Sol­diers came home to a dif­fer­ent Cal­gary than the one they had left

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - CHRIS NEL­SON

Af­ter four hor­ren­dous years of slaugh­ter, the Great War was fi­nally over. But in Cal­gary, that fate­ful day of Nov. 11, 1918, would mark only a brief respite against an equally deadly foe.

While many of the sur­viv­ing sons of the young city were fi­nally breath­ing a sigh of re­lief when fight­ing on the West­ern Front was ended with an ar­mistice that even­tu­ally would be ex­panded into a peace agree­ment, their fam­i­lies and friends back home had no such respite. The city was in the grip of the Span­ish Flu.

Glob­ally, the ill­ness would claim more lives than the First World War, and it ar­rived with a vengeance in Al­berta in the fall of 1918.

En­tire towns such as Leth­bridge, Drumheller and Taber were quar­an­tined, while in Cal­gary, schools, churches, pool halls, the­atres and dance halls were closed, and the con­gre­ga­tion of large num­bers of peo­ple pro­hib­ited. Mean­while, cit­i­zens were or­dered to wear cheese­cloth masks across their mouths to stop the flu’s spread.

But when news broke that fight­ing had ceased in France and in Flan­ders, ju­bi­lant Cal­gar­i­ans shrugged aside those re­stric­tions and gath­ered in huge num­bers to cel­e­brate.

The mayor of the day de­clared a half-day hol­i­day and an im­promptu vic­tory pa­rade be­gan at the cen­tral fire hall on Sixth Av­enue, which wound it­self around the city be­fore end­ing at City Hall at 3:30 p.m. Where now stands Olympic Plaza, two ef­fi­gies were hung of the Kaiser and the Ger­man Crown Prince. Later they would be hauled down and burned.

The fol­low­ing day, civic re­stric­tions to com­bat the flu were re­in­stated. It would be an­other nine months un­til it had run its course. By then, 4,308 Al­ber­tans had died from its ef­fects, com­pared with the 6,140 men from the prov­ince that were killed in ac­tion.

By the time the vast ma­jor­ity of troops ar­rived back in their home­town in June 1919, the worst of that epi­demic was over, but they re­turned to a city that was far re­moved from the one some had left four years ear­lier. The war had changed them. It had also changed Cal­gary. And, now re­united, such change would only ac­cel­er­ate in the years ahead. The most over­rid­ing and press­ing is­sue was tak­ing care of the huge num­bers of phys­i­cally wounded and men­tally scarred vet­er­ans.

Wil­liam Pratt, a lec­turer in mil­i­tary his­tory at Mount Royal Univer­sity, said the com­bi­na­tion of the rav­ages of the Span­ish Flu com­bined with the pub­lic’s sym­pa­thy for in­jured vets would lead to the cre­ation of a depart­ment of vet­eran af­fairs and a fully-fledged fed­eral health depart­ment, which, be­fore the war was only in­ter­ested in quar­an­tin­ing im­mi­grants sus­pected of car­ry­ing dis­eases.

At the time of the ar­mistice there were three func­tion­ing mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals with about 600 beds in the city, in Og­den, Sun­ny­side and the Fair­banks Morse build­ing down­town: the lat­ter would soon move and be re­named the Col. Belcher Hos­pi­tal.

For those suf­fer­ing from what was then termed shell shock, Al- berta con­verted a ladies’ school in Red Deer into a men­tal-health fa­cil­ity, al­though mil­i­tary brass had long frowned upon such di­ag­no­sis at the front, be­liev­ing it al­lowed men to shirk their du­ties.

“The army out­lawed the shell­shock di­ag­no­sis in 1917 over­seas. There was a real ef­fort by mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties to avoid that di­ag­no­sis be­cause they feared any­one who was what they called a ma­lin­gerer back then could claim shell shock,” said Pratt.

Pratt said about 20,000 Al­ber­tans were wounded in the war and it is likely that 10 per cent of those men would have been so badly in­jured that they would have been in­valids need­ing care within the mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal sys­tem for the rest of their lives. Many of those who re­turned did not suf­fer with what was thought to be the usual in­juries, such as blind­ness or lost limbs. In­stead it was tu­ber­cu­lo­sis that proved the most dam­ag­ing. A sana­to­rium was set up in Frank un­der the be­lief that fresh moun­tain air could cure the dis­ease. It would later move to Cal­gary and be­come the Baker sana­to­rium.

“There was pres­sure to look af­ter re­turned sol­diers, so those with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties or TB were not just left to their own re­sources, as of­ten used to hap­pen. If the First World War had not taken place, you would not have had the back­ing of pub­lic opin­ion that this was some­thing that needed to be done,” added Pratt.

Vet­er­ans were also in need of re­train­ing in or­der to find work in the post­war world. This led di­rectly to the devel­op­ment of a vo­ca­tional train­ing cen­tre that would be the ba­sis for to­day’s SAIT in Cal­gary.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment, wor­ried about the po­ten­tial rev­o­lu­tion­ary sen­ti­ments of so many re­turn­ing vet­er­ans at a time when so­cial­ist feel­ings were run­ning high, de­cided to of­fer ex-sol­diers cheap ac­cess to un­de­vel­oped land, es­pe­cially in Al­berta.

“We can­not bet­ter for­tify this coun­try against the waves of un­rest and dis­con­tent that now as­sail us than by mak­ing the great­est pos­si­ble pro­por­tion of the sol­diers of our coun­try set­tlers upon the land,” In­te­rior Min­is­ter Arthur Meighen de­clared in June 1919.

“The end of the war helped open up the West. The Sol­diers Set­tle­ment Act came into ef­fect to help vet­er­ans. There was a lot of un­de­vel­oped land and the act gave vet­er­ans cheap ac­cess to this land. Th­ese guys were able to get into farm­ing and the gov­ern­ment got the land opened up and got the tax base ex­panded,” said Rory Cory, head cu­ra­tor at Cal­gary’s Mil­i­tary Mu­se­ums.

Many vet­er­ans also needed the so­cial sup­port that came with gath­er­ing to­gether along­side other ex-ser­vice­men, which in turn led to the devel­op­ment of the Le­gion branches — the first is still op­er­at­ing in down­town Cal­gary.

Vet­er­ans would have one other thing to get used to af­ter the war. It was sup­posed to be a tem­po­rary mea­sure — in­come tax.


Tele­phone op­er­a­tors in High River wear masks as pro­tec­tion against the Span­ish Flu dur­ing the 1918 pan­demic, which killed 4,308 Al­ber­tans.

A poster is­sued by the Al­berta Pro­vin­cial Board of Health warns about the 1918 Span­ish flu.

The Cal­gary Her­ald’s pages were crowded with news of the war in 1918.


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