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The Impact of The First World War: "Lest we Forget"

When Canada was only 50 years old, a century ago, the world was at war. It was also the year Canadians had won the critical battle for Vimy Ridge and, until the war was won, then went on to fight many more battles united as The Canadian Corps under the leadership of their own General, Sir Arthur Currie. Having already endured several years of losses in the muddy trenches along the Western Front, Vimy was devastating and the impact was felt in Canada from coast to coast. Of the 10,000 Canadian casualties suffered over the brief four days of fighting for control of the now-famous ridge, 3,598 men were killed. Back home, by 1917, volunteer enlistment had been rapidly declining, yet reinforcements were urgently needed overseas and the money to pay for them, and thus Vimy led to both Conscription and Income Tax.

The year before, in 1916, the same year Romania joined the war, Britain and her allies launched the Somme Offensive, a massive frontal assault, and on the first day of fighting lost 60,000 soldiers sent "over the top" who needed to cross No Man's Land to reach the opposing German forces. In particular, on that day, the Newfoundland Regiment were expected to capture the town of Beaumont Hamel - by walking directly into machine gun fire, and while being bombed by enemy artillery units. They did not achieve their objective and to commemorate that tragic day, the people of Newfoundland today do not celebrate July 1st as Canada Day, but Memorial Day, to remember their brave relatives.

A few years earlier, on the same day Britain declared war, August 4 1914, so did the Government of Canada, offering to mobilise and send the Canadian Expeditionary Force to aid Belgium - and, as a result of their efforts, the volunteer contingent totalled 31,000 men. Over the course of the war Canada recruited, trained and sent 630,000 men and women overseas, to serve not only as soldiers but also sailors, airmen, mechanics, doctors, nurses, drivers, miners, forestry and railway crews. The first division arrived in France early in 1915 and immediately saw combat at the Second Battle of Ypres, where they heroically faced the first poison gas attacks launched by Germany.

By November 1918, the war was finally ended and around the world the guns fell silent. Yet as the war neared its end, Torontonians were facing food and fuel shortages - and, a year after the war, in 1919 the Spanish flu killed another 50 million people worldwide. During the war lives had been changed forever, and so had the communities in which they lived. Eventually over 45,000 Torontonians had gone overseas, and most were happy to return home, although some went on to serve in Russia. Statistically, more than three-quarters of all men from Toronto eligible to fight had volunteered.

A hundred years ago, Sir Robert Borden, was prime minister of Canada, serving from 1911–20, and suffrage was also a weighing issue for him and during his term, in 1917, he gave nurses and women (related to soldiers) the right to vote in federal elections. Meanwhile, the Government of Ontario, under Sir William Hearst, a year before had introduced the Temperance Act with prohibition intended to keep men civil.

During the four years of conflict and struggle, the scale of human destruction was simply enormous and cannot be taken for granted. After all, nearly 10 million who served on numerous fronts were killed and over 20 million were wounded, and 40 million more were left homeless. Hence, it should come as no surprise that The Great War, or "The War to End All Wars", also had quite an impact on the medical field, from the development of prosthetics to blood banks - enabling doctors to provide transfusions safely to those in need - as well as the introduction of triage and ambulances.

As stated, Britain and her commonwealth allies entered the war in defense of Belgium, an independent nation protected from military aggression by international treaty, which was broken by Germany in 1914. Circumstances, however, were different for countries located in Eastern Europe, whether seeking to maintain the status quo given the rule of law maintained by the Austro-Hungarian ruling class and the Ottoman Empire, both opposed by many nations seeking independence - and supported by the Russian Empire. Their peace had been officially broken with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28 1914.

In 1914 leaders in Germany sought to have their armies invade Belgium en route to capturing Paris, as they had done previously and successfully during the Franco-Prussian war. Recruitment posters, therefore, posted on street poles and shop windows throughout the British Empire encouraged men to enlist to defend the honour of the neutral Belgians. This call to arms was answered and men lined up to fight, though fully expecting to be home by Christmas, not aware of the ferocity awaiting them along what was to be known as The Western Front, stretching from the Swiss border to the English Channel, and soon separated by growing numbers of varied guns defending deep and dirty trenches.

In response to the events in Serbia, and the increasing tension spreading across other Balkan nations, Russia supported Serbia and on July 5 issued orders for the "period preparatory to war". After Austria-Hungary shelled Belgrade on July 28, partial mobilization was approved and full Russian mobilization was announced on July 31. German leaders demanded Russia demobilize within 12 hours and when Russia did not, Germany declared war on August 1 in support of Austria-Hungary, who would also do so on August 6; meanwhile France had ordered the full mobilization of its armed forces in support of Russia on August 2. Approximately 60 million people were mobilized.

The men who first volunteered and eagerly embarked to fight left behind cities that were entering an era of modernization, especially with the advent of electricity, fostering networks of connected streetcars, sewers and telephones, as well as roads for cars and cinemas for moving pictures. New industries were flourishing in countries around the world, yet soldiers, living, wounded and dying on all battlefronts, were certainly aware of these inventions and innovations in letters they received from the home front. Shell-shocked soldiers caught deserting, and those only wanting to return to their families, who left the field of battle without permission, were shot at dawn by members of their own squads. There was no mercy for the enlisted.

During World War One, France lost 1.4 million men, sacrificed in battle, and over 4.3 million were wounded. Her soldiers in fact rose up and mutinied in 1917 - remaining in trenches willing to defend their positions, but rejecting any more frontal attacks. To restore order, General Philippe Pétain promised no more suicidal attacks, rest for exhausted units, home leave, and moderate discipline. Of the 554 mutineers eventually sentenced to death, however, 26 were executed as a result of their actions.

In the early 1900s the population of Toronto was slightly over 200,000. Its city streets were a combination of cobbled stone and asphalt. The tallest downtown structures were the Temple Building at ten storeys and Traders Bank at fifteen. Electric street lights were at each corner, and coal-fired boilers were replacing pot belly stoves in homes and businesses, and by 1914 at the outset of the war factories employed an "around the clock" workforce. By no means was this aspect of industrialization enjoyed only by Torontonians, but in all growing and developing cities around the world.

World War One provided substantial opportunities in the manufacturing sector in general, providing employment for those people, especially women, now left at home alone, from the large-scale processing and canning of food to the production of vehicles (cars, trucks and bikes), ships, guns (pistols and rifles), bullets and bombs, as well as uniforms, helmets, socks and boots, and, of course, much-needed medals.

Industrial activity burgeoned after the British Imperial Munitions Board was formed in 1915. It did more than award ammunition and shipbuilding contracts. For example, three of its seven “national factories” were located in Toronto: British Acetones was the Empire’s largest provider of the explosive cordite. British Forgings became the world’s biggest electric steel plant, and Canadian Aeroplanes soon thereafter built 2,951 aircraft for the war effort.

As an interesting sidebar, the Russell Motor Car Company was based in Toronto, producing cars from 1904 to 1916 and initially began production of electric-powered two-passenger "runabouts". By 1905, the company had produced its first "Model A" car with a two-cylinder gas-powered engine. (A larger "Model B", and a four-cylinder "Model C", arrived the next year, and their 40 horsepower touring car was introduced in 1907, with a more prestigious 50 horsepower model coming in 1908. The same year the first Model T rolled off the Ford factory floor.) In the wake of competition, and specifically a local downturn in the high-end car market, coupled with the commencement and impact of the war, Russell was sold to Willys-Overland Motors in 1916, a company which went on to produce the famous Jeep.

For Raymond Massey, who gained fame as an actor in Hollywood, specifically for his lead role in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, (he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor) and was well known for playing Dr. Gillespie in the NBC television series Dr. Kildare, the Christmas holidays of 1913 produced "a miraculous week" during which he saw Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth at the Princess Theatre, Hamlet and Caesar and Cleopatra at the Royal Alexandra. “I was riding on a cloud that week,” he said.

Massey, aged 17 in 1913, said the Christmases of his Toronto boyhood were idyllic, as once reported in The Toronto Star: “The sound of the sleigh bells was lovely, especially when it burst through the strange silence that falling snow brings.” On winter outings from the Massey’s Jarvis St. mansion, the horses wore clusters of silver bells on their harnesses. "Up front," he recalls, "the family’s coachman wore a fur cape and enormous bearskin hat. Behind, passengers were bundled under fur rugs." The Massey family owed its fortune to a successful business selling tractors to farmers.

Within a year, war would break out and life would change forever for everyone, as empires fought fiercely for control of resources around the world, and spent millions of lives and dollars in their efforts. The impact was everlasting. Soldiers who fought and survived, upon returning home, admonished leaders to think twice before sending men into battle. Sadly, two decades after the conclusion of one of the greatest conflicts ever witnessed in history, with most suffering untold, war broke out again.

Lest we forget.

Graeme Boyce    1/2/2019


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