August 4, 1914
Britain is at war against Germany.

October 14 - November 22, 1914
First Battle of Ypres

April 22 - May 25, 1915
Second Battle of Ypres

July 1, 1916
Battle of the Somme begins.

April 9, 1917
Battle at Vimy Ridge

May 20, 1917
Conscription Bill is introduced

December 17, 1917
Robert Borden is re-elected as Prime Minister of Canada

November 11, 1918
Armistice day, the fighting stops at 11am.


Canadian VC Recipients

The Harvests of war: the Prairie West, 1914-1918 by John Herd Thompson.

Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978.

Loyalties in conflict: Ukrainians in Canada during the Great War. Edited by Frances Swyripa and John Herd Thompson.
Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1983.

When your number's up: the Canadian soldier in the First World War by Desmond Morton.
Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1993.


Battlegrounds of WWI


World War I: the war at home
Page 2 of 6

Enlisting for the cause

Few western Canadians paid close attention to the complex political maneuvering that led to the outbreak of the World War I in August 1914. Nor had they been strong proponents of the creation of a large Canadian military force, since it was hard to conceive of a significant military threat to the country. They did, however, respond with enthusiasm to the declaration of a war that most thought would be concluded by a few decisive battles in a matter of months.

Most of the initial recruits were British-born Canadians. Others were driven to join by unemployment—the western Canadian economy had stumbled badly in 1913. Railway construction had ceased, the urban construction boom was complete, and grain prices were in decline. The cities were filled with unemployed single man, many of whom enlisted out of desperation. Most western Canadian recruits however left jobs that were both better paying and safer than military life could ever be. To some, Canada was fighting out of its imperial obligations to Britain, which had gone to war as a result of its treaty responsibilities. Others saw it as a war for democracy and civilization. These arguments merged as highly coloured reports of German atrocities in Belgium began to circulate across Canada. By the end of the first year of the war over 18.000 Manitobans (Ref1, Ref2) had volunteered. Along with the other Prairie Provinces, Manitoba’s contribution to the war would be greater than its share of the population. Across Canada between three and four thousand Aboriginal people enlisted, including Patrick Riel, a descendant of Louis Riel, the leader of the 1869-70 Red River Resistance. A sniper, he was one of the approximately 300 Aboriginal soldiers who died in Europe.

From the 1890s onward Roman Catholic colonization efforts had succeeded in recruiting 3,300 immigrants to Manitoba from France. When the war broke out many of the young men chose to return to France and serve in the French military. While a number of Manitoba priests did serve as chaplains in the Canadian army, Manitoba Catholic Church leaders stirred up a minor diplomatic controversy when they discouraged French-born priests living in Manitoba from returning to France to enlist. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4)

Manitobans were awarded 14 Victoria Crosses, (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) the Empire’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy—three Victoria Cross winners came from Pine Street in West End Winnipeg, which was renamed Valour Road in their honour.

After a brief period of training, the Canadian Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe poorly equipped: the men’s jackets provided little protection against the rain and snow, their boots fell apart in the mud, and their Ross rifles overheated and jammed if they were fired too quickly. They could get away from the front for brief leaves in Britain, but many of the men were further alienated by the contrast between life in England and life in the trenches. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) The soldiers developed a grim sense of humour, (Ref1, Ref2) but one wonders how much comfort they could draw from it. The famous Christmas truces, when soldiers on both sides of the trenches stopped shooting at one another and fraternized for a day, were but brief respites that were bitterly opposed by the commanding officers.

In April 1915 Winnipeggers were among those soldiers subjected to the first chlorine gas attack. Young Manitoba soldiers were there when the Canadian Division was cut in half in one day of battle at Ypres. (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4) Two years later, in 1917, Canadians played a central role in winning the battle of Vimy Ridge. To secure what was the greatest Allied victory in the war to that point, over 3,600 Canadians died and another 7,000 were wounded. When the four years of slaughter ended on November 11, 1918 over 210,000 Canadians had been killed (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3, Ref4) or disabled.

The government paid soldiers' wives a small separation allowance and soldiers were encouraged, and later forced, to assign most of their pay to their wives or family members. For most families this might amount to little more than $35 a month. Soldiers' salaries were so low - privates made a dollar and ten cents a day - that the Canadian government established the Canadian Patriotic Fund to provide assistance to the families of Canadian soldiers. A private charity, the CPF raised money across the country and distributed it to families on the basis of a fairly strict set of criteria. Manitoba was the only province that did not participate directly in the CPF. In the first weeks of the war, the Winnipeg business community, having divided the city into a hundred districts, began to track down soldiers' relatives and dependents. This work led to the establishment of a Manitoba Patriotic Fund. Unlike the national fund, the MPF did not limit itself to providing financial support to the wives and dependants of enlisted men. It took a broader, more generous position, and gave a measure of relief to all individuals whose economic situation had been negatively affected by the war. The MPF was also one of a number of funds (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) intended to provide relief to soldiers and families affected by the war both in Canada and Europe.

As the war continued the CPF and the MPF both had to struggle with the rapidly climbing cost of living and complaints about the middle-class women who visited homes on their behalf to give women advice on how best to live on their tiny benefits. Despite their significant accomplishments, the CPF and the MPF served to demonstrate the limits of a purely voluntary approach to social services. By the war’s end, no one was proposing that private charities take on responsibility for providing benefits to Canada’s veterans. (Ref1, Ref2)

Beyond this, dozens of voluntary organizations threw themselves in the war effort on the homefront as women sewed, (Ref1, Ref2, Ref3) knitted and prepared parcels to send to the troops overseas. Wartime also brought about rationing of metal, food, and energy. In the age of total war even lunch became a military matter.

Digital Resources on Manitoba History