Sunday, March 29, 2015

# 49 ~ Toronto & the First World War, Part II - Mobilization

Crater from a 17" shell near Ypres, Belgium.


This is the second 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.


The second part of my presentation is entitled “Mobilization”.   This article explores voluntary enlistment, conscription and the mobilization of troops from Toronto and throughout Canada, during the duration of the war.

Prime Minister Sir Robert Baldwin and his cabinet met Britain’s request for 25,000 Canadian troops.  Canada had a very small permanent, standing army, so at the war’s start, volunteers from the citizenry made up a large part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 

Recruiting stations were soon swamped.  Toronto had always been a very “British” city.  70% of the first wave of volunteers across Canada had been born in Britain, although many had lived in Canada for years.  100 years ago, there was much less of a distinction between the ideas of “British” and “Canadian” national identity, and for many, these terms were interchangeable.  Often, being thoroughly Canadian and being thoroughly British were one in the same.

Over the next four years, more and more of the Canadian Expeditionary Force would be made up of those born in Canada, with about 50% being born in Canada by 1918.

In this Canadian propaganda poster, a soldier is flanked on either side by the Royal Union flag.

A recruiting office in Toronto, near the start of the First World War.

This photograph shows a First World War recruitment drive at Toronto's City Hall.  Decorations above the main entrance tell the men of Toronto how "Your King & Country Need You Now!"

Another view of the bunting and motto over the entrance of City Hall, calling out to residents of the city as they pass by.  Missing, of course, is the cenotaph in front of the building.  In 1914, the war was new, and many recruits the world over looked at is as a great adventure.  The cenotaph was erected to commemorate the war dead in 1925, and was later updated to remember those who served and died in the Second World War, the Korean War, and Canadian peacekeeping missions.

At the start of the war, Torontonians were bombarded with messages encouraging them to enlist.  Streetcars were turned into a sort of rolling recruitment office on wheels, and would go around the city, adorned with advertisements encouraging Torontonians to enlist.

Below is a Toronto streetcar adorned with an enlistment poster for the Number One Construction Battalion.  The motto, “We Go Overseas Quickly” ensures those who enlist will soon be over in Europe in the thick of the fighting.  The signboard at the front of the streetcar advertises its destination as “To Berlin”. 

Another Toronto streetcar, shown below, was decked out to become the “travelling headquarters” of the 109th Regiment.  Potential recruits were encouraged to “Join With Britain’s Best” and warned “Don’t lag behind”.

And, in what had to be a unique marketing strategy for recruitment, this streetcar encouraged new recruits to “Step Aboard” for a “Free Trip to Europe”.

This Australian propaganda poster mirrored the recruitment advertising seen on the Toronto streetcar, above.  The war was presented as some kind of great, fantastic adventure - the chance to travel the world and make new friends on the government's dime - when no one was trying to kill you, of course.  The surprising thing is how well this sort of material worked, and how many young men thought that their experiences in warfare would be just as described.


There were all sorts of reasons that motivated Canadians to fight in the war.  Germany was perceived as a belligerent nation, and their invasion of Belgium was portrayed as an act of brutality.  Many people were shocked by the way this brutality was presented in the media of the day, and reports of German atrocities would eventually reach great levels of hyperbole.

In some cases, German atrocities were highly exaggerated.  The horrible stories of German soldiers impaling Belgium women and children – as reproduced in this editorial cartoon from 1915 – were based on very flimsy evidence, at best.

An editorial cartoon from Life magazine, July 25, 1915, shows a German soldier on parade with Belgian men, women and children impaled on his bayonet.

This illustration appeared in the New York Tribune.  It shows a great German hand - tattooed on the back with the Imperial German eagle - mauling a Belgian town.  The German invasion became known as "The Rape of Belgium" in British, American and Canadian media.
In some cases, though, there was evidence that the German army carried out shocking, premeditated acts of violence against civilians.  The German army claimed that these civilians were potential guerrilla fighters, and were as dangerous as French soldiers.  German soldiers burned homes and executed civilians – including women and children – in towns all over central and eastern Belgium.  

This illustration shows German soldiers executing Belgian civilians during the invasion of Blegny.  Also shown is a table listing Belgian casualties in some of the towns that Germany occupied.

The propaganda poster below, from 1914, asks Canadians to consider what they would do if the atrocities in Belgium had taken place in Newfoundland.  Although Newfoundland was a separate colony, and would not be a Canadian province until 1949, this sort of propaganda brought the German atrocities in Belgium much closer to home.

In addition to patriotism and the news of atrocities conducted by the Germans, either real or imagined, Canadians often found other reasons to enlist.  The literature of the day, including poetry and text books read in school rooms depicted the war as a romantic adventure, full of honour and glory.  Escapism definitely played a part in inciting some people to volunteer for combat.

Books like “The Children’s Story of the War”, or “Canada in Flanders” made the war sound exciting and appealing, especially to younger audiences.

Read the "Children's Story of War" here, at the online archives for the University of Toronto's Robarts Library.  

Read "Canada in Flanders" here.

This sense of escapism, combined with an economic recession, led some to sign up for the military, although many left decent paying jobs to enlist.  Construction of one of the grandest homes in Toronto – Casa Loma – had begun just before the war started, and many of the 300 labourers who were hired by Sir Henry Pellatt to build his dream castle lay down their tools to go off and fight.

Some of the labourers who helped to build Casa Loma are shown here, below, about 1913, with the partially completed castle in the background. 

Despite the fact that recruiting posters emphasized that EVERYONE should enlist, not every volunteer was accepted.  Recruiting posters tended to show powerful looking, well proportioned young men, going off to fight.  In 1914, volunteers were subjected to strict medical examinations.  A successful candidate had to be at least 5 feet, 3 inches tall, be between 18 and 45 years old, have good eyesight, and healthy teeth, among other qualifications.   This led to the legends of some gap toothed volunteers quipping that they wanted to shoot Germans, not bite them. 

Recruitment posters like this one would have played on a sense of guilt or shame felt by those who didn't join up to fight.

Enlistment was presented with the morally right, "manly" thing to do, and all the men who appeared in recruitment posters were illustrated as fine male specimens, in good health.

A propaganda poster calling for recruitment during the war asks Canadians to judge themselves by the nationalism of their enemy.

A recruitment poster for the 48th Highlanders of Canada advocates that those who read it help "Avenge St. Julien".  The Battle of St. Julien was a battle in which Canadians fought during the greater conflict near Ypres.  The Battle of St. Julien took place between April 24th and May 5th, 1915.  McCrae penned In Flanders Fields on May 3rd, 1915.

This broadside from early in the war is entitled "The Story of  His Brave Canadian Father", and tells the story of a young boy from Ontario, who learns of his father's death in the war, and runs off to enlist.  It was meant to inspire grown men to do the same.  The caption at the bottom reads "It is related of a little York County (Ontario) boy, on being told by his mother the particulars of the gallant death of his after on the battle fields of France, ran off to a nearby recruiting station and asked to be enlisted.  The officer in charge took down his name and promised him a place "as soon as he could fill the physical requirements".  The boy, quite satisfied with the promise, trotted back to his home and his toys."

By 1917, the Canadian government felt that volunteer recruitment was no longer providing the necessary number of Canadian soldiers for the war effort.  The war had dragged on much longer than anyone first imagined, and had taken a great toll in cost and casualties.  Many leaders felt that Canada still had to live up to its obligations to our allies, and Prime Minister Borden believed that Canada needed to continue to show its military might in order to secure international influence. 

Conscription was eventually adopted and went into effect in Canada on August 29, 1917.  All male Canadians between 20 and 45 were now subject to military service, if called upon. 

Ultimately, conscription had a limited impact on the war effort.  By the end of the war, in November of 1918, only 48,000 conscripts had been sent overseas, and only half of those served at the front.  Over 50,000 conscripts were due to go overseas in 1919, but ended up never leaving Canada, as the war ended before they were shipped across the Atlantic.

These last two pictures show injured soldiers, home from the war and recuperating at a hospice in Toronto.  These men were almost certainly volunteers who had gone overseas to fight before conscription was enacted in Canada.  Chalked on the wall behind the soldiers in the first photograph is a slogan warning all “Slackers, beware the green eyed monster of conscription.”

In this photograph we see more injured Canadian soldiers.  Phrases chalked on the brick wall behind them include “You conscript, your time has come at last”, "We have done ours”, “Join now”, and perhaps, as more of a plea than a warning, “Don’t forget us”.


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Preparation".  It explores the training of soldiers around Toronto.  It includes some photographs of familiar spaces in the city as they were taken over for military training.


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