Photograph, June 1915, showing men from the 26th Battalion and Ammunition Column leaving for overseas service.

Fighting for the Empire: Canada’s Great War in photographs

Curator Dr Philip Hatfield draws on photographs taken in Canada during World War One, including scenes of enlistment and arms manufacturing, to consider the range of contributions made by Canadian citizens.
Canada made a significant contribution to the First World War, which is remembered particularly in the context of battles such as the Somme and Vimy, but also through the contribution of individuals, such as the flying aces Billy Bishop and William Barker. However, the scale of Canada’s support and involvement in the war was wider even than these monumental events and efforts suggest, just as it was in many European countries. For many Canadians the First World War was a formative moment, a time when the British Dominion moved away from being part of an Imperial Federation and began to realise its own strength and independence.

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.[1] 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

Man making shells for the war effort, from Stone Limited

Photograph taken in 1915 showing a munitions worker making shells in a factory.

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Usage terms: : We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Man making shells for the war effort, from Stone Limited. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.

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

Photographs from the Canadian War Memorials copyright deposit

Selection of photographs which were used by the Canadian War Memorials Fund in exhibitions to raise money for memorials to Canadian troops.

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Usage terms: : Public Domain
Held by: : © Canada. Patent and Copyright Office, Library and Archives Canada

Photography should never be regard as a complete record of particular experiences; the process of selection, considerations of what is omitted and the technical limitations of the camera should be questioned when looking at the contents of any framed image. So, while historical records show some strong, general – often nationalistic – ideas about the effect of the war on the Canadian nation, it is also worth considering the less common stories of the impacts of the conflict, on individual soldiers, factory workers and particular groups of migrants. The collection of photographs held at the British Library shows Canada’s war effort from a variety of angles, and the photographs help us to see this effort in a particularly powerful way. The images remind us of the human sacrifice and effort that went into the war, the many opinions Canadians held about the conflict and even that humour was an important part of getting people through the ordeal. These photographs both mirror experiences elsewhere in the world at this time and bring to light the often overlooked involvement of Canada and Canadians.

Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances

Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances

A public memorial with carved list of names of fallen soldiers located in Fort Frances, Ontario.

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Usage terms: : We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for Soldiers’ Memorial, Fort Frances. Please contact with any information you have regarding this item.


[1] 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.

  • Philip Hatfield
  • Phil Hatfield is Curator for Canadian and Caribbean Studies at the British Library; he is also currently responsible for Australasian Studies. His research focuses on the political structures, pastimes and visual economy of the British Empire, with a particular focus on late 19th- and early 20th-century Canada. He is currently writing a book, Photographs, People, Place: Canada in the Frame and is completing a Wikimedia UK / Eccles Centre funded digitisation project of the British Library's Canadian colonial copyright photographs.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.


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