Winnipeg’s Great War — Blanchard’s new book is compelling narrative of how the war years affected the city

Editor’s note: Jim Blanchard’s latest book, Winnipeg’s Great War: A City Comes of Age (University of Manitoba Press, $24.95) superbly complements his Winnipeg 1912 (University of Manitoba Press, $24.95) which was released in 2005. While his first book dealt with Winnipeg’s last year of booming economic prosperity that had transformed the city into a Western Canadian powerhouse, his most recent book shows how the First World War, which was then mistakenly referred to as “The War to End All Wars,” profoundly shaped the city’s identity — for better or worse. After 1912, Winnipeg was in the economic doldrums and when the war arrived, it caused Winnipeggers to abandon any hope that a quick miracle would restore their city to its vaunted earlier prominence. Yet, the war years did transform Winnipeg, as women were given the vote by the Manitoba government (the first in Canada), social services were implemented and the labour movement was earning greater social and political  influence. The head of Reference Services at the Elizabth Dafoe Library at the University of Manitoba has skillfully woven the many intricate narratives of the city’s war years into an extremely readable history about a difficult and challenging period. 
The following is an excerpt from Winnipeg’s Great War that vividly relates the patriotic fervour, which in some instances would today be viewed as extremely odious, sweeping through Winnipeg when the call to arms was shouted in the streets.
For Canada, the war began at midnight, London time, Tuesday, August 4, 1914. At that moment, the ultimatum the British had given Germany, demanding that it withdraw from Belgian territory, expired and a state of war existed between the British and German empires.As a dominion with no independent foreign policy, Canada was then automatically at war. 
This momentous news arrived in Winnipeg, 3,900 miles away, two hours later at around 8 p.m. local time. People had been milling in front of the city’s newspaper offices for days, and since late afternoon the crowds had been growing larger, anxiously awaiting information from the centres of the crisis in Europe. Everyone was trying to calculate what time it would be in Winnipeg when it was midnight in London. Bulletins were rushed outside and posted on boards on the wall of the Telegram newspaper office at Albert and McDermot. Later in the war the Telegram would mount an electric tickertape to get the latest news out more quickly. At the Winnipeg Free Press building on Carlton Street a man armed with a megaphone stood on a wooden platform in front of the building and shouted the news to the crowd as it came in over the telegraph wires.
When he announced that war had been declared, the crowds of people filling the street broke into patriotic song. “Rule, Britannia!,” “God Save the King,” “The Old Red, White and Blue,” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and “La Marseillaise” were heard. The Free Press reported that “strong voices took up the strain with a will and a volume of glorious sound roared forth and set the blood of the British crowd racing at top speed.”
There was another outbreak of enthusiasm when the megaphone man announced that the British fleet had been ordered to “capture or destroy the enemy.” “The effect was electric,” the Free Press reported. “The roar that followed resembled what takes place when a match is touched to a powder magazine. Then, stirred to white heat by patriotic sentiment, the great throng burst forth spontaneously into the National Anthem. The vigour of the outburst was thrilling beyond description.” After reading for many years about the race between the European powers to build ever larger and more sophisticated battle ships, the public naturally expected the war to be won or lost at sea. In the end, as usual, it was the long-suffering infantrymen who decided the issue four bitter years later.
The police had blocked traffic on Carlton between Portage and Ellice avenues because of the dense crowd in front of the Free Press building. A frustrated motorist, driving a large seven-passenger touring car, forced his way through and injured several people, one of whom was taken away in the police ambulance. The crowd stormed down the street to the corner of Portage Avenue where another car had stopped. Mistaking the driver for the man who had just driven through the crowd, they charged his car shouting “kill him, mob him.” He was able to convince them he was not the guilty party before any damage was done. It was as if the coming of the war had released deep-seated aggressive feelings in the citizens of Winnipeg.
Both the Conservative Telegram and the Liberal Free Press, rivals in politics and in business, claimed that they were the best source for war news. In reality, they received their news from the same sources, telegraphed from Europe over one of several transatlantic cables. Because of the high cost of sending these messages, agencies like the Associated Press handled the transmission and then distributed the information to subscribers like the Winnipeg papers.
It was no easy matter to obtain news in the early hours of the war. The Free Press complained that the cables were being commandeered for government and military use. Very soon the British would cut the German transatlantic cable and North America thenceforth received little or no news with a German point of view.
The Telegram informed its readers that they would also be printing dispatches from their special correspondent, “Windemere,” in London, and all the papers published letters from troops and others who were overseas to give some background for anxious readers at home. Beginning in 1915 readers could count on the Canadian “Eye Witness,” Lord Beaverbrook, whose staff produced a steady stream of positive stories about the exploits of the Canadian Army.
The first of many military parades took to the Winnipeg streets at 8 p.m. With the conflict only two hours old, the members of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles regiment had been summoned to the drill hall at the corner of Broadway and Osborne. They crossed to the university grounds on the north side of Broadway, formed ranks, and marched up Kennedy Street to Portage Avenue. Their band played the regimental march, “Old Solomon Levi” and “Soldiers of the King,” and the crowds cheered all along the way, many rushing into the street to march beside the militiamen. Street parades were an important propaganda tool for reaching large numbers of people at a time before radio and when a good portion of the population could not read. They were used extensively to educate the populace about war aims, to show that all elements of society supported the war effort, and to impress the public with the quality of the troops Canada was sending to fight.
It was natural that the 90th Regiment should parade first. It was the oldest militia unit in Winnipeg, formed in 1885 at the time of the Métis resistance in Saskatchewan. Named the “Little Black Devils” by a Métis fighter, referring to their black uniforms, the regiment was a favourite with the people of the city. Many members had volunteered to fight in South Africa, and during World War I the unit, in the form of the 8th Battalion, would be recognized for the bravery and toughness of its men.
At Portage and Main the regiment turned north and marched to city hall, and then headed back toward the drill hall again. When they passed McDermot Avenue a man in the crowd grabbed a flag and shouted for people to follow him. The crowd swept along McDermot and turned right at Albert, running north to Market Square, cheering and singing, replacing the orderly marching of the troops with the unrestrained enthusiasm of the crowd.
In front of the Free Press building a young man, William Farmer, described by the newspaper as a “raw-boned six foot specimen of Canadian manhood,” jumped onto the platform and shouted to the crowd to follow him. He and John Blair — they both lived in Aberdeen Court at 230 Carlton — led another spontaneous parade down Portage and up Main to the city hall. The newspaper described a crowd of 6,000 people, men and women, surging along five and six abreast in the street: “In the van walked half a dozen young men carrying a great union jack, which for want of a pole, was carried spread out over their shoulders.”
Another part of the crowd headed for Government House, carrying a Union Jack and a French tricolour, both nailed to clothesline posts taken from someone’s backyard. They poured onto the front lawn of the house, cheering when the lieutenant governor, Douglas Cameron, emerged onto the balcony over the front door. Re-enacting, in a modest fashion, the appearance of the king on a balcony at Buckingham Palace only a short time before, he told the crowd that “Britain will never stop while one drop of blood or one coin of money remains unexpended,” adding that France was equally determined to win. The crowd was in a mood to cheer and Cameron’s grim words were greeted with wild applause.
A Free Press reporter visited the city’s two largest hotels, hoping to get some reactions to the war news. He found the corridors full of guests discussing events. At the Fort Garry Hotel, which was crowded with attendees at the Knights of Pythias convention, many of the American delegates said they sympathized with the French and British cause. At the Royal Alexandra, the reporter talked to one of the hotel’s chefs who was from Alsace Lorraine. He had five brothers, three of whom were fighting in the kaiser’s army and two in the army of France. A guest of Austrian birth, “now a loyal British subject,” he said Canada “had been good to me” and he had married a Canadian woman. “Naturally I wish the Empire well,” he said, but he could not help but feel a natural sympathy for the land where he was born, “not sympathy for the diplomats and those who brought on the war, but for the people.”
Outside on the streets such honest sentiments had suddenly become sufficient cause for a beating. At least one man who admitted to being a German was set upon by a crowd and had to be carried home. The Free Press reported “there were several fights as a result of the war spirit…. Everything was English, Canadian and French last night. Not a German dared show his head and proclaim his nationality.” In the city’s North End, it was noticeably quiet: “The foreigners in the city, many of whom belong to nations now enemies of Great Britain showed good common sense in keeping well out of sight. So far as is known they refrained entirely from tactless demonstrations.”
Many who had come to Winnipeg from Austro-Hungarian provinces in what is now Poland or Ukraine may well have hoped an Allied victory would free their homelands. But such subtleties of European politics would have been lost on the crowds, and wisely, at least for the moment, the city’s eastern European migrants kept a low profile.
The hotel bars throughout the downtown were packed with men toasting the beginning of the war. One of them amused the crowds by marching along the sidewalk on Main Street with a broomstick for a rifle. “Every once in a while he would stop and mark time. Then he would give himself the order ‘forward march’ and would start off again. He created many a laugh along the street,” said the Free Press report. Another drinker strutted along behind the parade of Winnipeg Rifles, “and strove valiantly to imitate the military bearing of the officer before him.”
The Free Press reported that not everyone in the crowd was celebrating. The veterans, who knew better what war meant, fell in with the military bands, but their faces were grim and their jaws “thrust forward.” Of course, on August 4 no one could know the extent to which the war just beginning would surpass previous wars in horror and casualties. Very soon, however, the newspapers would begin to carry stories of the first great battles between French and German troops with their enormous losses on both sides, and most thoughtful people quickly realized what kind of war this was going to be.
When the men of the 90th Regiment marched back to the drill hall, Major W.A. Munro addressed them, saying that their colonel, the sixty-year-old bank manager John de Courcey O’Grady, who was sick in bed, had offered the regiment for service. He said the regiment’s office would be open in the morning for recruiting, but ten men pushed forward and handed in their names, the first of many thousands of Winnipeggers who would volunteer to fight in World War I.
Prime Minister Robert Borden had offered the British government a force of 22,000 Canadian men, and on that evening of August 4 militia officials in Winnipeg and the staff of the Military District Number 10 headquarters, housed in Fort Osborne Barracks at Broadway and Osborne, probably thought they were about to start putting the militia’s official mobilization plan into action. The plan, devised by Canada’s small corps of mostly British staff officers in Ottawa, called for the commanders of the country’s military divisions and districts to organize companies of men and send them off to Camp Petawawa near the capital where they would be trained and equipped to go overseas.
Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, had other ideas. A militiaman all his life — he had risen from the rank of bugler to be colonel of the 45th Victoria Regiment of Lindsay, Ontario — he was confident that he and his fellow militia colonels could get an army in the field faster than the professional staff officers in Ottawa with their red tape and procedures. He knew that most of the militia commanders were, like him, businessmen and successful men of affairs who knew how to get things done. They were eager to get into the fight.
Hughes had a low opinion of professional soldiers. A teetotaller, he saw them as womanizing drunkards. His prejudices sprang in part from his experiences during the South African War. He had gone to South Africa eager to see action. After a good deal of lobbying he was given a job as a staff officer with one of the British formations and he seems to have done a competent job. But he soon objected to the tradition-bound British commanders and what he saw as their incompetence. When he took his criticisms, well founded though they were in the early stages of the war, to the press, he was asked to go home and his short career as a wartime officer came to an end. Not for the last time, Hughes’s lack of judgement and tact reduced his effectiveness.
Now Hughes, as a Cabinet minister, was in a position to overrule his professional staff officers, and on August 6 he sent express telegrams directly to 276 militia commanders across Canada asking for lists of milita personnel, their stature, marital status, and abilities as marksmen. A week later the militia colonels were asked to dispatch 125 officers and men from each regiment to Valcartier, near Québec City, where a new army camp was under construction. In less than a month, under Hughes’s constant and personal supervision, the more than 30,000 men of the First Contingent were organized into the rough approximation of an army. The process was flawed and chaotic, but dispatching the Canadian Expeditionary Force to England less than two months after the declaration of war was nevertheless an amazing feat.
In Winnipeg the militia units wasted no time in drawing young volunteers in with parades, martial music, and flags. On Wednesday, August 5, 460 members of the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers regiment turned out at their headquarters on Main Street just north of York Avenue, and many signed up for active service. The Grenadiers, founded in April 1910, were one of the new regiments created in recent years as part of a wide-ranging reform of the militia. The regiment recruited men for a number of World War I battalions and in 1915 would send a Grenadiers battalion, the 78th, to the front. Most militia regiments wanted to have a battalion identified with their unit, and some of the Winnipeg regiments were successful in achieving that goal. Other battalions from Winnipeg were composite units with companies from different regiments.
Accompanied by their band, the Grenadiers marched through the streets, and crowds marched along with them. As they returned to their barracks they were joined by a column of French and Belgian reservists from St. Boniface, carrying their nations’ flags. The regimental band played the Marseillaise and there was more cheering. Colonel J.B. Mitchell, the commanding officer, spoke to the crowds. Many young men listened eagerly and pushed forward to volunteer. Mitchell, the Winnipeg School Board architect who had designed most of the schools attended by the young men before him, was close to sixty-five years old in 1914. He was a veteran of the North West Mounted Police and had been a major in the Winnipeg Grenadiers, but his only fighting experience had been in Ontario during the Fenian Raids in the 1860s. Too old to go to the front, he would spend the war doing administrative work and recruiting and organizing units going overseas.
On August 7, 50,000 citizens lined the streets to see a parade of the 79th Cameron Highlanders. Winnipeg had a long history of Scots settlement, so the Camerons were always a favourite. The regiment, 500-strong and led by Colonel James A. Cantlie, Major Hugh Osler, and Major McKay on horseback, marched along Main Street and over to St. Boniface, where they too were joined by a contingent carrying the French flag. The Telegram enthusiastically reported that “nothing has done so much to cement the feeling between the citizens of French and English descent during the past week than the sight of the two flags flying in front of the parade of one of Winnipeg’s favorite regiments.”
The Camerons, joined by the Highland Cadets at the Industrial Bureau building at Main and Water, continued their march up Main Street to city hall and then back to their barracks at Main and York. When the parade was over, more than 1,000 men crowded around to hear Colonel Cantlie. He announced they would parade again on Saturday and Monday so that he could “get in touch with you and let you get in touch with me.” This was recruiting the way it had always been done, and anyone brought up on the novels of G.A. Henty and publications like the Boy’s Own Paper would recognize the scene: the band, the flag, a stirring speech from the colonel, and young men, carried away by the excitement of the moment, rushing forward to join up. About forty volunteered that night.
During the next four and a half years, the regiment would send 3,891 men overseas, one-third of whom would be killed in the war. The Camerons’ first contribution was one company for the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion composed of companies from Scots regiments in Halifax, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Later, the Camerons would raise their own battalion, the 43rd.
There was a roster for volunteers in the club rooms of the Army and Navy Veterans’ Association above the Home Bank on Main Street, and many men signed their names there. Among them was seventy-two- year-old J.M. Ferres, who had also served in the militia in the 1860s. Ferres “declared that…his experience, knowledge and his life” were at the service of the Empire.
Far into the night that Friday restless crowds of men and boys paraded, halting at every street corner to sing “Rule, Britannia!” or “God Save the King.” Cars decorated with flags roared around the downtown streets. The city’s well-developed boosterism was in evidence when the Winnipeg Telegram stated, “Undoubtedly Winnipeg has reached the acme of patriotism and no matter what the reason, the enthusiasm of its citizens will not be outdone in any part of the British Empire.”
The patriotic demonstrations of the first week climaxed on Saturday when the city’s veterans turned out to support the cause. Gathering at Market Square, they marched to the 90th Regiment’s drill hall on Broadway. Those too old to march rode in cars provided by Eaton’s and the Ford Motor Company. There were veterans of the South African War, as well as men who had fought the Métis resistance in 1885 and others who had served in the British Army and Navy. Several bands played, and at the drill hall the crowd was addressed by Lieutenant-Governor Cameron and Premier Roblin. Roblin put the situation succinctly: “Great Britain is at war and when the Motherland is at war, Canada is at war.” Cameron added that it was “the duty of every man in the Empire to rally to the call that is before the Motherland.” Hugh John Macdonald, a veteran of 1885, had marched in the parade. As a former premier and son of Sir John A. Macdonald, he often played a symbolic role at such times and, after some coaxing from the crowd, he too spoke, saying “it is time for the sons of Britain over the seas to show they are true sons of the race.” He said that all the veterans were ready to fight but the men who had served in South Africa would make the best recruits: “They have the youth and experience and none could be better coming from a fighting race as they do.”As it would turn out, experience fighting irregular Boer troops on the open veldt would prove to be of little value in the muddy chaos of World War I.
By “race,” Macdonald was referring to the people of the British Isles and their relatives in the British Empire around the world. The “Anglo Saxon race” was supposed to have a fighting spirit superior to that of other races. This idea carried with it the corollary that other groups were not sufficiently martial in spirit to make good soldiers. According to the “Great Chain of Race” idea popular at the time, people were valued according to how closely they were related to the Anglo-Celtic population of the British Isles. White Americans, Scandinavians, and, until the war, Germans, were considered to be almost the equals of the Anglo-Saxon. Others, such as southern Europeans, Africans, Asians, and the Aboriginal people of Canada were at the bottom of the chain and hardly worth considering.
These biases informed Canadian recruiting in the first years of the war. Sam Hughes set out to create an army of sober, upright Protestant volunteers. The Canadian Expeditionary Force eventually had over 50,000 members of the Orange Lodge in its ranks, although that figure is not surprising given the lodge’s large membership at the time. With the exception of the 22nd Battalion, French volunteers usually found themselves serving in English-language units and French militia officers were not given commands at the front. The long traditions of Quebec militia regiments were ignored and discounted by Hughes.
In spite of the prejudices of Canadians like Sam Hughes, the members of ethnic groups other than the British quickly responded to the call for volunteers and demonstrated their willingness to die for their new country. Both people from the visible minorities such as Aboriginal, Japanese, Chinese, and Black men as well as members of ethnic groups such as Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish men were anxious to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914. The choice of recruits was left to the battalion commanders and while the Militia Department claimed there was no discrimination against these groups there is a large amount of evidence that racist attitudes blocked their enlistment. It was sometimes claimed that they were not accepted into the army because the Germans would mistreat them if they were captured.
A more accurate reason was also often given — white Canadian soldiers did not want to serve beside these men. Various special units were created, such as the 114th Battalion in Ontario and the 107th in Manitoba, with the intention that they would be exclusively manned by Aboriginal recruits. But none of the minority groups was able to produce enough recruits to fully man the units or to supply replacements once they were in action.
People living in Winnipeg and the rest of Manitoba experienced the same racist reactions to their attempts to serve as did those in other parts of the country. The population of Winnipeg was more diverse than that of other Canadian cities, with relatively large groups of people with German and Austro- Hungarian origins. There was a large Jewish community, which at the time of the 1916 census numbered close to 14,000 people. There were many ethnic Ukrainian immigrants in the city. Ukrainians born in Russia were often referred to as “Russian,” while those born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the provinces of Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia, were sometimes called “Ruthenians,” the term used by the Austrian government to describe this particular group of subjects of the emperor. “Galician” was another name assigned to all the western Canadian Ukrainians, not just to the many who came from that province. It also became a pejorative term used to describe any immigrant from eastern Europe. During the First World War, Ukrainians were commonly called “Austrians,” a name that tended to make them seem like the potentially dangerous subjects of an enemy monarch.