Friday, March 27, 2015

# 48 ~ Toronto & the First World War, Part I - Declaration

The Second Battle of Ypres, by Richard Jack.


This is the first in a series of nine posts leading up to the centenary of John McCrae's writing of In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915.  I've planned for articles to be posted over the next several weeks, and to culminate with actives commemorating the centennial of McCrae's poem.

Images of John McCrae or the poppy, or recitals of the poem, In Flanders Field, are usually just relegated to Remembrance Day.  We have come to associate certain images so much with November 11th, that they seem out of place during the rest of the year.  As I publish these posts, I hope that you will find enough about Toronto's history, to make the articles of interest.

John McCrae wrote his poem during the Second Battle of Ypres, which took place between April 22nd and May 25th of 1915.  The battle saw the first massed use of poison gas by German forces on the Western Front.  It was a important engagement for Canadian troops ~ for the first time, a group of "colonial" soldiers defeated a European power, on European soil.  Military experts often refer to how engagements like the Battle of St. Julien or Kitcheners' Wood helped to usher Canada into national adulthood.  

However, instead of focusing on an analysis of military activity in Europe, my series of posts will mostly follow how the war was "fought" on the Toronto home front.


Canada's entry into the First World War was a direct result of the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany.  The British had vowed to defend Belgium’s sovereignty, and when Germany invaded Belgium, the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum, threatening war on Germany.  This ultimatum expired at midnight, on August 4th, 1914, without a German retreat.  Britain therefore declared war, and Canada entered the conflict.

The three photographs, above, show German troops entering Belgium in the summer of 1914.

In 1914, Canada was a self governing Dominion, but did not control its own foreign affairs.  The Canadian government would decide the nature and extent of its involvement, but the country was legally at war the instant that Britain’s declaration took place.  When the British declared war on Germany, they drew the various Dominions and colonies of the British Empire into the war, as well.

The constituent Dominions and colonies of the British Empire, united under King George V, entered the war together.  Although Canada was a self determining Dominion, the country's foreign policy was still controlled by Britain.

In 1914, most Canadians – though not all – would have agreed with a statement that Sir Wilfrid Laurier had made in 1910 – “When Britain is at war, Canada is at war.”  The contributions that Canada would make to the war, and its ongoing relationship with the United Kingdom, would be debated throughout and after the conflict.

Canadian propaganda art, produced to stimulate civilian support for the war, often drew on iconic images, like the “Union Jack” and the bulldog.  A large number of those living in Canada had emigrated from Britain, but many Canadians who were born here identified themselves as British, too.  These Canadians would have felt emotional ties to what we today think of as British symbolism. 

The propaganda postcard in the centre of the image, above, represents the "Mother Country" of Britain, flanked by Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa, all depicted as bull dogs.

Just like plenty of people in many cities around the world, those in Toronto followed the events leading up to the declaration of war with great interest.  Most were aware what would happen if Germany did not withdraw from Belgium by the time it was midnight in London on August 4th. 

In a day before individuals huddled around televisions or computers to get their news, crowds began to gather downtown, congregating around Toronto’s 1899 City Hall.  Because of the time difference, those in Toronto would not have to wait till midnight to mark Canada’s entry into the war.  When the bells of Toronto’s City Hall struck seven o’clock that evening, it was midnight in England, and there was no news of a German evacuation of Belgium.  The people of Toronto went wild. 

The events leading up to the outbreak of the war made headlines in Toronto and around the world.

News of the war’s start was read out on stages of theatres and vaudeville houses, like Loew’s Yonge Street, which had opened in December of 1913, just eight months before the war.  Crowds also swarmed around Shea’s Hippodrome, across the street from City Hall, where Nathan Phillips Square is today.  Shea's Hippodrome was one of the biggest vaudeville theatres that was ever built in North America.  It could sit an audience of almost 3,500 people.  

Crowds outside Loew's Yonge Street Theatre (marquee at right), better known today as the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatre Centre.

Shea's Hippodrome was opened in 1913, and held 3,200 seats.  It was demolished in 1957 to make way for Nathan Phillips Square and the New City Hall complex. 

Restaurants, theatres, taverns, hotels and homes started to clear out, and huge crowds swarmed along Queen Street, King Street, or up Yonge Street, waving the Union Jack and singing “God Save the King”.  The majority of people in British Toronto were tremendously excited about the war, and felt that it would be over by Christmas, with minimal cost or casualties.  Although support for the war was not universal, there was little apparent hostility to a voluntary war effort, even in places like Quebec, where pro-British sentiment was traditionally low.  The party went on well into that night, but soon, the lights would go out all over the world.  Little did the people who were celebrating know that the war would last for more than four years, and cost the lives of thousands of  young men from Toronto. 


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Mobilization".  It explores the recruitment and, later, conscription of soldiers for the war effort.


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