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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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Did You Know That…

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Investigating a life in history can be one of the most fascinating ways to look at the past. Biographies are currently very popular and can be found on the Internet, on television, or in print. If you have been bitten by the biography bug, then there is no better place than Library and Archives Canada to find information on your favourite Canadian from the past.

You will find the names of several interesting Canadians listed below. Some of them may be more well known to you for their efforts in the Great War, such as William "Billy" Bishop, the flying ace, and John McCrae, the poet of "In Flanders Fields." Others participated in the First World War, but left their mark on Canadian history later in their lives. Click on the links to find out more about what Library and Archives Canada holds in its collections on these Canadians. If you have a particular person in mind who is not on the list, go directly to our on-line catalogue to explore descriptions of our collections.

John George Bannerman Diefenbaker (1895-1979)

John Diefenbaker, though better known for his political achievements, was one of the over 600,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Diefenbaker, who was injured in a training accident, never had the opportunity to serve in a combat role in the Great War. Later, as the thirteenth Prime Minister, his government introduced the Canadian Bill of Rights (1958), appointed the first Aboriginal Senator (1958), extended the franchise to all Native Canadians (1960), and created the National Hospital Insurance Plan (1961). It was his government that also cancelled the famous supersonic Avro Arrow program. Born in Neustadt, Ontario in 1895, John Diefenbaker died in 1979 and is buried in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. If you would like to find out more on what Library and Archives Canada holds concerning Diefenbaker's life and career, consult our on-line catalogue ArchiviaNet.

Lester Bowles Pearson (1897-1972)

Former Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lester B. Pearson, served during the First World War in both the Canadian Army Medical and the Royal Flying Corps. After the War, Pearson continued with his academic studies and in the 1920s lectured in history at the University of Toronto. In the late 1920s, Pearson started what was to be a long and productive career in the Department of External Affairs. In the late 1950s, he became the leader of the Liberal Party and succeeded John Diefenbaker to become the fourteenth Prime Minister of Canada. Two notable achievements of Pearson's government were the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan and the creation of a new national flag, now known the world-over as the quintessential symbol of Canada. Born in Newtonbrook, Ontario in 1897, Pearson died in Ottawa in 1972. Search ArchiviaNet to find sources concerning Lester B. Pearson in the collections of Library and Archives Canada.

Nellie McClung (1873-1951)

Nellie Letitia McClung was a prominent political activist and writer who continued her work in the promotion of women's suffrage and prohibition into the Great War. After the War, she became a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta and was a member of the "Famous Five" who fought for women to be considered "persons" before the law. Later in her life, she was on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's first board of governors. Born in Ontario in 1873, she spent most of her life in Western Canada, dying in Victoria on September 1, 1951. If you want to find out more about the fascinating life, engaging writings and political exploits of Nellie McClung, click on one of the links below.

William Avery "Billy" Bishop (1894-1956)

William Avery Bishop is known as being one of the top flying aces of the First World War with a total of 72 air victories to his credit. Born in Owen Sound in 1894, he enrolled in the Royal Military College (RMC) at Kingston, at the age of seventeen. Bishop jumped at the chance to enlist in the First World War leaving his studies while still in his third year at RMC. After a short time with the cavalry, he joined the Royal Flying Corps where he earned several commendations including the Military Cross (M.C.), the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.), the Distinguished Flying Cross (D.F.C.)and the Victoria Cross (V.C.) for his, "conspicuous gallantry… bravery, determination and skill" in aerial warfare. After the War, Bishop entered into business with fellow Canadian ace, W.G. Barker and was later an honourary Air Marshall in the Second World War. References to photos, diaries and letters concerning Bishop, Barker and other Canadian heros of the First World War are just a click away on Library and Archives Canada on-line research tool ArchiviaNet.

John McCrae (1872-1918)

If one poem can be synonymous with the First World War, it is Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields." John McCrae was born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872. He studied medicine at the University of Toronto and interned with the famous Canadian physician Sir William Osler, at Johns Hopkins University. In 1899, McCrae postponed his medical studies to answer the imperial call to enlist for the Boer War. After the conflict, where he served in the Royal Canadian Artillery, he returned to medical practice at McGill University in Montreal. Throughout this time McCrae was an avid writer of poetry and was frequently published.

Fervent in the imperial cause, McCrae enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps soon after the declaration of war in 1914. "In Flanders Fields" was written during the Battle of Ypres in 1915 as McCrae was waiting for casualties. It was at Ypres that the German forces first used poisonous chlorine gas in combat. McCrae would have been one of the first to witness and treat the excruciating painful burns and blisters of the victims.

McCrae died of pneumonia and meningitis brought on from overwork in January 1918. If you want to find out more about his vocation as healer, or avocation of poet, click on the links below.

Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923)

Andrew Bonar Law was the only Canadian ever to be Prime Minister of Britain. Born in 1858, in New Brunswick, he later moved to Glasgow after the death of his mother. In Scotland, he became involved in the family's iron-working business. At the turn of the twentieth century, Bonar Law was elected to the British Parliament. In 1911, he became head of the Conservative Party and after the outbreak of the Great War formed a coalition government with Herbert Asquith.

Bonar Law was a good friend of Sir Robert Bordenand he maintained close relations with Canada as Secretary of State for the Colonies. After the 1916 election, that brought in the government of David Lloyd George, Bonar Law was appointed to the higher position of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Bonar Law became Prime Minister of Great Britain, briefly and reluctantly, from October 1922 to May 1923, after Lloyd George's tenure. Bonar Law later died in October 1923. A collection of correspondence from Andrew Bonar Law can be found in Library and Archives Canada.

Sir Arthur Doughty (1860-1936) and Gustave Lanctôt (1883-1975)

The idea of the archivist as soldier is, understandably, not commonly held. While archivists strike fear in the hearts of few, their role in the collection and preservation of the memory of the nation is crucial to understanding our past, maintaining our present liberties, and preparing us for the future. In the First World War, it was the duty of Dominion Archivist Arthur Doughty and future Dominion Archivist Gustave Lanctôt to ascertain and collect wartime materials for the use of future generations of Canada. Both Doughty and Lanctôt were granted military commissions and by the end of the conflict had been promoted to the rank of Colonel and Major respectively.

Doughty was the consummate collector. The material he acquired during his tenure as Dominion Archivist such as the Northcliffe Collection, the Elgin Papers and transcriptions of various colonial documents were cornerstones of the early Library and Archives Canada. His scope of acquisition, being much broader than modern archivists, often included artifacts, such as the tunic worn by Sir Isaac Brock, or the chair of General Wolfe. Doughty and Lanctôt, as well as identifying important documents, collected various war trophies from the conflict. This material was sent back for display in Canada to assist in promoting War relief efforts and bolster patriotism. At the end of the War, a program was set up to distribute the various War trophies to communities across Canada. Many parks and public spaces still display these trophies, some of which you might have played on, or around, when you were a child.

Edwin Albert Baker (1893-1968)

There are few stories forged out of the Great War as inspirational as that of Edwin Albert Baker, advocate for the visually impaired and charter member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). Baker was born in 1893 in Ernesttown, Ontario and later went to Queen's University in Kingston, to become an electrical engineer. Fresh out of university in 1914, Baker qualified for the rank of Lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Engineers. In April 1915, Baker, with the 6th Field Company, Canadian Engineers, embarked for England. Less than one month after arriving in France in September 1915, Baker was totally blinded by a sniper's bullet.

After his initial treatment, he was sent to St. Dunstan's Hospital for the War Blinded in London run by Sir Arthur Pearson. It was there that Baker learned various skills to facilitate his return to society, such as reading brail and typing. While at St. Dunstan's, Sir Arthur Pearson was amazed at the unprecedented recovery and ability that Baker had in coping with his visual impairment. The many letters to Baker's family from Pearson, along with Edwin Albert Baker's correspondence and photographs are found in the holdings of Library and Archives Canada.

Baker was a life-long advocate for the visually impaired. He help to found the CNIB and through his role of Managing Director raised awareness of the challenges and triumphs of the blind throughout the world. For his efforts, Baker was bestowed honourary doctorates from Queen's University and the University of Toronto, he was a Companion of the Order of Canada, an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), and a recipient of the French Croix de Guerre. He received many awards for his work including the American Association for the Blind's Migel Medal and the Helen Keller Award for Distinguished Service to the Blind. Baker died, after an incredible life of service in 1968, in Perret's Bay, Ontario, near Kingston.

Francis "Franz" Johnston (1888-1949) and Mary Riter Hamilton (1873-1954)

In society, the role of the artist holds great importance. It is through the artist's eyes, and their interpretation of reality, that we can gain alternate perspectives of the world in which we live. Canadians through the works by artists such as Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley and A.Y. Jackson gained a horrifying and, sometimes, eerily beautiful look at the world transformed by the Great War.

Francis "Franz" Johnston was another such artist that transformed the perspective of Canadians. Attached to the Royal Flying Corps Canada, Johnston gave many Canadians their first view from the skies. A manuscript by Johnston, found in Library and Archives Canada, sheds some light on the excitement and terror experienced by the neophyte aviator aloft with the new technology of the airplane. After the War, Johnston was amongst those who created the Group of Seven. Although he enjoyed a great deal of commercial success at the time, he is, today, not as well known as many of his Group of Seven contemporaries.

This Web site showcases some of the 227 works of battlefield art that Mary Riter Hamilton gave to Library and Archives Canada. Hamilton, an Ontario native, was hired to paint the battlefields of France during the years of post-war reconstruction from 1919 to 1922. Before the Great War, it was easy for Canadians to believe that society was at its zenith. The fruits of technology and ingenuity were seen everywhere from the airplane to radio. The images that Mary Riter Hamilton painted captured how far humanity had fallen, while offering hope for the possibility of rebirth.

If you like to find out more on the work and contributions of Canadian artists in the First World War visit the Canadian War Museum's virtual exhibition, The Canvas of War. For more information on the holdings of Library and Archives Canada in regard to Franz Johnston, Mary Riter Hamilton or many other artists who captured the War, click on the on-line catalogue ArchiviaNet.