Winnipeg had, for most of its 45 years, been a city that was self-absorbed, boosting and pushing and striving to make itself into a great metropolis. By 1914, Winnipeg seemed to be well on the way to realizing all the ambitions of its founders.
With the coming of war, Winnipeggers began directing their energies outward, organizing for victory. During the month of August they stepped up, volunteering for the army and for the groups that would provide the major support services for the war effort over the next four years. And they began to give money with the sort of generosity Winnipeggers still show today. By war’s end, the city had donated or loaned through the purchase of Victory Bonds many millions in today’s dollars to help the Allied cause.
In 1914, Winnipeg was Canada’s third-largest city with 136,035 people, reported to the 1911 census. The makeup of Winnipeg’s population differed in some ways from the other two large Canadian cities: 75 per cent of its people — about 103,000 — had been born either in Canada or in some other part of the British Empire, compared to 91 per cent in Toronto and 90 per cent in Montreal.
Winnipeg had a strong Scottish heritage, more so than the eastern cities. And the Protestant denominations were primarily led by Presbyterians whereas in the east, Methodists were usually the most numerous.
Almost all the nations of the world were represented in the 25 per cent of the population born outside the British Empire — the largest groups were about 10,000 people from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about 8,600 from the Russian Empire, 6,000 from the United States, about 1,800 from Germany, 1,360 from Iceland and 1,400 from Sweden. This cosmopolitan population would have important implications for the way in which the war affected the city.
In 1914, Winnipeg was still suffering from the slowdown in economic growth that had ended a decade-long boom in 1913. All over the Prairies, people lost their jobs and large numbers of unemployed men headed for Winnipeg, the great labour clearinghouse for Western Canada. When they ran out of money, the city was obliged to feed and house them.
On May 26, around 2,000 of these men gathered in Market Square behind city hall to listen to speakers and to protest their hopeless condition. Fighting broke out; the police used their nightsticks on the unemployed, and the men fought back. The local Social Democratic Party wrote to city council, accusing the police of starting the riot and of being too free with the use of their sticks. This event and the threat of more to come moved city council to take action.
Councillors sent a letter to Prime Minister Robert Borden requesting immigration be curtailed until the situation improved and calling on the Dominion government to push forward public works as a means of creating jobs. Immigration Minister W.J. Roche responded the federal government was already discouraging immigration and the numbers of new arrivals had fallen by 50 per cent. The city also made relief payments and provided some employment on public works. Unemployment continued to be a problem in the city until later in the war when there was some improvement in the economy, but even then, those who had jobs were affected by inflation. The failure of wages to keep up with prices would be one of the causes of the General Strike.
There had been signs of recovery in some areas of the economy in Winnipeg in early 1914 — by August, the value of building permits had already reached $12.1 million, and some new apartment blocks and houses were under construction. The outbreak of war on Aug. 4 put an end to any hope of a resumption of growth as the province ceased all expenditures in the capital account, including work on the new legislative building, and private firms laid employees off or reduced their wages. British capital, the lifeblood of Western Canadian development, was needed for the war effort and became unavailable at reasonable rates. Local businessmen were forced to postpone or abandon plans such as those local businessman R.T. Riley was making for a mortgage company that would loan money to farmers in the West. He and his partners had been successful in selling stock in Canada, and they opened an office in London in July 1914 to sell debentures to investors there. They closed the office a few weeks later when, Riley wrote in his memoirs, "we realized that there was little opportunity of getting four per cent money in England, or anywhere else, for some time to come. We never sold any debentures, as we could not afford to pay a higher rate."
Manitobans went to the polls on July 10 to vote in a provincial election. The campaign, reported the Canadian Annual Review for 1914, had not been "a satisfactory or pleasant one." The Conservative premier, Rodmond Roblin had been in power since 1900. The Annual Review reported he "was not a conciliatory opponent nor a courteous fighter," and the Liberals, led by Tobias Norris, "accepted the gauge with true western heartiness" in a campaign that was full of "charges of corruption and bitter personalities." Nellie McClung, who had participated in the famous Women’s Parliament at the Walker Theatre in January 1914, took a large role, speaking all over the province for the Liberal cause.
Conservative speakers reminded voters of the many accomplishments of the Roblin years, speaking about balanced budgets, the huge expenditures on infrastructure and public buildings and the Manitoba Government Telephones system among other things. The Liberals had formed a coalition of reform movements that campaigned for prohibition, abolition of Manitoba’s bilingual school system and votes for women, all things to which Roblin Conservatives were opposed. By 9 p.m. on election day, when Roblin mounted the platform before a cheering crowd outside the Conservative Telegram newspaper on McDermot Avenue, it was clear Manitobans had given him his 4th majority government.
In the summer of 1914, those middle-class families that could afford it left Winnipeg, boarding trains headed for "the lake." Like their contemporaries in other parts of Canada and the rest of the British Empire, they did not suspect they were enjoying what were to be the last few weeks of peace before what one writer has called the "greatest catastrophe the world had seen" broke upon their privileged world.
Early in the summer, the international news on the front pages of the Winnipeg papers was not from Europe but Ireland, where disagreements over the Home Rule Bill passing through Parliament seemed to be pushing the country toward civil war. Then, as the Rev. Charles Gordon recorded in his memoirs, Postscript to Adventure, "on Thursday, July 30th, our boat returning with supplies brought back a newspaper with red headlines splashed across the page. Austria had declared war on Serbia." Suddenly, the peaceful Lake of the Woods community where he and his family spent their summers was talking of nothing but the war.
There had been signs of recovery in some areas of the economy in Winnipeg in early 1914 — by August, the value of building permits had already reached $12.1 million
Irene Evans, the wife of former Winnipeg mayor Sanford Evans, was also at Lake of the Woods, with their two children. Her husband was working in Ottawa at the time, and writing to him about the outbreak of war she said, "I dread the return to the city... The moon almost full — such heavenly peace — the world beyond in a nightmare."
Nellie McClung also spent time at the family cottage, in her case at Matlock on Lake Winnipeg. She later wrote, in her book The Next of Kin that: "When the news of war came, we did not really believe it! War! That was over! There had been war of course, but that had been long ago, in the dark ages, before the days of free schools and peace conferences and missionary conventions and labor unions!"
McClung described how war news gradually invaded the calm of life at the beach. The men coming out from the city "brought back stories of the great crowds that surged through the streets blocking traffic in front of the newspaper offices reading the bulletins, while the bands played patriotic airs."
As the family drove away from the boarded-up cottage at the end of their vacation, she wrote that "instinctively we felt that we had come to the end of a very pleasant chapter in our life as a family; something had disturbed the peaceful quiet of our lives; not a word was spoken, but Jack put it all into words, for he turned to me and asked quickly, ‘Mother, when will I be 18?’ "
At midnight, London time, Tuesday, Aug. 4, the ultimatum the British had given Germany, demanding that she withdraw from Belgian territory, expired. At that moment, a state of war existed between Germany and the British Empire, including the Dominion of Canada, and Winnipeggers joined millions of others as they crossed into the strange new wartime existence.
People had been milling in front of the city’s newspaper offices for days, and since late afternoon, the crowds had been growing larger, anxiously awaiting information about the ultimatum. Many were busy calculating what time it would be in Winnipeg when it was midnight in London.
Suddenly, bulletins were rushed outside and posted on boards on the wall of the Telegram newspaper office at Albert and McDermot. At the Manitoba Free Press on Carlton Street, a man armed with a megaphone climbed onto a wooden platform in front of the building and shouted to the crowd that war had been declared. The people, like their fellow Canadians all over the country, immediately broke into Rule, Britannia! God Save the King and even La Marseillaise and the Free Press reported: "strong voices took up the strain with a will and a volume of glorious sound roared forth and set the blood of the British crowd racing at top speed."
Many in the noisy crowd that blocked traffic in front of the Free Press joined in a spontaneous parade, which surged down Portage and up Main to city hall following a young man who had jumped up on the platform and shouted for everyone to follow him. The newspaper described a crowd of 6,000 people, men and women, striding along five and six abreast in the street: "In the van walked half a dozen young men carrying a great Union Jack, which for want of a pole, was carried spread out over their shoulders."
For some, the outbreak of war was greeted in a more thoughtful way. A Free Press reporter visiting the Royal Alexandria Hotel talked to a guest of Austrian birth, "now a loyal British subject." He said Canada had been good to him and he had married a Canadian woman. "Naturally I wish the Empire well," he said, but he could not help but feel a natural sympathy for the land where he was born, "not sympathy for the diplomats and those who brought on the war, but for the people."
Outside on the streets, such honest sentiments had suddenly become sufficient cause for a beating. At least one man who admitted to being a German was set upon by a crowd and had to be carried home. The Free Press reported, "There were several fights as a result of the war spirit... Everything was English, Canadian and French last night. Not a German dared show his head and proclaim his nationality."
In the city’s North End, it was noticeably quiet: "The foreigners in the city, many of whom belong to nations now enemies of Great Britain, showed good common sense in keeping well out of sight. So far as is known, they refrained entirely from tactless demonstrations."
The extreme patriotism and extreme suspicion of people of non-British extraction would continue throughout the four years of war.
The first of many Great War military parades took to the Winnipeg streets almost as soon as war was declared. The members of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles militia regiment had been summoned to the drill hall at the corner of Broadway and Osborne. The Winnipeg Rifles was the oldest militia unit in Winnipeg, formed in 1885 at the time of the Métis resistance in Saskatchewan. A Métis fighter, referring to their black uniforms, had named them the Little Black Devils. They crossed to the university grounds on the north side of Broadway, formed ranks and marched up Kennedy Street to Portage Avenue and then on to city hall. Their band played the regimental march, Old Solomon Levi and Soldiers of the King, and the crowds cheered all along the way, many rushing into the street to march beside the militiamen.
Downtown hotel bars were packed with men toasting the beginning of the war and one of the drinkers strutted along behind the Winnipeg Rifles, "… and strove valiantly to imitate the military bearing of the officer before him," said the Free Press report. Another amused the crowds by marching along the sidewalk on Main Street with a broomstick for a rifle. "Every once in a while he would stop and mark time. Then he would give himself the order ‘forward march’ and would start off again. He created many a laugh along the street."
When the men of the 90th Regiment arrived back at the drill hall, Maj. W.A. Munro addressed them, saying the regiment’s office would be open in the morning for those wishing to sign up for duty overseas. Ten men immediately pushed forward and handed in their names, the first of many thousands of Winnipeggers who would volunteer to fight.
It is difficult now to know why many of the young men joined up. In January 1915, a Canadian officer, quoted in J.L. Granatstein’s book, Broken Promises, offered some possible answers when he said men joined "because they thought they would like it, because they were out of work, because they were drunk, because they were militia men and had to save face... but being in they have quit themselves like men." It is clear men also volunteered because their brothers or cousins did so, or because the men they worked with or were going to school with were volunteering.
Capt. S.H. Williams, who joined the Fort Garry Horse Regiment in August, later described in his book Stand to Your Horses the scene when members were asked who wanted to have the various injections necessary before going overseas. "Greatly to my surprise there were quite a few who sidestepped the inoculations and declared themselves for "home defence" service only. That, of course, was their business and it was not for the others of us to criticize. We fellows who had taken the inoculations felt nevertheless a bit of a self-righteous feeling."
The patriotic demonstrations of the first week climaxed on Saturday, Aug. 8 when the city’s veterans of the South African War, men who had fought Riel in 1885 and others who had served in the British Army and Navy, gathered in Market Square and marched to the 90th Regiment’s drill hall on Broadway. Lt.-Gov. Douglas Cameron and Premier Roblin addressed the crowd. Hugh John Macdonald, a veteran of 1885, had marched in the parade. As a former premier and son of Sir John A. Macdonald, he often played a symbolic role at such times and he, too, spoke, saying "… it is time for the sons of Britain over the seas to show they are true sons of the race." He said all the veterans were ready to fight but the men who had served in South Africa would make the best recruits: "They have the youth and experience and none could be better coming from a fighting race as they do."
By "race," Macdonald would have been referring to the "Great Chain of Race" idea popular at the time. The "Anglo-Saxon race" — the people of the British Isles and their relatives in the British Empire around the world — was supposed to have a fighting spirit superior to that of other "races." People were valued according to how closely they were related to the Anglo-Celtic population of the British Isles. White Americans, Scandinavians and, until the war, Germans, were considered to be almost the equals of the Anglo-Saxon. Others, such as southern Europeans, Africans, Asians and the aboriginal people of Canada were hardly worth considering.
These biases informed Canadian recruiting in the first years of the war. Federal Militia Minister Sam Hughes set out to create an army of sober, upright Protestant volunteers. He left the decisions about which volunteers would be accepted up to the individual battalion commanders, who often excluded ethnic minorities. The Canadian Expeditionary Force eventually had over 50,000 members of the Orange Lodge in its ranks. With the exception of the 22nd Battalion, French volunteers usually found themselves serving in English-language units, and French Canadian officers were not given commands at the front.
The long traditions of Quebec militia regiments were ignored and discounted by Hughes. Nevertheless, some non-British Canadians were successful in joining the army in the first months of the war and their numbers increased as the terrible attrition of trench warfare forced the army to open its doors to a broader cross section of volunteers.
In August 1914, there were men in Winnipeg with obligations to various European armies. All the European nations except Britain had adopted conscription, and in most cases this meant that, after serving a mandatory number of years in the army, a man would spend another period of years as a reservist, expected to report for duty in time of war. There were estimated to be about 1,000 Austro-Hungarian reservists in Winnipeg, for the most part men of Ukrainian or Polish ethnicity. There was a smaller number obligated to serve in the German army. On July 30, the Austro-Hungarian consul in Winnipeg, George Reininghaus, announced all reservists must return home to join the army and they would be reimbursed for the cost of the trip or given passage money if they did not have it. If they did not go, they would be charged with desertion, a capital offence.
Some reservists did leave although it is impossible to say how many. Two men — Stefan Bertnak and Tphemius Lupul — told the Telegram newspaper, as they boarded the train for the United States on July 30, they were going home early so they would have a chance to visit their families before they were called up. They explained they had to go or they would never be able to return home again.
The consul asked the churches to help spread the word about the war. At Sunday mass on Aug. 2, Father Kowalski of Holy Ghost Polish Catholic Church read out a message from Consul Reininghaus about the call to arms issued by the Austro-Hungarian government. The Ukrainian Catholic Bishop in Winnipeg, Bishop Nikita Budka, issued a pastoral letter that was printed in the Canadian Ruthenian newspaper on Aug. 1 and read out in churches the next morning. In the letter, reprinted in the appendices of Frances Swyrypa’s Loyalties in Conflict: Ukrainians in Canada During the Great War, he called on all Austrian subjects who "… are under military obligation to return to Austria… to defend our native home, our dear brothers and sisters, our people" from the Russian invaders. He said Emperor Franz Joseph had "… ever striven to avert and postpone… " war but the murder of his son, Franz Ferdinand, was an event to "… try the patience of the most peace-loving of men… "
Almost immediately, Budka was embarrassed by the entry of Canada into the war against Germany and Austria. On Aug. 6, he issued a second pastoral letter that began: "In the course of a few days political relations have changed completely." He said that "… we Canadian Ukrainians have a great and holy obligation to join the colours of our new fatherland, and if necessary to sacrifice our property and blood for it… as loyal sons of Canada, faithful to the oath have sworn to our Fatherland and our King, we should unite under the flag of the British state."
Unfortunately the bishop’s first pastoral letter was the one people remembered and it would haunt him for the next four years in spite of the fact he consistently encouraged his flock to support Canada’s war effort in every way.
Once Canada was officially at war with Austria and Germany, Lt.-Gov. Cameron ordered the German and Austrian consuls to leave the city and by Aug. 7 a proclamation had been issued saying any enemy reservists trying to return home would be arrested.
Many young Ukrainians were eager to let their neighbours know they wanted to do their part in the war effort. On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 9, at the Industrial Bureau, there was a meeting of 3,000 "Ruthenians" as Ukrainians were often called at the time. The Telegram reported the assembly voted to reject Austria-Hungary and pledge allegiance to Canada, where they had found "true liberty." They passed a resolution "that we hereby express our loyalty to the British flag and declare our readiness to stand by the colours whenever called upon." This resolution was sent to the Governor General in Ottawa. One of the speakers, J. Arsenycz, a young university student who would later be a Winnipeg judge, said Ruthenians had established themselves as useful citizens and were ready to serve their adopted country in any way asked.
On the same day, about 400 Poles gathered at Holy Ghost School on Selkirk Avenue and passed a resolution "that the Polish men of Winnipeg give their aid as far as possible to England as soldiers and especially as fulfilling our duties as good citizens."
The Home Front organizations that would support the troops began to organize. The Provincial Red Cross organization in Manitoba was launched at a meeting on Aug. 10. It was led by an executive committee headed by grocery wholesaler George Galt and included business leaders such as Augustus Nanton and R.T. Riley, Lady Aikins, Annie Bond and Mrs. R.T. Moody. Women played strong leadership roles in the Red Cross in Manitoba and across the country. Mrs. Bond was an experienced army nurse and one of the founders of the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, and Mrs. Moody, among other things, had been superintendent of the Nursing School at Winnipeg General Hospital.
By November 1914, 49 Red Cross branches had been formed in communities all over Manitoba in response to a circular letter sent out by the Winnipeg organization — $27,000 had been raised, and over half that amount had been disbursed to buy blankets for the troops and to make a donation to Red Cross Headquarters in London. Winnipeggers and Manitobans rose to the challenge of funding the new organization and their support never faltered throughout the war. Galt and Edward Drewery, owner of the Redwood Brewery, both donated $5,000. Hundreds of others gave what they could. The Chinese community in Winnipeg raised $453, the largest amount donated by any organization in the early weeks. From outside the city came donations of $400 and $500 from communities such as Melita and Gretna. A group of Ukrainian men working in the quarries at Stony Mountain sent in $50. Special collections in churches, theatres, banquets, concerts and lectures all brought in donations. In Winnipeg, booths were set up in department stores and office buildings.
Nellie McClung, in her book The Next of Kin, wrote about fundraising in Western Canada: "... the giving was real, honest, hard, sacrificing giving. Elevator boys, maids, stenographers gave a percentage of their earnings, and gave it joyfully… one enthusiastic young citizen, who had been operated on for appendicitis, proudly exhibited his separated appendix, preserved in alcohol, at so much per look, and presented the proceeds to the Red Cross."
The women of the Manitoba Red Cross would begin operating a major production facility on the top floor of the Keewaydin Building on Portage Avenue East in 1915. They purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of raw materials and distributed them to local groups all over the province. Volunteers made bandages and all types of hospital supplies, following strict Red Cross standards, and shipped everything back to the Keewaydin building where it was crated and dispatched to hospitals in England and France.
The Manitoba Patriotic Fund, like the Winnipeg Red Cross, was born on Aug. 10 when the Board of Trade passed a motion to organize a committee that would begin the work. Patriotic Funds were private charities that had been, since the Napoleonic wars, a way soldiers and their families were supported during wartime. The Manitoba Patriotic Fund was to be independent of the national Canadian Patriotic Fund organized at the same time. The Manitoba organizers had decided they needed this autonomy so they could not only look after the relatives and children of soldiers, but to also support men thrown out of work by the war. Beginning in August, fund board members banker Augustus Nanton, Judge Robson, printer John Bulman and grocery wholesaler George Galt met personally every day with men thinking of going overseas. The assurances of the committee that their families would be taken care of and the knowledge that large amounts were being raised made it possible for many men to enlist with some peace of mind.
By April 1, 1915, the Manitoba Patriotic Fund had raised $909,000. Of this, $485,000 was paid out to 1,839 soldiers’ families. The fund had also given unemployment relief money to 2,329 cases. During the first year of the war, the fund paid out $70,000 to support unemployed civilians. One of its initiatives was a wood camp, set up and supervised by hardware merchant James Ashdown and Mayor Richard Waugh. It provided paid work sawing firewood for 357 unemployed men at a cost of $15,000.
In the end, there was never enough money for all the needs, and many wives and families knew real hardship, especially those who had no other means of support.
On the afternoon of Saturday Aug. 15, the first troops left the city bound for the front: About 200 men from Winnipeg and 100 from Saskatchewan climbed aboard the train at the CPR station to take them east. The platform was packed with friends, relatives and a few Winnipeggers determined to get to the lake for a peaceful weekend. The soldiers were recruits for Canada’s newest regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry. The unit’s honorary colonel was Princess Patricia, the daughter of the Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. The Patricias had been raised and outfitted with money given by Hamilton Gault, a Montreal millionaire and veteran of South Africa. Gault went to France with the regiment. Wounded four times, he survived to become commanding officer in 1918.
Newspaper advertisements for the Princess Patricias had stated that preference would be given to former regulars in the Canadian or Imperial armies and to men who had fought in South Africa. The men among these recruits with previous military experience were the closest Canada had to the millions of reservists who were at the time being mobilized in European countries.
Winnipeg women organized their first of hundreds of large fundraising events on Aug. 18, this time in support of the St. John’s Ambulance. A parade of 160 cars carrying the members of various women’s organizations moved through the streets accompanied by women carrying collection boxes soliciting money. One woman, Grace Stapleton, stood on a float dressed as Britannia. There were many nurses in the parade, including 70 volunteers being trained by Dr. Ellen Douglass for service overseas. Army nurses were the first Canadians to go to the front in Belgium and France, and the work they did and the sights they saw placed them among the most heroic of the Canadians who went to war.
Another women’s group that made a massive contribution was the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE). Founded at the time of the Boer War by Montrealer Margaret Polson Murray, the purpose was to give support to Canadian volunteers fighting in South Africa and to their families.
Minnie Julia Beatrice Campbell — the wife of Colin Campbell, who was the attorney general in the Roblin government — was one of the most influential members of the IODE in Western Canada. She was regent of the Fort Garry chapter and Manitoba provincial president. She had been involved with the order for many years when the war began and had taken a leading role in fundraising efforts for projects such as the Tuberculosis Sanitorium at Ninette.
In August, she set out to mobilize women for war work. Even her husband’s death in October did not slow her down. On the contrary, she made the war her cause and let her fellow IODE members know that she "… meant to take up her work immediately. There is so much that we women can do now for King and empire and the world in this time of war."
She led fundraising efforts for field ambulances, hospital supplies, blankets for the troops and "comforts" or items such as magazines, newspapers, shaving kits and cigarettes intended to make the lives of the men in trenches more bearable.
On Oct. 8, Campbell published a column in the Free Press passing on information for volunteer knitters and sewers. Addressed to the "women of Manitoba" and beginning "Dear Compatriots," the column outlines the specifications for socks: "Use No. 13 needles and four-ply wool. Some socks sent in are knitted on too course needles for comfort, warmth and durability. We want an authorized standard of work."
She took the opportunity to remind her readers of the good example of Queen Mary, who knitted constantly and expected any ladies who visited her to join in. She reported pillows were no longer needed, as the first contingent of Canadian troops had enough, but nightshirts, bed jackets and dressing gowns were now required in great numbers for the inevitable wounded. Campbell encouraged Winnipeg women to be strong-minded, wear out their old clothes, trim their old hats, and "cultivate talents growing dormant" such as knitting. They were to live their lives, in all ways, to support the war effort.
Winnipeg women did indeed live their lives to support the war effort, as did the men who stayed at home. They contributed through fundraising, making hospital supplies, gas masks and socks, meeting the trains to give returning men a welcome home and all the other activities and sacrifices the war demanded. Beginning in August 1914, the people of Winnipeg organized themselves and set out to do all they could to win the war.
Jim Blanchard is a Winnipeg writer and historian. His books include Winnipeg 1912 and Winnipeg’s Great War, both published by University of Manitoba Press.