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The psychology of war in Atlantic Canada: war wounds beyond the battlefields

Posters like these, published across Atlantic Canada, encouraged young men to enlist.
Posters like these, published across Atlantic Canada, encouraged young men to enlist. - Nova Scotia Archives

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Taking into account the significant losses, the question after a century of contemplation over the First World War remains, “Was it worth it?”

There’s no easy answer, according to Brent Wilson, a history professor at the University of New Brunswick.

All historians can do, he says, is examine the sequence of events, in trying to understand and document the war.

He says research shows that, overall here in Canada, most people came to believe their loved ones did not die in vain and that some good came out of the sacrifice.

“I think probably the average soldier and their families felt that what they were doing was the right thing; they were saddened by the experience, but it was a period of patriotism in Canada. Canadians still felt a very close connection to Britain and the Empire and believed that serving and helping Britain in its war against Germany was the right thing to do.”

The simple thing we take from the First World War, then, is pure knowledge.

“It helps us understand ways in which our society has changed and how it has evolved in the way that it has,” says Wilson.

Simon Lloyd, archivist with the University of Prince Edward Island, has spent considerable time examining editions of the Charlottetown Guardian from 1914 to 1918 through the library’s digitizations project, islandnewspapers.ca.

Simon Lloyd. - File
Simon Lloyd. - File

He notes newspaper writings of that day indicate clearly the social elite were very much behind the war, as were the pro-Conservative

“You generally tend to find this very jingoistic, pro-war tone, maintained throughout the years of the war,” he says.

And that, in itself, is a lesson to take away.

“It’s one thing to love your country, but to be uncritically supporting of the vast majority of what the government is doing… means a lot of those hard questions don’t get asked,” Lloyd says.

From a population of 100,000, Prince Edward Island sent 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, some volunteers, others by order of the government.

One thing that fascinates Lloyd is the period in 1918 that followed Canada’s 1917 introduction of conscription.

Until then, enlistment had been voluntary. However, following major Allied losses through 1916 and 1917, young men did not appear as eager to sign up.

The Canadian government decided to take that choice away.

“You generally tend to find this very jingoistic, pro-war tone, maintained throughout the years of the war." Simon Lloyd

On April 1, 1918, Lloyd says, a “very jaunty” Guardian article headlined “Military Roundup” reported military police had gone into the Prince Edward Theatre in Charlottetown as the night’s performance ended to search for military-aged men who had not enlisted.

“Women and children were told they could leave first so every man who was there could be stopped by the military police and have his papers examined, to show he was either underaged or he had conscription exemption papers.

“It’s astonishing to think of that happening now. And the Guardian (article) didn’t say anything about human rights or civil liberties; it was a kind of finger-wagging conclusion, saying this drive should have a good effect on educating young men to have the proper papers on them at all times.”

The patriotic fever and rhetoric is peculiar, measured against modern Canadian society.

Today, Lloyd points out, the media – and citizens – are more apt to be critical and ask questions. And there is greater willingness and freedom to do that.

The Moncton Daily Times of June 1916. The headline hints at pride and patriotism while reporting on the death of a local soldier. - Contributed
The Moncton Daily Times of June 1916. The headline hints at pride and patriotism while reporting on the death of a local soldier. - Contributed

Retired professor Brian Douglas Tennyson taught history at Cape Breton University, and has written several books on the subject of Nova Scotia in the the two world wars.

He says there were harsh lessons from the First World War.

“There was a tremendous disillusionment,” he says, at the end of the war. “People began to realize the whole thing had been a terrible mistake, and a bloody costly one.”

Yet it was such a horrifying thought – to think that the soldiers, the boys from the fishing villages and farms had died in vain – that no one wanted to say it.

"People began to realize the whole thing had been a terrible mistake, and a bloody costly one.” Brian Douglas Tennyson

Still, there were repercussions, politically, and socially.

With so much money invested in the war, Canada had little left to help soldiers reintegrate.

Returning Atlantic Canadian soldiers found little employment in a country heading into Depression.

They moved away from the Maritimes, heading to the United States and Western Canada to live and work the rest of their lives.

“People lost faith in politicians and it was after the First World War that the two-party system breaks down and you have a third party enter the scene.”

And it was because of the First World War that Britain, and its allies, hesitated so long before being drawn into a war against Germany in 1939.

“That was the reason our politicians kept making concessions to Hitler,” says Tennyson. “Public opinion was ‘No more war; don't sell us any more bullshit about standing up for freedom’.”

Canadian and Newfoundland soldiers, and their families, had paid a tremendous price – among them were William Fry and Donald Lawrence Morine. 

Communities across Atlantic Canada were united by a far-reaching sense of grief

William Fry and Donald Lawrence Morine never knew each other.

Yet Fry - of what’s now Summerville, N.L. - and Morine - from Bear River, N.S. - shared common ground and experience, fighting on one of the bloodiest battlefields in history from the early summer to late fall of 1916.

Fry and Morine also shared the dubious distinction of being among 1.1 million casualties of The Battle of the Somme and having their names etched permanently on war memorials in their home provinces.

Their stories differ, but ring familiar for communities across Atlantic Canada that suffered their own heart-breaking losses. During the summer and fall of 1916, it was war that united thousands.

“It’s hard to generalize, but I think there was a profound sense of grief … and it took many families, and returning soldiers, a long time to come to grips with what they had gone through,” says Wilson. 

Fry, a fisherman from a small Newfoundland community, was among the 12,000 Newfoundlanders – from a population of 240,000 – who went to war.

He was 23 when he was killed in action July 1, 1916, during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, the first day of the Somme offensive.

The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel continues to live in the collective psyche of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as a dark day that impacted not just that generation, but generations to come.

Of the 800 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 answered roll call the next day. More than 700 members of the regiment were killed, wounded or missing.

While July 1 is a day of celebration for other Canadians marking Canada Day,  it’s a solemn morning in Newfoundland and Labrador as people gather around war memorials to mark the devastation at Beaumont-Hamel.

Of the 800 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 answered roll call the next day. More than 700 members of the regiment were killed, wounded or missing.

The Battle of the Somme raged until November.

In early fall, Allied forces were trying to gain ground against Germany near Courcelette, France.

Donald Morine, one of the 35,000 Nova Scotians who enlisted, was just 13 days past his 17th birthday when he was killed Sept. 29, 1916, while serving with the 26th Nova Scotia Battalion.

His name is etched on the Yarmouth War Memorial and he’s the youngest soldier listed as killed in action.

Donald L. Morine's name is the youngest First World War casualty listed on the Yarmouth, N.S., cenotaph. - File
Donald L. Morine's name is the youngest First World War casualty listed on the Yarmouth, N.S., cenotaph. - File

Courcelette also brought significant loss for New Brunswick. From that province’s population of 370,000 at the time, about 27,000 soldiers enlisted and 17,000 went overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

 Sept. 15, 1916, the 26th New Brunswick Battalion had helped capture the village; the Somme was itsthe battalion's first major battle of the war.

The September action was seen as a major success for the Canadian Corps at that point, explains Wilson.

But it came at a price.

“It was also the costliest battle for the battalion,” he says. “They lost 500 men (killed, wounded and missing) – about half the strength of the unit – in less than three weeks.”

Wilson says evidence of a shared grief is in the cenotaphs across the country, and the honour rolls put together by churches and schools to commemorate the loss of a community’s soldiers.

“To me that shows the depth of the impact – the social impact – the war had. And I don’t think we fully understand still today how widespread that feeling was; and how long it took for people to come to grips with the experience and move on with their lives.”

Barb Dean-Simmons is a SaltWire Network journalist based out of St. John's, N.L., and managing editor of the Newfoundland and Labrador weeklies. 

barb.dean-simmons@thepacket.ca

Full series: ON THE 11th HOUR: when the war went quiet

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