Wednesday, April 1, 2015

# 50 ~ Toronto & the First World War, Part III - Preparation

26th Battalion of the Second Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1915.

This is the third 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.


This is the third instalment in my posts on Toronto during the First World War.  It is called “Preparation”, and it discusses those sites in Toronto where military recruits were assembled and trained before being sent off to war.


Toronto’s University Avenue Armoury opened in May of 1894.  It was located on the east side of University Avenue, just north of Queen Street.  It replaced earlier armouries and drill sheds what were widely scattered around Toronto.  The University Avenue Armoury was largest armoury in North America, when it opened.  It was a Romanesque style building, executed in red stone, with towers, turrets, and several castellated elements that made it reminiscent of a Scottish castle.

Above and below, the University Avenue Armouries.

This aerial photograph from 1930 shows Queen Street West to the right of the photograph, and University Avenue running from left to right through the middle of the picture.  The Canada Life building is clearly identifiable, more or less in the centre of the picture, casting a shadow over Osgoode Hall.  To the left of Osgoode Hall is the University Avenue Armouries building.

Soldiers were trained here for service in the Boer War, the First World War, and the Second World War.  Apart from offices and classrooms, messes, and storage or kit rooms, there were bowling allies and rifle ranges in the basement. The University Avenue Armoury was one of the most impressive buildings to have ever been constructed in downtown Toronto, and its demolition in 1963 made it one of the most lamented “lost” buildings in the city.  Some of the bricks from the armoury that came down when it was demolished were taken home by soldiers who had been trained in the building.  There is little in the way of commemoration of the rich Canadian military heritage that took place in this building, just as there is little remembrance given to those who trained to serve their country here over the span of 70 years.

Every aspect of enrolment and training took place at the University Avenue Armouries.  There was of course a recruiting station at the armoury.  

A Toronto police constable guides a new recruit to the University Avenue Armouries recruiting station.

The recruitment tent at the University Avenue Armouries.

Eager new volunteers queue up to enlist at the University Armouries.

Once properly enlisted, new recruits could learn all sorts of skills that would transform them from civilians into soldiers.  This included a basic physical drill, as well as signal practice, instruction on how to build a pontoon bridge, and artillery practice.  

New recruits go through a physical drill at the University Avenue Armouries.

Drilling at signal practice.

 The following three pictures show recruits learning how to build a pontoon bridge at the University Avenue Armouries.  

The next three photographs show artillery practice at the University Avenue Armouries.


The University of Toronto would become a hub of military activity during the Great War.  In his commencement address of 1914, Sir Robert Falconer, the president of the University of Toronto said, “This is the greatest of moral struggles.  Be ready to defend your life, which, with its freedom, has been won for you by others. Live a life of sacrifice this winter and thereby contribute something to help the nation in relieving its suffering. The world is in agony, let this agony reach the depths of our nature also, so that it may purge our selfishness.” With sentiments like these echoing across the campus and country alike, the University of Toronto mobilized for the war effort. 

Sports seasons were suspended until 1919.  Fraternities were closed.  The Faculty of Medicine organized two military hospitals and professional faculties such as engineering and dentistry became involved. The Canadian Officers’ Training Corps operated on campus. U of T professors gave hundreds of war-inspired public lectures throughout the city.

University grounds and buildings were heavily utilized by the military. The Royal Flying Corps established a training centre for the Dominion in the spring of 1917 and put its headquarters in Toronto. They took over the front and back lawns, parts of the Engineering Building, Convocation Hall, most of Burwash Hall, and the University Residences.

The grounds of the University of Toronto were "on loan" to the British government as an aviation school.  Here, below, are photographs showing the camp of tents on the grounds of the University.  This "tent city" would have served as home to those learning the new skill of flying. 

A World War One airplane flies over the tent city on university grounds, and buzzes University College.

Aviation camp at the University of Toronto.

Here is another photograph of the aviation camp at the University of Toronto.  Many of these aviators - or, those who survived, at any rate - would go on to open up the Canadian North.

A lesson in the new field of aviation, or "aeronautics", takes place on the grounds of the University of Toronto in 1917.

Hart House as been a hub of recreational activity at the University of Toronto, from the time that it officially opened on November 11th, 1919.  But, even before the interior of Hart House was complete, it was filled with military activity, and was an epicentre of sorts for military activity on campus. Five different battalions operated from Hart House, and sections of the building were used as infirmaries.  In the upper gym, workshops were given on how to build planes.  Here too was Canada’s first rehabilitation centre, originally designated for returning veterans.

Hart House under construction in 1915.

Hart House under construction in 1915.  It was in this condition that the building sheltered new recruits as they trained to go off and fight in the war.

The following series of photographs shows students - and faculty - being drilled at the University of Toronto.

By 1915, thousands of troops had been trained on the university campus.  In this photograph, 3,000 cadets are reviewed in front of University College in 1915.   


When the 1915 school term began, enrolment was down by 650 men. Six hundred more were absent by September 1916, and another 600 left by next January. By the time conscription was imposed in 1917 by the Military Service Act, it had little effect because there were so few fit men left to serve.

When the war had started in August of 1914, the Canadian government had hoped for a quick campaign that wouldn’t draw on too many Canadian troops.  It was hoped that the training ground at Valcartier, Quebec, would be sufficient enough to train every Canadian soldier who was needed to fight on the homefront.

But, by early in 1915, the military saw that the war would go on, and decided it would make more sense to train troops locally.  The quest was on to find local buildings and facilities.  The City of Toronto offered Exhibition Park, which soon became Exhibition Camp.

Troops march through the Dufferin Gates of the Canadian National Exhibition.

The 15th Battery of Canadian Field Artillery found itself quartered in the cowsheds and stables, where stoves and double-tiered bunks had been hastily installed.  The accommodation was far from luxurious, but the troops had the advantage of being close to the attractions of the city, and during training were able to fire live ammunition at targets out on the lake.

In this photograph from 1915, new recruits inspect the bunks in which they will be sleeping.  These accommodations were set up at the Government Building, on the Exhibition grounds.

Meanwhile, the annual Canadian National Exhibition proceeded as normal, and organizers made use of the forces’ presence.  Fairgoers could take in the newly recruited soldiers being drilled in the various aspects of their trainings.  One activity that was popular with spectators was watching soldiers practice charging with bayonets. 

The Globe newspaper featured a review of this activity.  “The soldiers, by twenties, prepared the way for a charge from the British trench to the German one by rapid fire, bayoneted the Germans in that trench and leaping over it with terror-inspiring shouts bayoneted German reserves in the rear, represented by hanging straw sacks. The sacks had been painted with the names and lifelike likenesses of the Kaiser, Crown Prince and other Huns, and the harder the thrusts these personages received the lustier were the cheers of the crowd.”

Spectators who were visiting the fair could also tour trenches dug by soldiers and watch soldiers as they completed their daily drills.

Watching new recruits train in the art of charging from trenches, with their bayonets fixed, was a popular pastime for visitors to the Canadian National Exhibition, during the years of the First World War.

A crowd of Edwardian fair goers watch as brave new recruits charge out of a trench.

Calisthenics training, Exhibition Camp, 1915.

Rifle drill, Exhibition Camp, 1915.

Rifle drill, Exhibition Camp, 1915.

Fair goers watch as troops get in their practice at digging trenches.

Formation marching near Scadding Cabin and old Fort Rouille, 1914.

The photograph immediately above shows recruits practicing formation marching at the Exhibition Camp in 1914.  This wide open portion of the grounds would have been ideal for formation marching.  This training took place near the Fort Rouille monument, and Scadding Cabin, which are both seen in the background and which are located at the southwest part of today’s CNE grounds. 

In April of 1813, just over a century before the First World War began, the clearing around old Fort Rouille had seen fighting as part of the American invasion of the Old Town of York.  A century later, in 1915, Toronto troops spent time here preparing to fight a completely different enemy in another part of the world.

The 19th battalion was originally raised at the Exhibition Camp on November 6, 1914.  As part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, the 19th went from its station at the Exhibition, to West Sandling Camp in England, on May 23, 1915.  They arrived in France on September 14, 1915 and served right up until the end of the war.

Henri the Bear was the military mascot of the 19th Battalion.  Henri is shown here with Private R. L. Smith, one of the soldiers of the 19th Battalion.

Of course, recruits also got in target practice at Exhibition Camp.   It would seem that the grounds of the exhibition would be a relatively safe place for target practice and potentially explosive military training, at least when fairgoers weren’t  wandering around. 

However, as part of their voluntary training, local Boy Scouts spent time assisting soldiers in setting up the targets, as well as collecting the spent bullets of live ammunition, so that the metal could be gathered up and re-used.  The use of young boys in the target practice process had been a tradition in the Toronto area dating back to the late 1790s, when young boys performed the same task at Old Fort York. 

The three photographs above show Boy Scouts working in the target practice area of Exhibition Camp in 1915.

Military camps like the one on the Exhibition grounds were not necessarily safe for adult soldiers, either.  Assisted by cold, wet weather, diseases like pneumonia and meningitis swept through military encampments in Canada, England, and other countries, and many soldiers died before they even left for battle.  There were casualties related to meningitis at the Exhibition Camp in 1915, and an accidental training explosion there in 1915 took lives there, too.  Another accidental death occurred when a private named Tim Stone was struck and killed by a car. 

Shown here is a military funeral for an unidentified soldier on the grounds of Exhibition Camp in 1915.

Shown below is a military encampment on the grounds of the Exhibition in 1915.  The photograph is reminiscent of all the tents that were set up across the aviation camp on the grounds of the University of Toronto.  Canada’s first winter of the war, between the end of 1914 and the start of 1915 proved that the war would require a far greater number of soldiers than was originally thought.  Camps like this one would soon sprout up across Toronto, throughout Canada and around the world.

Just as these soldiers pictured here were eventually trained and left the grounds of the Exhibition Camp, they would be followed by hundreds of thousands more soldiers from across the country.  By early 1915, it became clear that Canada had signed on for a much greater investment in troops, in production, and in sacrifice than had originally been anticipated.


Coming up : My next instalment of the "Toronto & The First World War" series is entitled "Production".  It discusses industrial military production, and shows some photographs of installations around Toronto that turned out military supplies for the war effort.


1 comment:

  1. I acquired a collection of negatives of pictures taken in and around Toronto in 1915, these include some military.
    I have been scanning them in and posting them on my web page.
    They can be seen at