1. World War I : the war at home2. Enlisting for the cause3. The war and the end of bilingual education
World War I : the war at homeFew events could have been more remote from the lives of Manitobans than those that led to the outbreak of World War I. The assassination of an heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by a Serb nationalist was barely noticed on the Canadian prairies. But that assassination set in motion a series of events that led to a declaration of war between Great Britain and Austro-Hungarian Empire and its ally, Germany. Because it was still a part of the British Empire, Canada was automatically swept up into that war.
The war was expected to last a few short months: it lasted four bloody years. Over 8,500,000 soldiers and sailors along with 13-million civilians died in this global conflict. In late 1914 the British and French troops halted the successful German advance that had swept through much of Belgium and northern France. Both sides dug in along a line that cut through Belgium and France, extending from the English Channel to neutral Switzerland. They spent next four years engaged in brutal trench warfare (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) in which victories and defeats were measured in yards. Of the 600,000 Canadian soldiers who went overseas, (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4, Ref5) 60,000 never came back, 150,000 were wounded, and 4,000 taken prisoner. Many historians have described the First World War as Canada’s war of independence, arguing that the sacrifices that Canadian soldiers made on the battlefields of Europe created a strong sense of national purpose back home and won Canada the right to act as an independent nation.
The war had other impacts on Canada and its regions. It was the time when the moral reform movement achieved many of its objectives: women were given the vote in federal elections and most provincial elections during the war. The sale of alcohol was banned. An effort was made to put aside political partisan differences in 1917 when many Liberals joined with the governing Conservatives to create a Union government.
Unity was purchased with a price. Nationally the country split along linguistic and cultural lines when the Union government introduced compulsory military service (conscription). The people of Quebec were largely opposed to conscription, while most other Canadians supported a measure that they hoped would help bring the war to an end.
The declaration of war also raised questions about who was and who wasn’t a Canadian, how Canadian patriotism was to be created, and what the limits were on the rights of Canadians to disagree with government policy. People who had been invited to immigrate to Canada a few years earlier found themselves branded as enemy aliens and were at risk of being interned for an indefinite period without trial. The Laurier-Greenway Compromise was scrapped to ensure that schools could do a more effective job in educating students in the lessons of citizenship. Opponents of the war often lost their jobs, had their writings censored, and were, on occasion, the targets of physical abuse.
When the war lurched to an unexpected but welcomed halt (Ref1, Ref2) in 1918, the battered world barely had time to catch its breath before it was confronted with an influenza pandemic. The “Spanish flu”, as it was known, was brought to North America by soldiers returning from Europe. Before it ran its course in 1919, it had killed 21 million people around the world, 50,000 in Canada —only 10,000 less than the number that died overseas.
Regional complaints and the concerns of the growing Canadian labour movement went largely unaddressed throughout the war. As a result, the spirit of wartime unity barely outlasted the war. In 1919 Winnipeg workers were in the vanguard of an explosion of strike action across the country. A few years later the Western provinces abandoned the Liberal and Conservative Parties to support farmer led political parties at the provincial and federal level.
These important wartime developments should not obscure the fact that the (Ref1, Ref2) dominant issue for most Manitobans during the war years was the war itself. Thousands of young Manitoba men died or were permanently disabled on the European battlefields. For soldier’s wives, parents, and children these were years of agonized waiting, marked by poverty and anxiety, and ending far too often in tragedy. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) Letters from home or the front were eagerly awaited, (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) often censored, and reread countless times. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4, Ref5) Sometimes men at the front were only able to send a field service postcard that was little more than a form letter. Although the war was being fought a continent away, its impacts were felt in every aspect of life on the home front. (Ref1, Ref2)