Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

July 1914: the Summer Before the Storm

For anyone interested in modern European history or the First World War, July 25th represents the collapse of the house of cards that was European diplomacy in 1914. Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismark once remarked, “If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.” He couldn’t have been more correct. Before proceeding, here is brief re-cap of the events leading up to 25th of July:  the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Austria-Hungary retaliates by demanding the extradition of the leaders of the Black Hand (organizers of the assassination), Serbia turns up the ante by requesting assistance from the Russian empire, and finally, Austria’s delivers an ultimatum to Serbia. Austria had given Serbia very few options, either humiliation or fight.

Modris Eksteins’ classic book, The Rites of Spring, paints an excellent picture how July 1914 was an abnormal summer. Conventionally, European politicians put international and domestic issues on hold. Typically men in suits fled the soot ridden capital cities of Paris, London and Berlin for coastal towns like Blackpool or Marseilles. Yet the summer of 1914 was different. The Kaiser cut short his annual yacht cruise of the Rhine. British politicians in bowler hats stayed in the London. Ordinary Germans also avoided the seaside, preferring to await military mobilization orders.

Credit: Peterborough Examiner, 1914
But what was life like in Peterborough during these anxious days of July 1914? What were the average resident’s thoughts on the crisis of European alliances? If newspapers are a reflection of popular public opinion, then we can safely assume that war was not on the minds of locals. After looking at the 25 July 1914 edition of the Examiner, it becomes evident that picnics, church sermons, local camping excursions to Stoney lake with school children from Pennsylvania were more pressing issues. Internationally, Peterborough was more concerned with the crisis of Irish rebellion and Home Rule than some “damned silly thing in the Balkans.” A big local stories for press included the report of the removal of a gang of local Gypsies and dodgy fortune tellers from the city's streets. Only at the bottom of the front page was there any mention of how Europe stood on the brink of war caused by Austria’s ultimatum to tiny Serbia.

It is almost bittersweet to look back at this pre-war period. They didn't see it coming. It is the end of the Edwardian period and the birth of the modern age. In 2 weeks’ time, the Dominion of Canada would be at war, and the local Armouries would send off hundreds of men overseas, many of the enlisted recruits would never return, and many of those who did come back, did not come back mentally whole.

The British Statesman Sir Edward Grey, said it best when overlooking London after it had been resolved that Britain would declare war on Germany. As he watched the last night that the gas lights were being lit in peacetime, he wrote: “The lights are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Another Peterboro' Boy Lays Down his Life at the Front

Another Peterboro' Boy Lays Down his Life at the Front

Credit: Peterborough Examiner, 2 May 1916
Another Peterborough boy has given his life for the Empire in the great struggle in Europe. This morning J.W. Edwards, 485 Sherbrooke Street, received the sad news that her son, Corp. Herbert Simon Wesley Edwards,  4th Canadian Infantry Brigade is officially reported to have died of wounds at No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station on April 26th.

Corp. Edwards is a native son of Peterborough, having been born in this city in September 1895. His Father, Pioneer Sgt.  J. Wes  Edwards, who is at West Sandling Camp, England with the 39th Battalion, is one of the best known Peterborough men who has gone overseas. Having been a member of 57th Regiment for over 25 years. His son, Corporal Edwards, now reported died of wounds enlisted here in January 1915 with the 39th Battalion, after having tried in vain to go with the first contingent. He became a member of the of the Machine Gun section of the 39th and after training in England, was drafted into a 4th Brigade Infantry Battalion and went to the front. His letters home have been bright, cheery nature, showing that he was taking the hardships at the front philosophically as a soldier should. In a recent letter to his father in England, he had expressed hope that they might be able to arrange to Mrs. Edwards come over England to visit her husband and son.

Corp. Edwards last visit home in Peterborough of Pte. Nicholls funeral of the 39th Battalion who died at Belleville Camp. Edwards was a member of the firing party on that occasion.

In addition to his sorrowing parents he is survived by a younger brother, Reginald and two younger sisters, Mrs. Elliot wife of Lance Corp. Elliot of 93rd Battalion, and Mrs. C. E. Hemalt of Toronto.
The young soldier was a bright likable boy and was very popular in the city and among members of the 39th Battalion. 

-- Grave Inscription:  Corp. H.S.W. Edwards, Age 21, Canadian Machine Gun Corps. "He gave his life for us so that we might live." [Ed. - It is interesting to note that his mother, Lizzie, is listed as living 182 Strachan Ave, Toronto.]

Peterborough in 1914

Times (London, UK) Newspaper Headline - 5 August 1914

Every year in late August, news agencies and radio stations across Canada and the United States discuss the latest edition of the Beloit College Mindset List. The list consists of a comparison between the world that new university students (roughly 17 – 18 years old) grew up in, compared to our generation. Basically, it’s a study that makes everyone over the age of 18 feel ancient and irrelevant. For example: the study might say: “New students in 2012 never knew who shot JR on Dallas” or “Students going into university this year never had to change a typewriter ribbon.” 

With that spirit in mind, I am going to attempt to show what life was like in Peterborough in 1914 before the outbreak of war.

1. Price of an automobile in 1914 was roughly $550 -$ 1050. Some automobiles cost as much as $4,000  Average Canadian wage for a worker in 1914? $417. 

2. Transportation: Many residents in Peterborough got around town in streetcars (yes, we had tracks down main thoroughfares), train or bicycle. Some die-hard citizens still used horses to get around, mostly in the country side. There was also a daily horse drawn buggies that would commute back and forth from Ennismore to Peterborough, and Havelock every day.

3. The city of Peterborough only had the population of 18,360. Today, our population is 

4. Peterborough was known as the Electric City, thanks in part due to the large General Electric factory that employed roughly 2000 people. The pride of Peterborough, our Lift lock was only 10 years old in 1914.

5. Women in Peterborough could not vote. Women fought for suffrage and liquor/alcohol prohibition in the years leading up to the Great War. The Prohibition movement had taken a foothold in the Peterborough area; many Women’s Institutes advertised meetings on prohibition in the local papers in 1914.

6. Our Prime Minister was the dapper mustached Conservative Robert Borden.  Peterborough was a Blue Tory city. Both ridings of Peterborough East and West elected Conservatives in the 1911 federal election. The results were not surprising, given Peterborough’s close proximity to the town of Lindsay, Ontario, home of the popular fire-brand  Orange Order conservative and Minister of Militia Sam Hughes.

7. Peterborough was in the throes of a deep economic recession from 1913. The Peterborough examiner of 1914 attests to the unemployment problem, with many reports of ‘vagrants’ and ‘delinquents’ on the court docket. One advertisement in an April 1914 edition of the Examiner mentions that the Salvation Army was looking for donations for the 4,000 families in Peterborough that were in need of 'relief'

8. Workman’s Compensation Act was enacted in 1914. Workplace injury was very common in 1914. The Peterborough Examiner is filled with reports of workers losing limbs in factory machines, and reports of men falling to death at the Quaker Oats Factory at the grain elevator.

9. Divorce – was next to impossible in 1914 to get a divorce in Peterborough. Couples needed to petition to Parliament for a statutory divorce. The most couples that sought separation prior to WWI simply deserted their spouse or filed for legal separation.  There was no such thing as Child support.

10. Residents did not pay income tax in Peterborough in 1914. The “temporary” income tax was introduced in 1917 by Finance minister Thomas White. 

11. School children in Peterborough would sing Rule Britannia, God Save the King, and Maple Leaf Forever in schools. Children of Peterborough were often reminded that they were a part of the world’s largest empire, ruled by King George V  in 1914. Popular children's books in 1914 included the Boy's Own series, Chums, and books by the author Ralph Connor. Novels by Ralph Connor sold like hot cakes in Canada, which often exposed young Canadian boys to the ideal of a 'masculine Christianity.'  

12. Infrastructure in Peterborough: many areas of Peterborough still had dirt roads in 1914 (and you think driving on the washboard on Charlotte Street now is bad…) and city council was still debating the cost and merit of installing electricity to all areas of the city in 1914. Prior to the Great War, only major roads in downtown Peterborough were paved. Maps and Pictures from 1913 show only the roads from Aylmer to Hunter as paved. Charlotte Street was only paved in 1915.

13. Mass communication in Peterborough: Want to send e-mail in 1914? Forget it. The closest thing to instant communication was the telegram. Want to call a friend in 1914? Pick up the phone and dial three numbers to connect to the operator. Don’t forget to tell the operator which residence you wished to be connected with. According to records, only a 1000 people in Peterborough had phones in 1914.

14. Movies and Music: Forget Ipods, Itunes, and Radios. Peterborough had 3 record stores in 1914. If you want to hear the newest version of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary before buying it, you had to go into the store and sit in the booth to hear the song. Remember, radio was still in it infancy in 1914, radio stations only began to receive licences in 1919. Wanted to go to the movies in 1914?  Peterborough had 2 moving picture shows in 1914. In June 1916 the Peterborough Examiner advertised two films:  a Charlie Chaplin film called the Floorwalker, or the British propaganda film entitled Britain Prepared. Remember, they were silent films.

15. Canada in 1914:  In 1914, we had roughly 7.8 million people. If you walked in almost any street in Canada in 1914, you would have heard a foreign accent. In the period between 1900 - 1914, 2.9 million immigrants came to Canada. That means that 37.75% of Canada's population had arrived in Canada in the previous 14 years leading up to the Great War. Amazing.

16. Immigration: Canada had accepted 2.9 million new immigrants to Canada in the period between 1900 - 1914, but that is not to say that we were a tolerant society in 1914. Immigrants of British/Anglo-Saxon heritage were preferred. Immigrants from Asia were almost excluded to Canada with the enactment of the Chinese Head Tax in 1903 (it cost roughly $500 to come to Canada, an astronomical sum for Asian immigrants). In the summer of 1914, as Europe stood on the brink of war, the politicians in British Columbia were busy with the Komagata Maru affair. In 1914, a ship from India carrying mostly Sikh immigrants tried to dock in Vancouver, after a heated standoff, the ship of 376 potential Indian immigrants were sent back to India.

Letter to Examiner

Credit: Farmerettes, 1916. City of Toronto Archives
                                                                                                                                         June 1st 1916
                                                              Voice of the People
To the Editor of the Examiner

Dear Sir:

The other day while we were riding on the southbound street car going to the Henry Hope Co., where we offered our services as munitions workers, an altercation arose between the motorman and us. After giving our husband and sons to the army, we feel that there are many more men in Peterborough that should don the khaki. A suggestion was made to the men on the car that they change their suits to khaki, and let women who are willing, take their places. Whereupon the motorman became indignant, and in the course of several remarks (none of which should be termed loyal) he said he would rather fight for the Germans than the allies. We told him that he should express such sentiments to Chief Thompson, and not us. He threatened to throw us out the window.

We have sons in the trenches, and others on the way there. We would consider our men poor specimens of manhood if they didn’t fight for the right in this war. We are willing and able to work in places of men that they might do their share. Women are taking places of men in the old land, why not here?

Men with anti-British sentiments should be interned, and those who are not in khaki should get a hustle on and “don” it. We wouldn’t respond any man who is a slacker.

Thanking you Sir,
Mrs. Wm. Smith
Mrs. John McGee,
421 Chambers Street.

Credit: City of Toronto Archives, 2012

[I love this document. It speaks to conscription, first wave feminism, masculinity, and the historical beginnings  of terrible customer service on Peterborough Transit]

Private William Waterson, DCM, Age 21. “We Loved him . . . He is dear to us . . . In grief we must send to God’s holy will (RIP).”

 Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada,
Virtual War Memorial, 2012

A few weeks ago, the Peterborough Examiner wrote several articles on the story on the local fundraising efforts to repatriate the medals of the late local resident William Waterson. The former Legion president stumbled across an E-bay auction of the medals.  The current owner, based in the United Kingdom, was selling the medals for the pricey sum of over $1000.00. The collection included Distinguished Conduct Medal, Victory Medal, and “Dead Man’s Penny” (a symbolic plaque sent to next of kin after a soldier has died).  What makes Private Waterson’s medal collection unique is the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The DCM medal was awarded to non-commissioned soldiers only upon recommendation from an officer, usually after excellent conduct in the field.

Credit: Library and Archives Canada
William Waterson was a British farm labourer that immigrated to Peterborough Ontario. He arrived in Canada at the age of 16 in 1913. After war was declared, he joined the militia, 57th Regiment Peterborough Rangers on 15 October 1915. He listed his Father, Corporal William Waterson of Royal Defence Corps as his next-of-kin. The Peterborough Recruiting Sargent that stood in front of the baby faced young man with the tiny stature of 5 1/2 feet tall may have reconsidered offering enlistment to the future DCM winner before relenting. Private Waterson's signature on his attestation papers gives an indication of his young age and lack of formal education. After receiving training, Waterson was sent overseas to France as a reinforcement, where he served with distinction in combat with the “Iron Second” 2nd (Eastern Ontario) Battalion. 

The 2nd Battalion was one of most professional Canadian units in the trenches, it was part of the first contingent of 1914 and part of the 1st Canadian Division. Even though Private Waterson was a green reinforcement with no prior combat experience when he arrived at the front line, he must have felt confident that he was in good hands; he fighting along side with seasoned war veterans. Waterson’s officers at both the platoon and company level had witnessed the first gas attack and every Canadian operation since deployment in early 1915.

       Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada,
Virtual War Memorial, 2012

Unfortunately, the 2nd Battalion war diary is scant on information and details. We do know that William Waterson died of wounds, on 10 August 1918. Waterson died fighting in one of Canada’s great military operations of the Great War – the Battle of Amiens.  On the 8 August 1918, the British Empire sent  its shocktroops; the ANZACS (Australians and New Zealanders), Canadian Corps, and 51st (Scottish Highland) Division, into battle. The surprise coordinated attack on the German line was a massive success, over 50,000 Germans were taken as prisoners, and 24,000 were wounded or killed. During the 2nd Battalion assault on Ignaucourt, Beaufort, and Rouvroy-en-Santerre, Waterson was wounded and taken to a casualty clearing station, where he died.

Private William Waterson, DCM is buried Crouy British Cemetery.  He was 21 years old at the time of his death. All Commonwealth Grave tombstones have the option of personalized grave inscriptions by next-of-kin. On Waterson’s grave, it is written, “We Loved him . . . He is dear to us . . . In grief we must send to God’s holy will (RIP).”

- Note: After reviewing Waterson's records, it is interesting to note that he is listed as receiving a wound stripe.