Conscription arrives in summer of 1917
Island soldiers find comfort in humour and music as war’s fourth year nears
Although prepared to acknowledge the horrors of the First World War in the abstract, The Guardian – like most Canadian newspapers – was generally inclined to put the best face possible on strategic developments and progress. So a July 14, 1917 editorial was noteworthy for its bleak assessment of the current military situation: “[T]he stalemate appears to be unbroken, and … success and reverse still succeed each other with sickening persistence.”
The rapid approach of the war’s fourth year may have occasioned some of the editorial’s grimness, but it was also no coincidence that the same column then went on to attack Liberal opponents of the recently introduced conscription legislation. Although opposition would prove fiercest in Quebec, forced enlistment was not an easy sell anywhere in Canada and establishment figures – including newspaper editors – who sought to justify the measure could hardly pretend that the war was going swimmingly, while at the same time pointing out the desperate need for more men.
On P.E.I., the approach of conscription was incorporated into a local recruiting drive to secure a draft of “railway troops,” specialist soldiers urgently needed overseas to extend and maintain the rail links feeding the incredible logistical demands of the vast armies fighting on the Western front. To help fill the recruitment quota, large advertisements in mid-July invoked the pending implementation of conscription, urging prospective enlistees to “Be A Went, Not A Sent!”
Along with railway troops, another innovation of the war was military aviation. By mid1917 The Guardian had been able to report on a handful of Islanders who had signed up for British Army’s Royal Flying Corps – or its even newer Canadian training branch, which had begun operations in February. On July 9, The Guardian carried a front-page report, with a photograph, on one of these pioneering aviators. Lieut. Hugh Ronald Stewart of Charlottetown had arrived home on furlough, “unannounced and consequently without the usual welcome accorded to returned soldiers.” Having enlisted as a signaller at war’s outbreak, for which service he was subsequently decorated, Stewart joined the nascent Royal Flying Corps in September 1916 and rapidly won promotion to lieutenancy. The Guardian’s evident eagerness to run a “returning hero” profile on Stewart was, however, frustrated by his resolutely taciturn modesty: “He admitted he had been in pretty tight places and had seen some ‘scraps’ in the air as well as on land, but he positively refused to be quoted.”
While Stewart’s determined silence was somewhat unusual, most Islanders who had seen combat were limited in what they could share, especially in a public forum like a newspaper. Quite apart from official censorship, there were also the feelings of anxious loved ones to consider, to say nothing of the limitations of language in describing a type of warfare unlike any the world had seen before. Not surprisingly, then, many soldiers’ accounts, whether in letters from overseas or in interviews upon returning home, often had a stilted, pro forma quality, at least as printed in The Guardian.
Different people coped in different ways, however, and remarkable exceptions sometimes appeared, as in a July 5 letter from Jack MacVarish to his mother in Harmony Junction, printed on July 31. Under the vivid headline, “Battery Boys Dance As Shells Fly Overhead,” MacVarish recounted how one of his comrades had recently found an old violin, leading to an impromptu dance in a cellar, despite the shrapnel bursts above. As for the noise of an artillery barrage, MacVarish described it thus: “It sounds something in a small way like the most terrific storm on record; a dozen threshing mills; two dozen derricks; fifty outside wedding celebrations; and a couple of hundred shoemakers shops at work … .” Desperate though the times were, music and humour could still offer some comfort.
This is Lieut. Hugh Ronald Stewart, as he appeared on the front page of the Guardian on July 9, 1917.