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.


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.


Friday, March 6, 2015

# 47 ~ Toronto's Birthday, Then and Now

March 6th, 2015, marks the 181st anniversary of the Incorporation of the City of Toronto, from the old Town of York.  

The story is a pretty basic part of Toronto's history.  The old Town of York had been established by John Graves Simcoe back in 1793.  When the Province of Upper Canada (now Ontario) was created back in 1791, Simcoe was appointed as the province's first lieutenant-governor.  He set sail with his wife, Elizabeth, who was an incredible woman.  It was custom at the time for a woman of her social position to stay at home, back in England, while her husband fulfilled whatever position he was posted to.  But, it is due to her rugged determination to travel with her husband, that we know so much about early history in Toronto and southern Ontario.  She was a keen diarist and painter, and her writings and illustrations illuminate what society and nature were like in the dwindling years of the 18th century.

York would eventually become the provincial capital, replacing Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). Although the provincial government met in York pretty consistently from 1796, there was no actual government to run the town.  The difference between "town" and "city" was an important one.  It would be forty years before there was enough of a population to qualify the Toronto region as a city.  A clutch of bureaucrats, known as the Home District Council, settled matters pertaining to the Town of York.  In many cases, matters may have been sent to the Executive Council of Upper Canada, or even the lieutenant-governor, if the Home District Council could not form a decision.  Looking back, it seems like a case of splitting hairs, as whoever was on the Home District Council probably served on the Executive Council, too.  In some cases, certain matters may have been passed back to the Colonial Office, in England.  This was of course a time when communication between the Toronto region and England could take two months, at least - one way.  So, it may take six months for any political decree to return from England.

Tories versus Reformers

A lot of local and provincial affairs were dictated by a small cluster of a few dozen wealthy and powerful men.  Nicknamed the "Family Compact", they were the politicians, judicial figures, bankers and government appointees who held sway.  Through the 1820s and 1830s, there was a growing Reform Movement  - a group of individuals who began to oppose the Family Compact.

Several of these prominent Reformers began to petition the provincial government in 1833.  They demanded that the Town of York become incorporated into a city, which would mean a broadened electoral system, and therefore, an increase in democracy.  The Tory-controlled provincial Parliament sought a way to lessen the chances that Reformers would get elected.  The bill to incorporate into a city passed on March 6, 1834.  The old Town of York passed away, and was now the City of Toronto.

This is often heralded as a great triumph for democratic elections.  But who could vote?   Women did not have the franchise in Canada, at this point.  The provincial Tories had set the bar high in terms of qualifications for voting for an alderman.  There were conditions stipulating that only those who owned a certain amount of land could qualify to have a full vote.  Out of an adult male population of 2,929, only 230 of these grown men could vote.  No one from the general population could vote directly for the mayor.  He (and of course, it would be a "he"), was chosen, or appointed by the elected aldermen, from among their own number.


Late in 1833, not too long before Toronto's first election was called, there was a brewing labour dispute.  The Tories of the Family Compact had alienated a large number of the city's construction tradesmen, who went on strike.  This created a sympathy for labour and Reform, and led to a landslide victory in our first municipal elections.  Reform candidates chose William Lyon Mackenzie from their own number.  Mackenzie needs little introduction in Toronto historical circles - unless, of course, the introduction serves to dispel some of the rumours about him!  For a lot of greater detail about Mackenzie I would refer you to his entry at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.  

THEN : Proclamation of the new City of Toronto, 1834.


The Town of York was named for Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany, and second son of King George III.  He was also remembered in Frederick Street - one of the streets to make up the early town.  The Duke of York was principally a military figure who had led British troops to victory just prior to the naming of our Old Town.

THEN : Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, circa 1793 - the same year that our town was named after him.

As plans were being set for the incorporation of Toronto, there was great debate as to whether we should keep the ancient aboriginal name from which "Toronto" stems, or hold fast to the British sounding name of York.  John Graves Simcoe had been fond of renaming settlements with sold English sounding appellations, and there were those in the 1830s who felt strongly that the name "York" should remain.  Others suggested reverting to "Toronto".  The name of our current city has been so strongly corrupted from the traditional aboriginal tongue, that it's hard to tell exactly where it comes from.  For years, it was accepted that it came from an aboriginal word for an area near the mouth of the Humber River, where aboriginal people used to gather, trade and communicate.  This belief set the definition of the word as "Place of Meeting".

In the last decade, it has been conjectured that the word derives from an aboriginal term that describes a method of fishing, where sticks are plunged into the waters to form fishing weirs.  This definition would have Toronto mean "Where Sticks Grow In The Water".

Obviously, despite debate, the name "Toronto" won out.  The name York lives on in today's Royal York Hotel, York University, and in other institutions.  Back then, we also had York Township, York County, and according to folklore, one of the big reasons we opted for Toronto over York was because we were nicknamed "Little York", in a rather demeaning fashion, after the big New York that lay south of the border.

That's the basics.  Our city governance has grown and changed a lot in the past 181 years.  I wanted to leave you with a number of illustrations that shows you what Toronto looked like during it's 40 year life as the Old Town of York.

THEN : Ships in the harbour fire a gun salute to commemorate the victory of the Duke of York at the Battle of Famars, and the naming of Toronto as York, on August 24th, 1793.  This was one of the many paintings made by Elizabeth Gwillim Simcoe that illustrate life in our early province.  

THEN : This map of York, the surrounding region and the harbour was made in 1793 by surveyor Alexander Aitken, for Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe.

THEN (AGAIN) : I've taken the liberty of editing the above map to highlight the position of Fort York, and the Old Town of York.  The town took up 10 blocks, from today's Jarvis Street east to Parliament Street, and from Front Street up to Adelaide Street.  Also marked is today's Queen Street, which was the first Concession Road north of the town.  The street was originally dubbed "Lot Street" as all the park or farm lots were measured north from there.

THEN : A view of the harbour at York, looking west from the military blockhouse at the base of Berkeley Street in 1812. 

THEN : "Plan of the Harbour, Fort and Town of York, the Capital of Upper Canada, March 16th, 1816"

THEN : Looking north across the harbour from the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse in 1817.  The lighthouse had been built by 1808, and despite its remote location it is one of the more well known of Toronto's Georgian remnants.

THEN : A map of the Town of York from 1818.  By this time, the area between Yonge Street west to Bathurst Street had started to be filled in.  Here you can see which early luminaries got which properties.  At the time this was still largely farmland and countryside, but imagine the property taxes today!  Also, some street names have changed over the years.  Graves Street, which was named after John Graves Simcoe, was changed to Simcoe Street.

THEN : Another view across the harbour from Gibraltar Point.  This one dates from 1828.


THEN : Scadding Cabin, originally built in 1794, is credited as the oldest surviving building in Toronto today.  It was built for John Scadding, a pioneer and aide-de-camp to John Graves Simcoe.  Originally built near the Don River and Queen Street, it was taken apart and reassembled on the grounds of today's  Canadian National Exhibition.  It is maintained and operated by the York Pioneers Historical Society.

NOW : How Scadding Cabin looks these days.

THEN : Castle Frank is more than just the name for a subway station.  This was the "summer home" of John Graves and Elizabeth Simcoe.  Built in 1794, it stood in the wilds north of York, just south of today's Bloor Street, overlooking the Don River.  The Simcoes abandoned it when they returned to England.  When the Americans invaded York in 1813, they saw Castle Frank on a map.  Mistaking it for a real castle, worthy of plunder, they tramped through the woods only to find a rotting wooden cabin.  Castle Frank was accidentally destroyed in a fire in 1829.

THEN : The birthplace of noted Canadian politician, Robert Baldwin, was built on the northwest corner of King and Frederick streets, just prior to Baldwin's birth there in May of 1804.  Robert Baldwin would go on to lead the moderate reform movement in Canada and usher in "responsible government" in the 1840s and 1850s.  The Baldwin family only lived in the house for a few years, but a later inhabitant of note was William Lyon Mackenzie.  He lived here with several members of his family and several apprentices, too, but was down in New York State, evading his creditors, in 1826.  The sons of several of those Family Compact clans broke into his home, which was also where he printed his radical newspaper "The Colonial Advocate".  They did their best to bust up his operation and destroy his equipment.  This became known as "The Types Riot".  The subsequent trial (called "The Types Trial") saw Mackenzie awarded enough money to fight off insolvency and launch his political career.  Mackenzie later moved out of the house, and it was eventually destroyed by fire, by 1849.  Today a Starbuck's stands on the site.

THEN : These were the grand "Palaces of Parliament" that stood along Front Street, between Front and Berkeley streets.   Constructed in the 1790s, they lasted for less than 20 years, before being infamously torched by invading Americans.  A second set of parliament buildings were built on the same site, before they too were lost to fire - this time, accidentally.

THEN : An early sketch of the original St. Lawrence Market.  The original market was build on the north side of Front Street, running up to King Street (where today's "north market" stands).  The very first market opened in November of 1803.  Several incarnations and additions later, St. Lawrence Market is today a very popular destination with both locals and visitors to the city.  In this drawing you can see the town well, centre foreground, as well as the harbour, in the back of the picture.  The harbour, of course, extended south from Front Street at the time.  

THEN : The first church of St. James was constructed on the site of today's Cathedral Church of St. James in 1807.  After several fires, and restorations, we have the Victorian spire that we know today.  But this original church was a very simple wood frame building - and the only church in town in 1807.

THEN : Built in 1822 on Adelaide Street, at the top of Frederick Street, and nearly lost to demolition, Campbell House was saved and moved to the northwest corner of Queen Street and University Avenue.  The home of Sir William and Lady Hannah Campbell, the house was a jewel in the Crown of Georgian York.  We are blessed that it still survives.  Today it operates as a public museum, and if you've never been for a visit, you should!

THEN : This map was produced to mark the incorporation of the City of Toronto on March 6th, 1837.

THEN : A new city was seen as a reason to celebrate.  Here we see revellers gathered around the windmill owned by the Gooderham and Worts families - this windmill was the precursor to today's Distillery District.  Party goers would have gathered on the frozen over harbour - where the parking lot for the Distillery District is today - to skate, ride in sleighs and enjoy a bonfire.