Winnipeg’s Great War: A City Comes of Age and Occupied St. John’s: A Social History of a City at War, 1939-1945.
by Tim Cook, Canada’s History Magazine
Canada was forever changed by the world wars. More than 1.7 million Canadians served and over 100,000 were killed. Income tax, enfranchisement for women, veteran’s medical care, and increased government intervention into the lives of Canadians were just some of the long-lasting effects of the wars.
During the course of the Great War Canada moved from colony to nation, and after the Second World War the country emerged as a respected middle power. But this focus is at the national level. Historians and writers also highlight individuals, trying to find poignant stories and experiences to explain the wars’ impact on ordinary Canadians. The space between the two levels of analysis — regarding communities — is under-represented by historians. Two recent books go a long way toward illustrating how communities engaged with the world wars, and how those wars in turn imprinted them-selves on Winnipeg and St. John’s.
Jim Blanchard’s Winnipeg’s Great War examines how Winnipeg’s 160,000 people faced the war from 1914 to 1918. An award-winning author of a previous book on Winnipeg and a librarian at the University of Manitoba, he knows where many of the city’s skeletons are buried. Blanchard writes in an engaging style as he explores why Winnipeggers enlisted and went overseas, and how those at home coped with their absence.
The feisty Nellie McClung features prominently in her fight for enfranchisement, but also for her moral dilemma of being against war but having a son serving overseas. The role of women on the home front carrying out unpaid labour — such as selling patriotic sheet music or knitting socks for overseas soldiers — offers insight into how the war could not be avoided, even for Canadians far from the firing line.
The grief experienced by hundreds of families features prominently. When the first mass casualties were reported in the press after the April 1915 Second Battle of Ypres, one newspaper observed grimly that “the war had struck home.”
Blanchard has read much of the literature on the Great War and has combed through many newspaper sources, but unfortunately he does not appear to have delved deeply into the City of Winnipeg Archives. Nonetheless, this is a strong offering that shows how tens of thousands were deeply affected by the war.
However, his story ends rather abruptly at the end of the war, and would surely have been strengthened by examining the Winnipeg General Strike, which saw veterans pitted against veterans, or by looking at how the thousands of veterans reintegrated into Winnipeg life.
While Winnipeg saw thousands of its young men leave for the front during World War I, in the Second World War St. John’s, Newfoundland, was inundated with sailors, airmen, and soldiers from Canada, Britain, and the United States. Occupied St. John’s offers a view into a strategically placed city that became one of the most important Allied bases of World War II.
Newfyjohn, as most sailors called St. John’s, consisted of about forty thousand souls in 1939, but within a few years there were about thirteen thousand additional Allied service personnel in the city at any given time. Critical convoys of food and munitions left almost daily from the protected harbour, escorted by warships and planes.
The influx of service personnel into the capital radically changed St. John’s and its surrounding region. New pubs, theatres, dance halls, and housing had to be built to accommodate the tastes of young men. Soldiers with strange accents tore up the roads in their military vehicles and over two hundred properties were requisitioned to make room for new buildings, airfields, and bases. St. John’s was never the same after the “occupying” forces.
Editor Stephen High, the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University, has assembled a number of leading historians to explore aspects of the city’s wartime experience. The encounters between service personnel and St. John’s residents are revealing, as are the studies of patriotic work, wartime culture, and children.
The case studies are supported by the official records and by more than fifty interviews with Newfoundlanders who lived through the period. Occasionally, academic jargon creeps into the text — such as calling the higher rate of accidents for children a new “geography of danger” — but generally the prose is clear, penetrating, and infused with powerful stories.
McGill-Queen’s University Press must be praised for scouring archives and private sources to put together a stunningly attractive book. It is illustrated with more than one hundred images, many published for the first time, and the best of these offer a powerful glimpse into the lives of Newfoundlanders and their occupiers.
Occupied St. John’s and Winnipeg’s Great War offer new perspectives into how the world wars were understood and experienced locally. These books also reveal how the world wars continue to have a presence in Canadian cities.