completion in 1917, special passes were required for those wanting to cross the structure. Armed soldiers, and later Dominion Police, guarded the structure and checked passes until the end of the War.
Library and Archives Canada, Photographer: Chesterfield and McLaren, C-003623
Centre Span of the Quebec Bridge falling into the St. Lawrence River at 10:50 AM, 11 September 1916, Quebec, Que.
The spectacular photograph of the bridge hitting the water was captured by several photographers that were stationed around the structure as the final section was hoisted into place.
Library and Archives Canada. C-002888
Rescuing the Survivors from the Centre Span of the Quebec Bridge after it fell into the St. Lawrence River, 11 September 1916
Even though rescue craft were quickly employed, 11 men died from the fall of the centre section of the Quebec Bridge. Despite two catastrophes and wartime constraints on men and materials, construction on the bridge continued. The Quebec Bridge was finally completed in 1917.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 43, series A-1-2, vol. 432, file 11331
Letter from farmer Jos. Geo. Routhier to Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, 24 September 1918
In this letter, Monsieur Routhier asks the Prime Minister if he may acquire a pass so that he and his family can cross the Quebec Bridge. He tells Borden that he has tried over ten times to get such a pass, but each request had been denied. During this time the protection of the Quebec Bridge, including the issuance and observation of bridge passes, was administered by the Dominion Police.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: E.M. Finn, PA-135835
Military Guard Standing on the north pier of the Quebec Bridge, Quebec, Que., 6 July 1916
A lone sentinel stands guard on one of the massive masonry piers of the Quebec Bridge. This photo was taken by E.M. Finn an employee of the Dominion Bridge Company. Finn originally planned to take photographs from the ill-fated centre section of the bridge on the day of the collapse. His decision to change vantage points at the last minute saved his life.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 43, series A-1-2, vol. 432, file 11331
Letter from A.P. Sherwood, Chief Commissioner of the Dominion Police to the Deputy Minister of Railways and Canals
During the Great War, the Government of Canada ordered the protection of key Dominion public works including the Quebec Bridge. Sherwood, in this letter, writes to the Deputy Minister of Railways and Canals enquiring if the protection of the Quebec Bridge is still required from the Dominion Police now that the War is over.
Halifax Explosion -- 6 December 1917
The devastating explosion in Halifax harbour on December 6, 1917 brought the horrific carnage and destruction of the First World War to Canada's doorstep. The blast, which is said to have been the largest man-made detonation before the invention of the atomic bomb, levelled approximately 2 square kilometres of Halifax and was reported to have been heard as far away as Prince Edward Island.
Halifax harbour was Canada's maritime nerve centre during the First World War. Troop transports, supply vessels and warships all plied the crowded waters around the city embarking and returning from the War effort. On the morning of December 6, 1917, two such vessels, the Imo, a Norwegian vessel employed in the Belgium Relief effort and the French munitions ship Mont Blanc, collided at the narrowest portion of the harbour, just outside of the large Bedford Basin staging area. The Mont Blanc was carrying over 2,500 tons of benzol fuel, TNT, picric acid and gun cotton. It is believed that immediately after the initial collision, the on-deck stores of benzol began to leak and soon ignited. The crew, knowing the danger that they were in, abandoned ship and headed for Dartmouth while the ship drifted towards Pier 6 on the Halifax side. A large group of bystanders, unaware of the volatile cargo, started to gather near the pier to watch the spectacle of the Mont Blanc as it drew closer to the shore.
In an unimaginable flash of light the Mont Blanc exploded, barely 20 minutes after the initial collision. All lines of communication with the city were immediately severed. Over 1,600 people died in the immediate blast with later deaths rising to over 2,000 souls. As in all disasters of this nature, the exact number of those affected will never be known; however, varying accounts argue that up to 9,000 were injured, including approximately 200 to 600 people that were blinded. An outpouring of support came from the rest of Canada, and the world, to assist Haligonians affected by the tragedy. One of the longest running measures of assistance to victims of the explosion is the Halifax Relief Commission. Now administered by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, this program continues to help the remaining victims 84 years after the explosion.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 24, series D-1-a, vol. 5634, file 37-25-1, part 1. Published with the permission of the Royal Society of Canada.
Map of the Devastation of the Blast
The Royal Society of Canada published a scientific report detailing the causes and effects of the Halifax Explosion. This map taken from the report shows the rings of devastation centred around the point where the Mont Blanc
exploded near Pier 6. It has been observed that the Halifax Explosion was the greatest man-made explosion before the Atomic Era and the pattern of devastation is eerily similar to that of an atomic blast.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 24, series D-1-a, vol. 5634, file 37-25-1, part 1
Telegram to Naval Headquarters, Ottawa, 6 December 1917
The violent force of the blast in Halifax harbour disrupted communications isolating the city from the rest of the world. Since the re-establishment of contact was crucial, especially in the height of war, the author of this telegram suggests adopting wireless -- or radio -- communication.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 3, series C-2, vol. 644, file 87629
Letter from W.E. McClelland, Post Office Inspector to R.M. Coulter, Deputy Post Master General
The sheer devastation and suffering that Post Office Inspector McClelland experienced are clearly displayed despite the bureaucratic formalities of this report. While no one was seriously injured in the Inspector’s Office, McClelland writes that other postal branches saw several casualties amongst the employees and that no family was left untouched by the tragedy in the city.
Spanish Influenza Epidemic -- Fall 1918
The chills, aches and fever of the flu is a painful ritual with which all Canadians are familiar. It is rare, however, that the virus is considered a serious threat to the majority of the population. In the fall of 1918, soldiers returning home from the Great War, brought with them an undiscriminating, airborne killer. The Spanish Influenza Epidemic took more victims than the battlefields of Europe killing over 20 million people world-wide with 50,000 deaths in Canada alone. Canada, which had already endured four years of wartime hardship, buckled further under the pressures of the murderous virus. The population donned masks to limit exposure to the airborne microbes while public gatherings were cancelled and public buildings were closed. Medical care was in great demand and health care workers were desperate for new means of treating the sick. While the greatest effects were felt between 1918 and 1919, virulent cases of the flu continued, claiming more victims, well into the 1920s.
Library and Archives Canada, RPA-025025.
Men Wearing Masks During the Spanish Flu, Alberta Fall 1918
The practice of wearing surgical masks in public places became commonplace as the public feared a killer that they could not see.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: O.S. Finnie. PA-100229
Indian Grave on Windiandy Flats Muskeg River [Alberta] A Victim of the Flu in the Autumn of 1918
The influenza virus was just as effective as the soldier’s bullet in killing without discrimination. Although less virulent, the epidemic continued into the 1920s killing eventually over 50,000 Canadians.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 13, series A-2, vol. 229, file 1918-2577
Letter from Dr. T. Rogers, Rosedale, Nova Scotia to Sir Robert Borden, 30 November 1918
The evils of alcohol and the need for the substance’s prohibition had been vociferously argued by members of temperance movements since the early nineteenth century in Canada. Prohibition in Canada was federally legislated on April 1, 1918 with the exception of the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes. Confronted with the painful symptoms of the flu epidemic, physicians searched for the best remedies possible. In this letter, a rural Nova Scotian practitioner pleads with the Dominion Government for help in finding wine and scotch whisky that could be administered legally.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 13, series A-2, vol. 228, file 1918-2233
Letter from George Foster, Acting Prime Minister to the Deputy Minister of Justice, 12 October 1918
The large number of Canadians who fell ill with influenza taxed the already overburdened systems of health care available at the time. The idea of women as natural nurturers and care givers was commonplace and their compassionate actions were seen as a natural foil to the violence and destruction experienced by Canada’s sons. George Foster’s request for any type of female aid, experienced or not, in caring for the victims of influenza reflects this attitude.