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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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Did You Know That…

Serving the world from our shores

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.

Canada's Youth

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. For suggestions of more diaries, photos, or records of individuals, or youth groups, from the First World War, consult our on-line research tool ArchiviaNet.

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.

There are many collections held in Library and Archives Canada regarding the training and exploits of Canada's flyers during the First World War. If you want to know more please consult our on-line catalogue ArchiviaNet.

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.