The Great War and the Home Front -By Esther Sharp

The Great War and the Home Front
Reportage from the Ladysmith Chronicle

By Esther Sharp

[Note: this article originally appeared in BRITISH COLUMBIA HISTORY | Fall 2018 | Vol. 51 No. 3, pages 29-35. ]

The seemingly distant Great War profoundly altered life at home in the small, new-immigrant community of Ladysmith, BC. Articles, editorials, letters, and even ads published in the twice-weekly Ladysmith Chronicle newspaper (still published every week), show the extent of the First World War’s impact on every facet of life. Citizens shaped many of their day-to-day decisions by considering how they would influence the war effort.

Ladysmith before the War

Incorporated in 1904, Ladysmith, 24 km south of Nanaimo and 97 km north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, was “an instant town” established by coal baron James Dunsmuir. He moved workers at his Extension mine to the planned town he was building at Oyster
Harbour, where coal shipping facilities were already in place. Houses, stores, churches, and even opera houses and hotels were brought by rail from the existing small settlements around the mines.

The original population of around 2,000 in 1904 quickly expanded to 5,000 by its heyday in 1913. As a new town, and a commercial and social hub for many of the outlying districts, Ladysmith had a highly itinerant population. Immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe, Great Britain, and even China flocked to pioneering towns in western Canada like Ladysmith to find good jobs and adventure. The town’s many hotels were often full, and many people took in boarders.

Buildings couldn’t be put  fast enough to accommodate new arrivals, and Ladysmith’s future looked bright, fuelling speculation that it might become the largest centre on the island outside of Victoria.

The town’s heyday was short-lived, however. Fortunes changed drastically when the Great Strike of 1912–1914 shut down the coal mines of central Vancouver Island. The strikers had many riegvances, but their main one was safety—the South Wellington and Extension mines averaged 23 men killed per million tonnes of coal mined, while the provincial average was six men.

In 1909, an explosion at Extension killed 32 miners, 30 of
them from Ladysmith. The union’s advocacy ultimately
contributed to better regulation of the industry, but the
strike itself was long and brutal. Men and families left
the area during the strike years, their ranks replaced
by reviled “scabs” who were often entirely innocent
about the situation in which they had arrived.

Tensions peaked when mining companies continued to bring in
strike-breakers, which led to riots, bombings, and fears of even greater violence. In August 1913, the provincial government sent in soldiers—the Civil Aid Force—to restore order. The militia headquartered at Ladysmith was led by Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Currie, who in just a few years would go on to be the first and only
Canadian to command the Canadian Corps in Europe.

After quelling the unrest, a core group of 20 or so Civil Aid soldiers remained behind to keep the peace.

Comings and Goings

The coming of war in August 1914 saw an immediate exodus of men who belonged to the British Army reserve, along with the Civil Aid soldiers who left to rejoin their regiments. In the following months, British subjects between the ages of 18 and 60 were expected to sign up voluntarily. Some Belgians left to join the Belgian Army, and some men who were not British subjects signed up in Ladysmith.

By March 20, 1917, the Ladysmith Chronicle reported that nearly 300 soldiers and one nursing sister “who had looked upon this city
as their home town” had “joined the colours” and gone to the front. “This, when the sparsity [sic] of the population is taken into consideration, must be regarded as most creditable.”

The population dwindled further as soldiers’ families moved on to Vancouver, Victoria, or back home to their families, not wanting to live through hard times far from familiar people and places.

While the initial wave of volunteers may have been enthusiastic about serving the British cause, others were less so. By the mid-way point in the war, social, economic, and legal means were used to get men of all nationalities to the front or otherwise serve the war
effort, and these tactics were reflected in the pages of the Chronicle.

When conscription was introduced in May 1917, BC was asked to provide 7,000 men. The Chronicle suggested there was no “disgrace” in being called up: “To be drafted is not equivalent to being a
slacker… there is no reason why we should think anything but well of the drafted men.” There were reassurances that only “those that can be spared” would be conscripted, leaving others to carry on in vital occupations such as mining and farming.

Yet it was clear that able-bodied men who stayed home were viewed with increasing opprobrium. “Loafing is now illegal,” declared an April 1918 headline, reporting on the newly passed Anti-Loafing Act,
which stipulated that all Canadian men not employed in a useful occupation were subject to arrest and jail. “Tramps, loafers, ‘sports,’ and gentlemen of leisure who hang around pool-rooms, picture shows, cabarets, railway stations, steamboat landings, street corners… please take notice,” the article said. “Every man available
is necessary to the safety of the country.”

In May, the Chronicle carried news of a crackdown in Winnipeg
that saw mass arrests of “men doing work which can equally well be done by women,” which included clerking in grocery and candy stores. The Chronicle took a sarcastic tone, finding little difference between the so-called “useful work performed by shoe-shiners,
soda-fountain dispensers, theatre ushers, ribbon salesmen…and the tramps and the ‘sport’ who lives on his wits.”

Three men living in the bush near Ladysmith (and presumably avoiding the draft) were tracked down by the authorities and sentenced to 12 months hard labour.

In June, registration of every adult over the age of 16 became mandatory. If you weren’t registered, you could not hold a job, get a meal in a public place, or buy a train ticket. The Ladysmith register counted 749 men and 626 females, not including the local Indigenous or Asian populations.

In the fall of 1918 came another appeal, this time for single or widowed men between 20 and 34, and with  children to support. As an incentive, if they signed up before November, they had their choice of unit and could possibly join a relative or friend. An examination before a local board offered the chance of an exemption or a reasonable cause (such as working at an essential
occupation, poor health, or pressing financial obligations). But while conscription caused riots and grief across the country, the Ladysmith Chronicle barely reported the problem.

Labour and Food Shortages

With the vast number of men away fighting, the country needed people to fill jobs. Near Ladysmith, there was great demand for miners, loggers, and farm labourers.

BC supplied the spruce logs needed for aeroplane construction and fir timbers used to shore up tunnels and trenches at the front.

“The People Must Solve the Problem,” thundered the Chronicle, drawing parallels between fighting a war in Europe with untrained men and bringing in a harvest with unskilled labour.

While 1918 saw a record harvest across Canada, it still could not meet the shortages caused by war. To assist the millions starving in Europe, young men, women, and even students were sent by train to harvest fruit crops in the BC Interior and wheat on the Prairies. Several Ladysmith “boys” went on to enlist after helping bring in the harvest.

From kitchen tables to restaurants, there was a concerted effort by the government to conserve food— every saved mouthful here would help the war effort there. Everyone at home was asked to do more with less. People were encouraged to eat more fish and potatoes and food hoarders were given jail sentences of up to 30 months.

Ladysmith struck a series of committees—Increased Production, Elimination of Waste, and even a Fish Committee—to combat shortages. The Chronicle noted that, “the food problem is the woman’s problem,” in announcing a series of lectures and demonstrations of “War Cooking,” part of government
efforts to instruct housewives on how to cook using “substitutes” that included corn meal and flour that contained less wheat. The 40-plus women who attended the first lecture were told that “we can live and live well on food that cannot be exported.” Reducing sugar became a patriotic duty—the government estimated that if everyone took one less spoonful of sugar in their tea or coffee, 50,000 tonnes a year could be saved, which would, in turn, allow Canadian candy factories to keep working, thus avoiding further economic dislocation.

The temperance movement was also strengthened as alcohol became subject to restrictions—no alcohol except by doctors’ orders, as all grains were needed for food.

Food inspectors policed restaurants to ensure portions were cut back and no food was wasted. Serving food at public events was discouraged. Planting of vegetable gardens was encouraged, even on empty lots, so much so that the town of Ladysmith sent in a plough to prepare the ground.

Women’s Work

Ladysmith service clubs had been active in building their new town even before the war and included branches of the Red Cross and the Imperial Order of the Daughters of Empire (IODE) among others. Now these club women set to work knitting socks, making face cloths, sewing hospital shirts and caps—anything that was needed for the overseas hospitals. They made up care parcels for the soldiers that included treats like cigarettes, candy, and gum along with more practical items like socks.

At Christmas, there was a big push for parcels of pudding, fruitcake, coffee, and chocolate, while during the summer, housewives were asked to make an extra pail of jam. The IODE provided a 2 pound [907 g] pail and a recipe, then collected the finished product and shipped it off to the front.

Under the apparent camaraderie, however, lay shaming and peer pressure to ensure that every woman did her bit. Each pair of socks and pail of jam was listed by donor in the paper, alongside notices exhorting everyone to do even more. The Chronicle also carried
letters from grateful soldiers, like this one from a local lad, Private Hugh Thornley, who was serving in France.

He wrote, “when the history of this war is recorded, it will be found that the victory was in no small manner due to the noble efforts put forth in a thousand and one different ways by the women.”

Paying for It All

The local community also raised substantial amounts of money to help those at the front and those left behind. A Patriotic Fund was established whereby the more well-off families donated a set amount of money each month to be distributed by its trustees.

A certain amount went to soldier’s wives and a smaller amount
to the children—a fixed amount, whether the family had one or six.

Before the Dominion government established a national fund in July 1918, the people of Ladysmith had contributed $23,009 (approximately $356,640 today) and distributed $17,469 (approximately $270,770 today).

Raising money for the YMCA through events like “ “tag days,” in which small tags were given in exchange for donations, was also popular.

The YMCA set up camps in Britain where the “boys” on leave could get a cot in a tent and three meals a day for 60 cents [about $9 in 2018], along with free coffee and a place to write and mail letters back home. Basic pay for a private at this time was one dollar ($15.50 in 2018 values] per day plus 10 cents [$1.50] extra if you were in the field. It was stressed that while British “Tommies”
could often go home during their leave, Canadian boys had no such opportunity.

The Blue Cross was a sort of SPCA for the working animals of the First World War, including horses, dogs, and homing pigeons, and
citizens raised money to support their care too.

There wasn’t a week without numerous dances, sales of needlework, teas, raffles, or any another means of raising money for the war effort.

Meanwhile, the federal government urged those at home to pour their money into the Victory Loan program. The initial thrust in 1917 was to raise money to pay for the war—the Chronicle described how the funds were necessary to “keep the troops equipped and fed as they deserve to be”—and offered a tidy return on investment of five-and-a-half percent interest.

With canvassers going door to door, and loan offices staying open late, Ladysmith surpassed its initial goal of $60,000, with about 260 subscribers, that is, “about one in ten of the population…a very favorable showing.”

The first campaign’s final total of $107,100 would be worth
nearly two million dollars in today’s money.28 A second
Victory Loan campaign was launched in October 1918 as more money was needed. This time, the government took out such large ads that the Chronicle complained there was no space left to print the local news.

Once again, patriotic duty was married to good returns on
investment, with the government advising people to take out bank loans in order to buy more war bonds.

“The announcement of peace has stimulated the sale of Victory Bonds,” the Chronicle wrote, adding, “the people who are investing their small savings from a patriotic viewpoint will hasten to grasp this last opportunity of helping our victorious boys.”

In the end, Ladysmith raised $145,200 [equivalent to $2,250,600],
and earned a coveted “crown” to be added to its “honor flag,” which would show (according to the official ad carried on the Chronicle’s front page) “that your city…did better than well.”

A Flood of Soldiers

Meanwhile, the trickle of soldiers returning to Canada became a flood as British and European hospitals overflowed with the wounded and ill. There was little food to feed them, insufficient medical staff to tend to them, and not enough medical supplies to spare.

The Chronicle reported a “weeding out process” that would
see 20,000 men discharged in the coming months. “If Canadians in England are not able to fight…they must come home.”

The returning servicemen, particularly the injured, were a new source of anxiety and activity. Convalescent resorts in Qualicum and Esquimalt served many from the Island.

It was proposed that the government give out land grants, but not every soldier wanted to be a farmer, and since many were in poor physical condition, this wasn’t always an option. The government set up vocational schools to train the returnees, and many, of course, had learned new skills in the course of the war, especially those who joined the Royal Air Force (RAF).

A Darker Peace

The end of the war coincided with an outbreak of the deadly Spanish Flu. In late October 1918, the Chronicle carried news of two local cases and noted that “if it had not been that there is so much
sickness in the city there would have been a public demonstration” to celebrate Austria-Hungary’s unconditional surrender.

The school was closed, and the Chronicle carried a large notice on its
front page announcing the closing of all places of assembly until further notice. Children were expected to stay in their own yards, and adults were advised not to gather and chat in front of the
post office. An emergency isolation hospital was set up in the Temperance Hotel, and owing to a shortage of nurses, school staff were asked to help out.

One teacher, Mr. E.A. Waugh, succumbed to the influenza while volunteering to care for the sick and was described by the Chronicle’s editor as “a martyr to what he conceived to be his duty…
looking after sufferers from the epidemic…day and night.”

The call went out once again to the residents of Ladysmith, this time to provide food for the sick — gruel, soups and custard. By late December, there were still nine cases of flu in the city and fifteen
from the outlying districts. Local schools would not open again until January 15, 1919 with 75 percent attendance, when the officials felt the worst was over.

Due to the quarantine, celebrations for the end of the war were scant. A telegram arrived at 2:00 a.m. on November 12, 1918, announcing Germany’s surrender. The mayor asked businesses
to close early, and at 1:30 p.m. there was a parade from the post office through the town, along Esplanade to Buller Street, up First Avenue to Methuen, and then to the public school.

The newspaper dourly noted that, among the celebrants, “quite a few appeared to have imbibed freely of intoxicants. Of course it is not probable that there were any under the influence of liquor, for
since prohibition was enacted there has been no redeye sold in Ladysmith.”

The war was over, but it would be a long time before life would return to normal. Children’s Christmas parties were delayed until January, as were church services celebrating peace.

It would be almost a year before all of the the soldiers were home. Slogans such as “The war will be over by Christmas so hurry to sign up,” or “The war to end all wars” left a bitter taste on many
tongues. There were so many soldiers waiting to be returned, that the government had to set priorities. First to be sent home were those in the hospitals, followed by those with essential skills; next were the married men, and finally the single men were allowed to return home.

Ladysmith had changed during the war years. Streets had been graded and improved to accommodate motorcars, which were seldom seen in 1914. There were now streetlights and telephones.

But much of the population— single lodgers and families with few ties to the town besides a job in the mines—had drifted away. The
1919 Wrigley’s Directory lists Ladysmith’s population as only 2,000—no more than it was at the town’s inception 15 years earlier.

However, close-knit communities like Ladysmith had always relied on pulling together in self-help groups and service clubs. In August 1918, returned veterans formed a local Ex-Servicemen’s Association, assisted by local businessman Mr. Bickle, who offered
them meeting rooms. Based on their first-hand experiences, they lobbied the various levels of government about what they felt needed to be done and pressured officials to keep the promises they had made to those who fought.

The ex-servicemen were also responsible for erecting a cenotaph to commemorate the sacrifice of 41 Ladysmith men. The cenotaph does not list the 430 men plus 30 militia with Ladysmith connections who served and returned. Of the 41 men killed in action whose names were carved onto the cenotaph in 1923, the stories of two have been lost, while others were somehow left off. And the men that returned were not the young, joyous boys who left for a great adventure but were now old beyond their years, having experienced and seen things they would rather forget. •

[Note: this article originally appeared in BRITISH COLUMBIA HISTORY | Fall 2018 | Vol. 51 No. 3, pages 29-35. ]

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