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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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Did You Know That…

Tragedy on the home front

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. You can also research keywords through our on-line catalogue ArchiviaNet for references to material in Library and Archives Canada.

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.

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.

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.

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.