When we first think of war service, we often think about the horrifying and dangerous role of the soldier. Over 600,000 Canadians from all walks of life enlisted for military service. There are as many different stories to discover in the collections of Library and Archives Canada as there are different people who joined the Canadian forces. Many Canadians of British heritage jumped at the chance to serve God, King and Empire. Despite official fears over the acceptance of soldiers with non-Western European origins in the Canadian military, men with East Indian, African and South American backgrounds also served. As well, the proud role that volunteer Native Canadian warriors played in the First World War enlisting with the contingents bound for overseas should not be overlooked. Their stories, and countless others, are waiting for you to find them!
As is seen by the valuable contributions of Canadian women, fighting was not the only way that Canadians could serve. For a society unfamiliar with the destruction of war, the First World War appeared to promise adventure for Canada's youth. Some did join the Canadian forces, while many others contributed at home in the farms and factories, or participated in programs run by the YMCA or by the Boys Scouts of Canada.
Canada was an ideal nation for wartime production and training. Separated by an ocean from the battle fields of Europe, wartime goods -- from shells to blankets -- could be manufactured in relative safety. Men from all over the world also came to Canada to train in the various arts of war. Perhaps one of the most interesting programs that was offered in Canada was that of air warfare. In the Imperial Air Training Schools young men learned the new science airplane aviation which, for a select few, elevated the European conflict out of the trenches and into the sky. The crisis over mandatory military service, or conscription, that Canada underwent shows that not all Canadians were in favour of the War. Those who did not want to fight were commonly seen as being lazy, or unpatriotic. Some Canadian citizens were even imprisoned because the taking of life was against their personal, or religious beliefs. It need not be said that the Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War showed incredible courage in the face of extreme horror. However, much courage would have been needed, as well, to stand up for your beliefs knowing that their unpopularity led to ridicule, abuse and possible imprisonment.
As you can see, Canadians served in many different ways. Now it is your turn to see more on any of the above topics, or to research your own story.
Native Canadians and the War
During the First World War, the official policy of the Dominion Government stated that Native Canadians should not participate in the conflict. At this time, First Nations' Peoples did not have the right to vote and were considered through treaties and the Indian Act
to be wards of the state. Government officials argued, since Native Canadians did not receive all the rights of citizens, they should not be expected to fulfill the obligations of citizens. It was also argued that in many First Nations' treaties it was stipulated that band members would be exempt from any Canadian military service. Unofficially, more racist and uninformed attitudes were held by some Canadians who believed that Indians
would not be able to adapt to life in the predominately white battalions.
Despite the official policy of the Dominion Government and the racist attitudes of some Canadians, warriors from Canada's First Nations did fight in the First World War. Author, poet and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott observed that over 3,500 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force representing about 35 percent of the Native male population of military age. Considering the relatively limited incomes at the time, Native Canadians also made a large contribution totalling almost $45,000 to the various wartime relief and aid funds.
Since all Native soldiers were volunteers, there was no initial attempt to develop any all-Aboriginal units. As the War continued, however, the idea of Native units gained more credence. The 114th Battalion, for example, raised two complete Native companies. However, like the fate of many Canadian battalions, the 114th was broken up in England and the men scattered to other units. Those who enlisted came from various backgrounds ranging from farmers and tradesmen to celebrities such as Olympic runner Thomas Longboat. Another notable Native Canadian soldier was Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, who died leading a charge in the Second Battle of Ypres. Brant came from a proud military lineage being the great-great grandson of the Mohawk Loyalist soldier Joseph Brant. After the War, a system of loans was set up for Native veterans, or their widows, so that they could acquire new agricultural land or improve existing farms.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, accession 1992-93/166, box 5730-27, #862805, Thomas Longboat
Attestation Paper of Thomas Longboat
Tom Longboat gained international fame as a championship runner from the Six Nations in Brant County. During the First World War, his skills were put to use delivering messages in the trenches. Attestation Papers, like Longboat’s, are great sources for genealogy providing information on birth, employment, appearance and next of kin.
Library and Archives Canada. MG 30 E 43. Published with the permission of the Municipality of Brant County, Ontario
Letter to the Chiefs of the Six
Nation Indians in Council from Various Officials of Brant County, Ontario, 1 May 1915
Nation Indians in Council from Various Officials of Brant County, Ontario, 1 May 1915 This letter from the civic, military and religious leaders of Brant County, thanks the people of the Six Nations for the contributions of not only Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres, but of all Native Canadians who have fought for Canada.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 10, series C-V-8, vol. 11154, file 34
Memorandum from Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs Concerning Indian Land Settlement Loans, 6 May 1919
In this document, Duncan Campbell Scott outlines the Department of Indian Affairs policy with the issuance of loans to purchase, or improve, agricultural land for Native veterans and widows of the Great War.
The Great War was a time of emotional extremes for young Canadians. The change of daily routine and the novelty of war filled young lives with fun and adventure. At the same time, the horrific reality of war and the restrictions to freedom that followed meant much sacrifice and sorrow. It was Canada's young men, filled with imperialistic ideals of war and honour, that enrolled in the Royal Military College, enlisted for active service, were wounded and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Young Canadians also served on the Home Front. Girls and boys were called upon to help with all aspects of wartime production assisting from factory to farm work. National voluntary organizations, like the YMCA, helped to fund and facilitate projects, like the Farm Service Corps, that gainfully employed the youth. Writings exist, like that from Lois Allan's diary, showing how young Canadians mixed fun with the hard work they were asked to do. Youth organizations, like the Boy Scouts of Canada, also mixed fun with hard work and discipline. Scouts through their participation in many fund raising and relief projects learned the importance of civic responsibility and preparedness.
There were many other ways that Canada's youth made a difference during the Great War. These stories are waiting to be discovered and told.
Library and Archives Canada, Photographer: Margaret Henderson. PA-203478
Portrait of William A. “Billy” Bishop as a cadet at Royal Military College in Kingston, ca. 1914.
William Avery Bishop, from Owen Sound, started at the Royal Military College in 1911 at the age of seventeen. Bishop, who struggled with his studies, was in his third year at RMC when Canada entered the War. He left the College before completion, opting instead to enlist with the cavalry. He later joined the Royal Flying Corps, where he later rose to fame as a flying ace.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: J.B. Dorion. PA-122937
Early Army Recruits From Metcalfe, Ont., 1914
This photograph depicts the young face of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. From left to right are young recruits Duff Crerar, Elmo Sully and Ross Campbell all from the small town of Metcalfe in Ontario.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: Alf. Sherman. PA-003535
A Canadian Aged 17, in C.C.S. (Casualty Clearing Station) Wounded Fifteen Minutes Before Armistice (11 AM, 11 November 1918)
Casualty Clearing Stations were designed as the second line of battlefield medical treatment. Situated in a safe area behind the conflict, they were still close enough to the Front to receive the wounded quickly. From a C.C.S. a patient could undergo emergency surgery, or be stabilized for further hospital treatment. The soldier in this photograph has been identified as Private Lawrence of Brantford, Ontario.
Library and Archives Canada. C-033428
Piper James Cleland Richardson, V.C. 16th Battalion, C.E.F.
James Cleland Richardson was the fourth youngest Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross, dying at age twenty during the Battle of the Somme. According to official reports, when Richardson and his comrades reached a particularly well-defended section of German barbed wire, the piper, without hesitation, strode along it playing loudly. This action, in the face of enemy fire, inspired his fellow Canadians to successfully storm the position. After the battle, while assisting with the transportation of the wounded, Richardson went back to fetch his pipes never to return.
Library and Archives Canada. Photographer: W.J. Topley Studio. PA-042857
Group in Front of the Patriotic Relief Fund Headquarters, Ottawa, Ont., September 1914
Boy Scouts were very involved in their communities and were effective canvassers for the Relief efforts of the Great War. Here a group of scouts pose in front of the Headquarters for the Patriotic Relief Fund in Ottawa.
Library and Archives Canada. MG 28 I 95, vol. 199. Published with the permission of the YMCA of Canada
Excerpt from the Report of the Second Convention of YMCAs of Canada Regarding Boys’ Work Department
The Young Men’s Christian Association of Canada played a key role in organizing Canada’s youth in productive activities during the Great War. This excerpt pertaining to the Boys’ Works Department is found in the Report of the Second Convention of YMCAs of Canada; the Convention was held in Ottawa during November 1917. The photographic, film and documentary collections of both the YMCA and YWCA are held by Library and Archives Canada.
Training the World: The Example of Flight Training Schools in Canada
Early in 1915, the British War Office and Admiralty authorized the enrollment of Canadians for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) respectively. The importance of the airplane for aerial reconnaissance was quickly realized by the Imperial command in Britain. The Canadian Government, however, was not as receptive to the idea of a Canadian flying corps and early flight training in Canada was achieved largely due to the efforts of a few dynamic and resourceful individuals.
J.A.D. McCurdy -- who piloted the Silver Dart in the first controlled, powered flight in Canada -- opened an aviation school in Toronto with the assistance of American aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1915. From this school, students from all over the world earned flight certificates which qualified them for further service in the RFC and the RNAS. In the two years of the school's operation, over 130 men received their flight qualifications including Raymond Callishaw, Robert Leckie and A.B. Shearer. Also at this time, Lieutenant-Colonel William Hamilton Merritt travelled independently from one end of Canada to the other promoting the idea of having a series of Canadian flight training schools. The Dominion Government continued its refusal to give official sanction to the idea; however, Merritt was able to bring a broader awareness of the issue raising over $200,000 in donations from interested Canadians.
By the end of 1916, plans were underway to set up a Royal Flying Corps, Canada school in Camp Borden, Ontario entirely funded by the Imperial Government in Britain. In the spring of 1917, the first Canadian aerodrome at Camp Borden opened and soon afterwards the training of various squadrons was undertaken at Long Branch, Leaside, and Armour Heights near Toronto and also at Rathbun and Mohawk, near Deseronto, Ontario. Worries over the Canadian winter climate and the entry of the United States into the conflict led to the establishment of an affiliated school in Fort Worth, Texas, where many students migrated to in the fall of 1917. The various Canadian training centres swung into full operation by the spring of 1918 instructing students from the basics of flight and reconnaissance to the new art of aerial combat. Although funded by the Imperial Government, the operations of the Royal Flying Corps and all of the sections of the Aviation Department in Canada were a made-in-Canada success being entirely staffed with, and co-ordinated by, Canadians.
Library and Archives Canada. RG 38, series D-9, vol. 437, file M-25-11
Recruitment Poster for Aerial Warriors
Although not officially sanctioned by the Dominion Government, recruitment for the Imperial Royal Flying Corps began in Canada during 1915. The Royal Flying Corps offered an alluring alternative to the traditional forms of warfare. Up to the War, those who mastered the new technology of the airplane were perceived as being young, daring and fearless. These were exactly the type of men, aged 18 to 30, that the RFC wanted to build their corps of aerial warriors.
Library and Archives Canada. C-024435
Curtiss JN-4 Aircraft C332 of RFC (Royal Flying Corps) Canada, Camp Borden, Ont., c. 1917
Students in the Royal Flying Corps, Canada learned the basics of flight in aircraft such as the Curtiss JN-4. The wood frame, canvas and wire construction made the plane light enough for its engine to provide sufficient lift and manoeuverability. Unfortunately, the materials of early twentieth-century aviation did not offer much protection against the elements, or German bullets.
The "Enemy from Within" and Those Who Chose Not to Fight
One aspect of the Great War that can be difficult for contemporary Canadians to reconcile with is the fear and mistrust of immigrants and foreign ideas that existed. From the late 1890s to the first decade of the twentieth century, the population of Canada had undergone an incredible change. The government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had openly encouraged European immigration to Canada for settlement of what was called "The Last, Best West." Over a million people came to Canada during this time bringing an unprecedented plurality of religion, language and race to our shores. For a country that had been predominately British and French for the greater part of a century, this change in demography was difficult for some Canadians to accept.
War with Germany immediately brought the underlying fear of an "enemy from within" to the surface of Canadian society. The movement of all German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants were curtailed by the Dominion Government through the use of special passes which identified the ethnic origin of the holder and were to be carried at all times. These "aliens" of a German or Austro-Hungarian origin had to report to the police at regular intervals and could be imprisoned for failure to report, or for appearing to be sympathetic with enemy activities. Various internment camps were set up across Canada where over 83,000 people were detained during the course of the War.
More loathed, however, than the alien in Canada were those who chose not to fight. Pacificism, although a socially acceptable pursuit for women like Julia Grace Wales, was not a respectable philosophy for men. Those who did not fight were either seen as being allied with the Germans, or as being cowards. The non-violent ways of some religious groups, like the Mennonites, were well known and under terms of their immigration they were exempt from military service. However, conscientious objectors who were not a part of these groups, and refused to enlist for non-voluntary service, faced ridicule and possible imprisonment. Some pacificists served bravely as stretcher bearers, or in other non-aggressive capacities in the War. Other conscientious objectors were adamant in refusing mandatory service and were imprisoned. By the end of the War there were still 34 men imprisoned, for their non-violent beliefs, in various prisons across Canada.
Library and Archives Canada, RG 13, series A-2, vol. 225, file 1918-1582
Letter from J.H. Rivers, Warden Lethbridge Provincial Gaol to the Deputy Minister of Justice, 6 July 1918
Although many Canadians were not as extreme in their opinion of conscientious objectors as this prison warden, the stereotypes expressed in this letter would not have been uncommon at the time. The final handwritten paragraph is perhaps the most telling, as the warden requests the removal of conscientious objectors from his prison and for the Dominion Government to stop "any more of this Kind from coming to a respectable jail."
Library and Archives Canada. RG 13, series A-2, vol. 225, file 1918-1582
Memorandum from W.S. Hughes, Superintendent of Penitentiaries to the Deputy Minister of Justice, 2 May 1919
Six months after the conclusion of the Great War, there were still 34 citizens imprisoned for refusing military service, being conscientious objectors.