On November 11, one hundred years ago, World War I finally ended.
It had begun in June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria had been hit by an assassin’s bullet. The Archduke’s death had set off a series of events that had embroiled many countries in armed conflict. Britain had officially declared war on August 4, 1914, dragging its colonies and dominions into action as well. Brutal battle tactics and cutting-edge weapons had struck down one soldier after another. The four gruelling years of war had broad and long-term repercussions. Even the consequent peace treaty ultimately led to further hostilities. The centenary of the armistice prompts reflection on this devastating conflict.
Volumes have been written about the causes, details and results of World War I. Over the last four years, in particular, numerous works have examined assorted aspects of the First World War. For an easily accessible and brief overview from a Canadian perspective, I recommend the October/November issue of Canada’s History magazine. If you would like more information about Canadians involved in specific military actions, read the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) commemorative blog series featuring Canada’s 73 WWI recipients of Victoria’s Cross medals, the highest order of bravery in the British Commonwealth.
Many recent works attempt to examine the war in a new way and one of the most impactful is the colourization of WWI photographs. There are also a few rare photos that were developed from early colour film at the time. (The first commercially successful colour process was actually available in 1907.) Since almost all WWI photos are black and white, being suddenly confronted with a colour view of that historic time can be a jarring experience. The images seem modern and the people in them surprisingly real. And that’s the point: they were actual, living people in horrendous situations.
The total Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) consisted of 622,290 members and was about 7% of Canada’s population at the time. The majority were volunteers; only about 98,000 were conscripted (in 1918). Among the volunteers were more than 3,000 women, trained nurses who served in the Canadian Medical Corps. All the CEF military files are now available online; this summer, the LAC completed the gargantuan task of digitizing the roughly 30 million pages of those files.
I do not have any direct ancestors who participated in the CEF, however, I have studied about 30 of these files. My sample is consistent with the overall statistics for the CEF; however, because I have been getting to know these individuals through my research, each fact is meaningful and brings those statistics to life. Every time I open a file, I worry about whether the person was maimed or killed.
Of the approximately 424,000 Canadians who served overseas, more than 172,000 were wounded (that’s about 40%). Of those, about 10,000 were diagnosed with “shell shock,” which today is recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder; many more suffered and went undiagnosed. Over 61,000 Canadians were killed (roughly 14% of those overseas). Almost 20,000 of those have no known grave; their remains were either unidentifiable or were never found. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial lists 11,285 of these lost Canadians who died in France, and the Menin Gate Memorial lists 6,940 who died in Belgium. The Unknown Soldier was reinterred at the National War Memorial in Ottawa in May 2000 and represents these missing Canadians.
Of course, the war had many impacts on Canadians at home, as well. The most shocking is the way some were treated by their own government. About 80,000 immigrants who had come from what became enemy countries were forced to register as “enemy aliens” and had to report monthly to the police. These were largely the same immigrants from the Ukraine that the federal government had enticed to Canada a few years previously, in order to transform the land into productive farms. If these people failed to register and report, or travelled without permission, or wrote to relatives in the Old Country, they could be imprisoned in one of 24 internment camps across Canada, which operated from 1914 to 1920 (two years after armistice). It didn’t take much to be interned. Some people were simply considered “undesirable.” Some 4,000 others were imprisoned for being “indigent” (poor and unemployed). In all, 8,579 men were interned, some accompanied by their dependent wives and children. Their property was confiscated and they were used as slave labour, living and working in harsh conditions. They had to build and maintain the camps, and worked on road and railway construction and in mines. Several camps were located in the Rocky Mountain National Parks and internees’ labour was used for park infrastructure. Many internees were mistreated and 107 died; some were shot while trying to escape. In 2008, the federal government finally acknowledged its mistreatment of the Ukrainian community.
When war was declared in 1914, no one realized what was to come. It began with idealistic patriotism and many Canadians thought it would be a four-month adventure in Europe. However, when lengthy casualty lists began appearing in local newspapers, some would-be volunteers realized it wasn’t a game and had second thoughts. Young men reluctant to leave home received taunting white feathers (representing their cowardice) from their peers, often young women, who tried to bully them into signing up. Then people began referring to the conflict as The Great War, because of its unprecedented magnitude. It grew in brutality and extent, turning into an unrelenting four years of muddy trenches and killing fields. And it fostered suspicion and hate at home in Canada. It became The War to End All Wars.
Except it wasn’t.
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.