Fighting for the Empire: Canada’s Great War in photographs
This important stage in Canadian history, and the country’s contributions to the global history of the First World War, is particularly well shown in photographic records held by the British Library. This collection ranges widely in subject matter and covers the whole period of the war and some years afterwards, presenting a wide variety of Canadian experiences.
The scale and human cost of Canada’s involvement in the war
Firstly, the scale of Canada’s personnel involvement was massive, akin to the involvement of other colonial nations. The British Library’s collection of Canadian photographs provides unique insights into this, including many large, panoramic photographs of regiments and battalions arrayed for inspection prior to departure. There are even photographs of troops as they sail for Europe from Canada’s ports.
The human cost of the war to Canada’s military and national population was therefore very great: over 200,000 personnel were killed or wounded during the war, a significant proportion of the country’s population of 7.8 million. At home, Canada’s civilians also experienced hardships, not least the oppression and suspicion endured by German and Eastern European migrants during the conflict. Camps such as that at Valcartier acted as internment sites for individuals the state believed could act as subversive agents, while towns with German names felt circumstances warranted a change (and so Berlin, Ontario, became Kitchener, Ontario).
Canadian society during the war
Just as it is today, Canada during the war was a complex, multicultural society with significant regional differences. This meant that war in Europe was understood differently across Canada’s spaces and had a variety of effects upon its population. Some provinces also struggled to recruit for the war effort in the face of popular disapproval: Quebec is a notable example. Independence was as significant and divisive an issue in Quebec during the First World War as it is today; during the war this nationalism translated into a reluctance to support the British or even the French cause. This meant a great deal of effort was spent convincing the population of Quebec to support the war and enlist, to the extent that popular ex-Prime Ministers, were enlisted to drive rallies and up recruitment.
That being said, while the government went to great lengths to mobilise support for the war the population often did the same voluntarily, as these postcards from Quebec and the Maritime Provinces show:
Industry and the war effort
As well as providing soldiers for the war effort Canada also produced large amounts of material support for Britain. Food, clothes, mechanical equipment, weapons and many other items were produced in Canada and shipped over to Britain and Europe. Canada’s industry was turned over to the production of significant volumes of complex and dangerous war supplies. The photograph does not illustrate the labour constraints placed on Canada by the war, meaning that factory work was increasingly done by women.
Man making shells for the war effort, from Stone Limited
Photograph taken in 1915 showing a munitions worker making shells in a factory.View images from this item (1)
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Photography as a record, and an aid to commemoration
The efforts of Canadians on the front were also recorded by photographers, most extensively by the Canadian War Memorials Fund. Lord Beaverbrook, an expatriate Canadian millionaire, became concerned that the efforts of Canadian soldiers should be documented and subsequently commemorated back home. The War Memorials Fund combined these two objectives, using photographs (as well as other artistic representations) of Canadian troops to raise money for the construction of monuments to the Canadian war effort.
Photographs from the Canadian War Memorials Fund
Selection of photographs which were used by the Canadian War Memorials Fund in exhibitions to raise money for memorials to Canadian troops.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms: Public Domain
Held by: © Canada. Patent and Copyright Office, Library and Archives Canada
Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances
A public memorial with carved list of names of fallen soldiers located in Fort Frances, Ontario.View images from this item (1)
Usage terms: We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any information you have regarding this item.
 The British Library holds a unique collection of Canadian photographs, which were accumulated from across the country irrespective of the status of the producing photographer. You can see more of this collection on the British Library and Wikimedia UK collaboration, ‘Picturing Canada’. The photographs have been made available under a Public Domain license.
The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.
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