Chil­dren of Con­flict


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Kris­tine Alexan­der and Ash­ley Hen­rick­son

Young Cana­di­ans worked, wor­ried, and waited dur­ing the war.

FOUR YEARS, THE LENGTH of the First World War, is a long time in the life of a child. For young­sters across Canada, the war years meant many things: the ab­sence of fa­thers and broth­ers, a chance to make im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tions to the Al­lied war ef­fort, op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn and to worry about events at the front, and, be­gin­ning in late 1918, a deadly in­fluenza pan­demic. Old enough to re­mem­ber the war but too young to fight, this gen­er­a­tion of Cana­di­ans would come of age in the shadow of the “lost gen­er­a­tion,” the co­hort of men who fought and died in the First World War. Al­though Cana­dian chil­dren spent the war years far from the front lines, they were not mere by­standers to his­tory — they were also ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in a global con­flict that for­ever al­tered their lives.

The en­list­ment of a fa­ther or older brother was one of the most fun­da­men­tal ways the Great War changed chil­dren’s lives. Ap­prox­i­mately twenty per cent of the 470,224 Cana­dian men who served over­seas were mar­ried, and a large num­ber of these men were also fa­thers. An even larger num­ber of chil­dren watched their broth­ers, un­cles, cousins, and neigh­bours en­list or be con­scripted as the war dragged on. Ev­i­dence of the fa­mil­ial and pa­tri­otic pride felt by these young peo­ple can be found in the let­ters they wrote to the chil­dren’s pages of Cana­dian mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. Many of these mis­sives be­gan by de­scrib­ing the writ­ers’ en­listed rel­a­tives and their thoughts about the war, be­fore mov­ing on to dis­cuss other as­pects of their daily lives, such as pets and favourite books.

Dur­ing the fall of 1916, for ex­am­ple, Estella Grant, a fif­teen- year-old from Kil­burn, New Bruns­wick, wrote in a let­ter to the

Fam­ily Her­ald and Weekly Star, “I have two cousins at the front, be­sides an only brother in the 188th Bat­tal­ion at Camp Hughes. He went West last Au­gust and en­listed in Fe­bru­ary at North Bat­tle­ford, so you see I have never seen him in khaki. But we have sev­eral good pic­tures of him. I hope he will be able to get home for a visit be­fore he goes over­seas. I hope the war stops be­fore my brother gets into the trenches. If I were a boy I would try to be ac­count­able for a few Ger­mans.”

The ex­tended ab­sence of fa­thers and older broth­ers meant that many chil­dren across Canada sup­ported their fam­i­lies with paid or un­paid labour while their rel­a­tives were over­seas. After Sid­ney Brook, a farmer from Craigmyle, Al­berta, joined the 113th Bat­tal­ion in 1916, his sons Gor­don, eight, and Arnott, six, helped their mother Is­abelle care for their three younger sib­lings. Through­out his two-year ab­sence — Sid­ney Brook sur­vived the war and came home in 1918 — the Brook chil­dren also dug a cel­lar, de­liv­ered mail, and fetched milk and wa­ter.

Per­haps even more im­por­tantly, they pro­vided emo­tional sup­port to their fa­ther while he was at the front. The boys wrote let­ters telling him about their Christ­mas gifts, their baby sis­ter, and the teeth they had lost. They also packed parcels to send to him and drew him pic­tures. Sid­ney de­scribed how much he ap­pre­ci­ated these thought­ful acts, writ­ing to his wife that he kept the boys’ let­ters in his left breast pocket be­side his Bi­ble and that “a lit­tle dew­drop” blurred his vi­sion while he opened gifts from his chil­dren. Schol­ars have re­cently em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of let­ters for the morale and men­tal health of sol­diers

in the trenches. As the his­to­rian Martin Lyons put it, let­ters from home, filled with mes­sages of past hap­pi­ness and fu­ture hope, were “a hu­man­iz­ing in­flu­ence in a sea of bru­tal­ity.”

In ad­di­tion to writ­ing to ab­sent rel­a­tives and help­ing their moth­ers with do­mes­tic chores and farm work, by 1918 Cana­dian young­sters had also made sig­nif­i­cant ma­te­rial and eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tions to the broader Al­lied war ef­fort. Chil­dren were a vi­tal and en­thu­si­as­tic un­paid labour force through­out the war. At school and in their spare time, they pro­duced a wide range of goods for en­listed men, in­clud­ing socks, scarves, ban­dages, and scrap­books full of lo­cal news­pa­per clip­pings. These scrap­books were vi­tal sources of news from home and played a cen­tral part in many com­mu­ni­ties’ ef­forts to in­spire sol­diers to con­tinue to fight. Chil­dren’s un­paid war work also in­cluded col­lect­ing and scav­eng­ing bot­tles and cans, bones (for glue), house­hold fat (for dy­na­mite), sphag­num moss (an ex­tra-ab­sorbent sub­stance used in med­i­cal dress­ings), and milk­weed pods (used to make life pre­servers). In ad­di­tion, young­sters grew and har­vested fruits and veg­eta­bles, and hun­dreds of teenage “Sol­diers of the Soil” pro­vided valu­able man­power on farms.

The na­tion’s young peo­ple also raised and do­nated sub­stan­tial amounts of money to war-re­lated char­i­ties. In 1918, for ex­am­ple, Saskatchewan mem­bers of the Ju­nior Red Cross raised $15,195.33 for Red Cross war work — an amount equiv­a­lent to nearly $350,000 to­day.

At school and at home, Cana­dian young­sters were also avid con­sumers of war-re­lated news and pro­pa­ganda; the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two was not al­ways read­ily ap­par­ent. In class­rooms across the coun­try, teach­ers were en­cour­aged to use the war to teach their stu­dents moral lessons about pa­tri­o­tism, hero­ism, and hard work. At school, stu­dents read about sol­diers who won medals for brav­ery and lis­tened to dra­matic tales about such he­roes and hero­ines as the mar­tyred Bri­tish nurse Edith Cavell.

Thou­sands of school­child­ren across the coun­try also learned about Al­lied vic­to­ries and read Sir Ed­ward Par­rott’s fifty-six-vol­ume The Chil­dren’s Story of the War. Each vol­ume in this mas­sive se­ries, like other chil­dren’s books pub­lished dur­ing wartime, cel­e­brated youth­ful hero­ism while pro­mot­ing anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ment. One chap­ter, for ex­am­ple, tells the story of a French Boy Scout who, after hav­ing been cap­tured by Ger­man troops, re­fused to dis­close the lo­ca­tion of French troops. Par­rott writes that the Ger­mans told the boy “they were go­ing to shoot him, but he showed no fear. He walked with firm steps to a tele­graph post, stood against it, and with the green vine­yard be­hind him, smiled as they shot him dead.” This grue­some — and likely fab­ri­cated — tale, was ac­com­pa­nied by a moral for young read­ers: that it was brave and pa­tri­otic “to pre­fer death to the be­trayal of one’s coun­try­men.”

It is im­por­tant to note that chil­dren were not sponges who in­ter­nal­ized this wartime pro­pa­ganda un­crit­i­cally. The let­ters

chil­dren wrote to lo­cal and na­tional news­pa­pers sug­gest that they had a com­plex un­der­stand­ing of the war. There are few echoes of the pro­pa­gan­dis­tic pa­tri­o­tism of The Chil­dren’s Story of

the War, for in­stance, in the let­ter from ten-year-old Ce­cil Poole of Zealan­dia, Saskatchewan, pub­lished in the July 5, 1916, is­sue of Grain Grow­ers’ Guide: “I think war is one of the most cruel and worst things that could hap­pen. To think of the poor or­phans and also the poor fa­thers and moth­ers who mourn after their sons. It’s heart-rend­ing to think of men shot down like beasts. I have one brother twelve years old and have just one cousin at the front, but if my brother and I were old enough we would try to take up arms for our coun­try.”

Young Florence McGib­ney, writ­ing from the south­east­ern Saskatchewan town of Wel­wyn, ex­pressed a sim­i­lar un­der­stand­ing of the war’s ef­fects in a let­ter pub­lished in the same is­sue. “The men are down in trenches and are ready at any minute for an at­tack of the en­emy,” she wrote, “and ev­ery man is care­ful to keep his head down, if he doesn’t want to make a tar­get for the other side. This of­ten hap­pens, and then the sad news reaches home, break­ing ei­ther a mother’s or a wife’s heart.”

The wait­ing and wor­ry­ing that char­ac­ter­ized so many Cana­dian chil­dren’s ex­pe­ri­ences of the war years of­fi­cially came to an end with the sign­ing of the armistice on Novem­ber 11, 1918.

While adults and chil­dren took to the streets to cel­e­brate the end of the war, Cana­dian vic­tory pa­rades were haunted by an­other threat­en­ing spec­tre: the deadly pan­demic of Span­ish in­fluenza that swept across home fronts and bat­tle­fields dur­ing the fi­nal months of the war. Schools were closed, of­ten for sev­eral months, and news­pa­per head­lines high­lighted the tragic con­se­quences that the flu could have for young peo­ple. Bri­tish Columbia’s Agas­siz Record, for ex­am­ple, in­formed its com­mu­nity of read­ers that young Mil­dred Eve­lyn Wetherell, who had suc­cumbed to the ill­ness on Novem­ber 3, 1918, “was aged 10 years, 7 months and 25 days.”

Later that month, the Man­i­toba Free Press de­scribed an es­pe­cially dis­tress­ing case in which a nurse who en­tered a home en­coun­tered “[a] fa­ther and three chil­dren se­ri­ously ill and the mother dead on the sofa.” His­to­rian Esyllt Jones es­ti­mates that ap­prox­i­mately five hun­dred flu vic­tims in Win­nipeg left be­hind one or more de­pen­dent chil­dren, cre­at­ing thou­sands of or­phans and “half-or­phans” over the span of sev­eral months. Most or­phans were sent to live with other rel­a­tives or fam­ily friends, while some were sent to lo­cal chil­dren’s homes. Chil­dren with only one liv­ing care­giver of­ten faced great fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties in an era when so­cial ser­vices were min­i­mal and it was con­sid­ered de­grad­ing to ac­cept pub­lic aid.

By 1919, the year when the pan­demic ended and many Cana­dian sol­diers re­turned home, life looked very dif­fer­ent for Cana­dian chil­dren. For many young peo­ple, war work and wor­ry­ing about ab­sent rel­a­tives were re­placed by grief, dif­fi­cult read­just­ments to the pres­ence of fa­thers and broth­ers — many of whom bore phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal scars — and the ma­te­rial hard­ships that of­ten ac­com­pa­nied the per­ma­nent loss of a male bread­win­ner’s wage.

The First World War was won with the help of Cana­dian chil­dren, and it was also fought for them. Sid­ney Brook, like many other men in uni­form, hoped that this con­flict would be the war to end all wars, writ­ing to his wife, Is­abelle, that he hoped their boys would “grow up to be strong manly men and never have to shoul­der a ri­fle.” The de­sire that the chil­dren of the Great War would spend their adult lives in peace was dashed by the out­break of the Sec­ond World War in Septem­ber 1939. Four of the Brooks’ sons — like many other young men and women who had worked and waited as chil­dren be­tween 1914 and 1918 — served their coun­try in the Sec­ond World War: Gor­don and Lorne with the Cana­dian Postal Corps, Glen with the Cal­gary High­landers, and Roy as a mem­ber of the Royal Cana­dian Air Force. All of them sur­vived.

Kath­leen Her­bert sells vic­tory bonds out­side Toronto city hall, circa 1915.

Top: Boys har­vest flax near the Wil­low­dale Air­field out­side Toronto, circa 1917.

Bot­tom: Three Toronto chil­dren wait for their fa­ther, circa 1919.

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