Episode One: Sites of the First World War

This 11-part series features stories from sites of memory in Canada related to the First World War. Conversation kits that include discussion questions and activities for students and the public, along with web links and ideas for additional resources are available for each story and accessible online.

Please note, each vignette opens with 20 seconds of silence.

1. Introduction

2. Soldier Factory

On August 4, 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany. This meant that all of the dominions of Great Britain, including Canada, were now at war with Germany. At that time, Sir Sam Hughes was Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence. Hughes sent out a “call to arms”, an appeal for volunteers to enlist as soldiers. In response, thousands of enthusiastic young men from across Canada volunteered to fight for Canada and Great Britain.

Conversation kit: Soldier Factory

3. When They Marched to War

Harry Ferguson was a Lieutenant in the 26th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force. On Saturday, June 12, 1915, Harry and his fellow soldiers marched through the city of Saint John, New Brunswick. It was their send-off before they left for battle overseas. They marched from the Barrack Green Armoury to the wharf where their ship, the Caledonia, was waiting. Crowds of civilians lined the streets, cheering and waving farewell as the brass bands played. Crowds assembled again the following morning as the Caledonia departed, loaded with soldiers. Lieutenant Harry Ferguson called the fanfare “an inspiring sight.

Conversation kit: When They Marched to War

4. Internment

During the First World War, Canada was part of the British Empire and fought with Britain against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. These four countries were known as the Central Powers. The Canadian government considered recent immigrants from these enemy nations to be a threat to Canada. This means that many people who had recently moved to Canada were considered enemies. Although they had never committed a crime, more than 8,500 of these “enemy aliens” were imprisoned in 24 different internment camps across Canada. In the camps, the internees did hard labour in very poor living conditions away from their homes, friends, and often their families.

Conversation kit: The Internment

5. Training Polish Soldiers

In 1917, more than 22,000 Polish volunteers came to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario to train for the First World War. These men were special because although most of them were Polish immigrants, they lived in the United States, and were trained in Canada to prepare to join the French army. Their experience highlights how the First World War was a truly international effort.

Conversation kit: Training Polish Soldiers

6. Dominion Arsenal

During the First World War, thousands of Canadian men went overseas to fight. These men left their lives and jobs behind. Many Canadian women went to work to fill the jobs left by the men. For some of these women, it was the first time they had ever worked outside the home. These Canadian women supported the war effort in many ways, including by working in factories. One of these factories was the Dominion Arsenal, where they had to fill ammunition cartridges for the battlefield.

Conversation kit: Dominion Arsenal

7. War Horses

Soldiers weren’t the only ones who risked their lives on First World War battlefields. Thousands of Canadian horses also served the war effort. They transported men, hauled equipment, and towed heavy guns and ambulances. The large solid draft horse, the Percheron, was well suited to the hard work of war. In addition to being strong, they were sure-footed and easy to keep clean in muddy conditions.

Conversation kit: War Horses

8. Chinese Labour Corps

In 1917, 80,000 men from China arrived in Canada. They were on their way to France to work as labourers. They were a secret group called The Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). The arrived in British Columbia, where they were quarantined in the William Head Correctional Institution in Victoria, BC, Then, they were secretly moved by rail across Canada to the east coast, where they boarded ships bound for France.

Conversation kit: Chinese Labour Corps

9. The Explosion

On December 6, 1917, it was a cold winter day in Halifax. It was big news when two big ships –  the SS Mont Blanc (a French ship) and the SS Imo (a Norwegian ship) – accidentally crashed into each other in the Halifax Harbour.

Conversation kit: The Explosion

10. The Sniper from Rigolet

Lance Corporal John Shiwak of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment is a decorated First World War hero. He is from the remote Inuit community of Rigolet, Labrador. Shiwak’s skill as a marksman earned him the reputation as one of the best snipers in the British Army. He was described as a writer, poet, “a great favourite with all ranks, an excellent scout and observer, and a thoroughly good, reliable fellow in every way.” Shiwak died in November 1917 from shell fire in the Battle of Cambrai.

Conversation kit: The Sniper from Rigolet

11. War Trophies

Sir Arthur Doughty was a Dominion Archivist during the First World War and created a detailed inventory of German artillery captured by Canadian soldiers as trophies of war. They served as monuments of fallen soldiers and were allocated to communities across Canada.

Conversation kit: War Trophies

12. Heart of the Nation

On Parliament Hill, at the heart of the Peace Tower, is a sanctuary created for remembrance and reflection. The Memorial Chamber was originally designed and dedicated to the Canadians who died during the First World War. Today this space of honour pays tribute to all military personnel who died in service to Canada.

Conversation kit: Heart of the Nation

Funded by the Government of Canada logo

Additional funding for Conversation Kit development was provided by:

Valour Canada