In 1935, the chapel unveiled within St. Steven’s College displayed plaques commemorating the war service and sacrifices of its brave associates. Dated to 1923, the first plaque honoured 19 Ministers and 61 Probationers who served during the Great War, as well as eight who “bravely fell”. A separate plaque commemorated “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory” eight students of Robertson College “who fell on the field of Honour” during the war. One individual plaque was also dedicated in memory of Harold G. Riddle of Robertson College who died at St. Omer, France in 1916 and proclaimed Virtute Praeclarus (“Brilliance with Courage”) in his memory.
No single event has had such a dramatic impact on place names in Alberta than the First World War Battle of Jutland. Deep in the heart of Kananaskis Country can be found a series of mountains bearing the names of the ships and naval commanders of this naval battle. At least twenty-six mountains bear names commemorating the Battle of Jutland – sixteen of them are named for Royal Navy vessels that took part in the battle and ten are named for the Admirals, ship captains and seamen that lead and fought at Jutland. Additionally, many features associated with the mountains (glaciers, lakes and creeks) have subsequently been given Jutland names. The great number of Jutland-related geographical names in Alberta is curious. While there is no questioning the significance of the Battle of Jutland – it was the only major sea battle of the First World War, one of the few times in which dreadnought battleships fought directly against each other and its results affected strategy and tactics on both sides and altered the course of the war – it was also a battle in which there was no significant Canadian presence; no Canadian ships were involved and only one Canadian casualty has ever been confirmed. So, how did so many of these mountains along the Alberta-British Columbia boundary end up being named to commemorate this battle?
Located between the Astoria and the Whirlpool rivers is a mountain considered by many to be the most majestic in Jasper National Park, if not the entire Canadian Rocky Mountains. At an impressive altitude of about 3,300 metres, the mountain has been known by a number of names. French Canadian voyageurs using the Athabasca Pass referred to the notable landmark as La Montagne de la Grand Traverse (Mountain of the Great Pass). Dr. James Hector of the Palliser Expedition referred to it as Le Duc, probably after a Metis member of his party. In 1912, Arthur O. Wheeler of the Alpine Club of Canada and the Interprovincial Boundary Survey named it Fitzhugh Mountain, after the townsite of Fitzhugh, which was named for E. L. Fitzhugh, a director of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (the townsite of Fitzhugh was later renamed Jasper). It had also been periodically, and incorrectly, referred to as Mount Geikie. Today, and since 1916, the mountain is named Mount Edith Cavell, named for a British nurse who never set foot in Canada, let alone within Jasper National Park or on the mountain itself. How this mountain became a commemoration to Edith Cavell is an interesting lesson in Canada’s role in the First World War, its place in the Empire and the importance of wartime symbolism and the values of myth and memorialization.
Canada is in the midst of marking the centenary of the Great War of 1914-1918. The war which engulfed the Dominion of Canada was to have dramatic effects on the young, barely decade-old province of Alberta. By 1914 Alberta boasted a greatly expanded population of 470,000 of whom more than 49,000 served in Canada’s armed forces. Of that number over 6,000 died and another 20,000 suffered non-fatal casualties.
On the eastern boundary of Alberta’s capital City of Edmonton the coal mining community of Beverly was incorporated as a Village in 1913 and elevated to the status of Town in July of 1914. Just prior to Canada’s entry into the Great War, Beverly had a population of 1,200, attracting residents from across Read more →
In 1917, surveyor and mountaineer Arthur O. Wheeler of the Interprovincial Boundary Survey wrote that “in a valley surrounded by towering peaks, lies Upper Kananaskis Lake, a large sheet of deep-blue water of irregular shape, dotted with heavily-timbered islands.” The lake, as described by Wheeler, no longer exists, its shape has changed and its islands are mostly gone.
To recognize the centennial of the First World War, the Provincial Archives of Alberta launched the Alberta & the Great War exhibit in August of last year. Using letters, photographs and formal war documents, this exhibit captures the experiences that Albertans endured during the Great War. There are five topics within the exhibit: the Western Front, Women and the War, Opposition and Oppression, the Home Front and the Aftermath, to show that there were several struggles going on at once during and after wartime. The effects of these events produced repercussions that remain evident in Alberta to this day.
The exhibit was assembled largely from the material found at the Archives, with a few artifacts on loan from the Royal Alberta Museum. Braden Cannon, a Private Records Archivist with the Provincial Archives of Alberta, will give an introduction to the exhibit that he curated.
The Great War had a tremendous effect on individuals and the province of Alberta as a whole. This display gives the public the opportunity to see into the lives of the Albertans who were at the forefront of the war and shows the impact of the conflict that reached the people back home. The archival materials used in the exhibit are a valuable record of this period in history. Exhibits, such as these, ensure that the individuals who served in the First World War and the substantial events of the past are not forgotten. Alberta & the Great War will run until August 29, 2015.
Video and summary by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer. A special thank you to Braden Cannon at the Provincial Archives for appearing on video!
The faculty and students of Old St. Stephen’s College were not immune to the impact of war. When the First World War broke out in 1914 and the Second in 1939, a number of the college’s own enlisted, while many others assisted on the homefront. The war years were a difficult period for the people of Old St. Stephen’s, but there are several accounts of compassion that emerged during this time. Two people in particular, Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson, showed that those who were affected by the wars were not forgotten.
This article will look at the St. Stephen’s building that converted space to accommodate soldiers, veterans and nurses and the people who stepped in and offered their services when it was needed the most.
Throughout most of its history, St. Stephen’s College functioned primarily as a teaching facility and a dormitory for students. This changed during wartime. Injured soldiers returned home from the First World War in large numbers and space for convalescent homes became vital. In 1917, the Military Hospitals Commission set up a hospital within the college to care for some of Alberta’s wounded soldiers. The converted hospital housed up to 300 soldiers and for the next three years, the hospital treated soldiers who were physically injured or afflicted by nervous diseases from the war. According to one veteran, the convalescent hospital was “second to none in the whole of Canada.” Throughout this time, the college continued to operate by offering courses, although much of the classwork was moved to Alberta College North or to other buildings on the University of Alberta campus.
There are stories that indicate the compassion of the college’s educators and show the close ties that formed between students and staff during the wars. Nettie Burkholder was the principal of the Alberta Ladies College, which was located in the north wing of Alberta College South and served as a residence and teaching college for women. During the First World War, she corresponded with the students who went overseas; soldiers stationed overseas sent over 302 letters and cards to Nettie from the battlefront. Nettie also led the college’s initiative to send comfort packages to the soldiers, which were carefully packed with soap and vermin powder, along with treats. The extent of Nettie’s care shows the strong relationships that she maintained with the students of the college and the compassion she demonstrated during wartime indicates her dedication to the school and to the war efforts.
In the early 1920s, the college made the decision to commemorate the students and instructors who served in the Great War with two plaques. The names of more than 80 students and graduates from the Methodist College who enlisted to fight in the war, as well as the eight who died in battle, are inscribed upon it. A second plaque is dedicated to the eight students of Robertson College who lost their lives. These plaques were erected in the college’s chapel where they have remained to the present.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, enrollment and residency declined as more students enlisted in the armed forces and departed for overseas. This created plenty of extra space in the building and St. Stephen’s College offered the use of their northern wing to students in the Canadian Officer Training Corps, who used it as a barracks. The college also leased a portion of the building to the University of Alberta hospital as a dormitory for their nurses. In 1943, Principal Aubrey Stephen Tuttle allowed an additional 45 nurses to room in the building’s west wing, resulting in the number of resident nurses to surpass resident students. Many of the male students who resided at St. Stephen’s College at this time said that there was no issue in sharing the residence with the nurses. D. J. C. Elson, a former Dean of the college, noted that an unusually high number of United Church ministers married nurses around the time of the Second World War and shortly thereafter.
By early 1941, five pupils from the college’s theological program had enlisted in the Second World War. The first student casualty was Royal Canadian Air Force Observer, Flight Sergeant Alexander Granton Patrick. Patrick was killed on January 28, 1942, at the age of 22. Just days later, the college held a memorial service for the fallen soldier in its chapel. The death of a student impacted the members of the college, as shown in the correspondence between Dean Cylo Jackson and Patrick’s mother. Jackson wrote that Patrick was “a kindly lad, upright with a directness in his look and speech which made him engaging…I am very sorry for the loss which the church sustains in his passing.” The Dean’s personal words indicate the relationship that existed between staff and students, which was clearly visible during a time of tragedy.
Throughout both of the wars, when news of casualties reached St. Stephen’s, it affected the students and staff. Wartime proved to be a difficult period, but also illustrated how the people of St. Stephen’s College stepped up and supported their fellow Albertans. The college gave their space, services and whatever else they could to contribute to the war efforts. The stories of compassion from Nettie Burkholder and Cylo Jackson demonstrated how strong the bonds between students and instructors could be. The history of the college during the war years highlight an important era in St. Stephen’s history.
 A note on naming: during the First World War, the institution was known as Alberta College South. ACS and Robertson College were amalgamated and the name St. Stephen’s College was chosen in 1927. It became known as Old St. Stephen’s College in 1952.
 Special thanks to Adriana Davies for providing the information on Nettie Burkholder. For further information on Nettie, refer to Davies’ essay “The Gospel of Sacrifice: Lady Principal Nettie Burkholder and Her Boys at the Front” in The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War, edited by Adriana A. Davies and Jeff Keshen, that is soon to be released.
Plans for an elaborate armoury in Calgary were well underway prior to the outbreak of the First World War, as the need for a permanent, military training structure was apparent within the first decade of the twentieth century. The story of the construction of Calgary’s own armoury was a drawn out affair that lasted to nearly the end of the Great War. There were problems from the very beginning, including fierce opposition to the cost and chosen site of the armoury, a shortage of building materials and ultimately the outbreak of war. In the end, the result was a state of the art facility with a central drill hall surrounded by 117 rooms and complete with dining hall, shooting gallery and even a bowling alley. This post will examine the Mewata Armoury, a building that was established during the First World War, and its place as a significant symbol of military heritage in Alberta.
In the early 1900s, the Canadian military underwent a number of reforms to modernize it and establish permanent facilities for the army. The federal government set the ambitious goal to establish 350 new drill halls and the decision to construct these served a dual purpose. These structures were to foster a sense of military pride amongst Canadians while boosting recruitment and create a closer connection between civilians and soldiers. Calgary was considered part of Ottawa’s military expansion plan early on and the city became the headquarters for Military District No. 13 in 1907, which covered all of Alberta and the district of MacKenzie (a portion of the Northwest Territories at the time). This declaration was significant since it meant that the area was deemed to be an important part of the future of the Canadian military.
It was nevertheless the local military regiments, and not the federal government, that took it upon themselves to push for the construction of a new armoury. Calgary was growing rapidly in the early twentieth century and they felt they needed a facility to house their growing regiments. The city’s military organizations wanted a building that would better accommodate their soldiers and approached the federal government for approval to build an armoury in Calgary. Potential sites for the location were suggested over the next few years, but were all deemed insufficient and plans for the armoury were soon shelved.
It was not until Sam Hughes was appointed Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence in 1911 that Ottawa’s plans for a modern militia were put in motion. Hughes undertook the responsibility of reforming Canada’s military and his ambitious agenda included the construction of armouries and drill halls across the country. Hughes promoted the volunteer soldier as the foundation of the Canadian military and believed that volunteerism was the most viable form of recruitment. He was also a strong supporter of building a shared place for civilians and soldiers. This belief was reinforced by the need for an armoury, as it would serve as a visible presence to foster civic pride, and in turn, increase the number of soldiers who enlist. In addition to providing an adequate space for training, the new structures were to be a permanent symbol of Canada’s military reform program.
Another supporter of this vision was the Calgary Conservative MP, Richard Bedford Bennett. Bennett agreed with Hughes’ plan for an elaborate military structure and wanted Calgary to have its own armoury. One of Bennett’s first decisions upon taking office was to lobby the federal government to establish such a facility. Although the city already held a number of rented military buildings for training purposes and used school grounds for parades, these sites were spread throughout Calgary and it was considered more practical to consolidate these into a single location. The city also remained without a permanent indoor space for military training during the winter months. Bennett considered this to be inadequate for a growing city and the proposal for an armoury was revisited. It took minimal lobbying on Bennett’s behalf to convince Hughes that Calgary was worthy of a magnificent armoury and the funds were soon allotted to begin building.
When it came to deciding on the location for Calgary’s armoury, Bennett had just one area in mind, Mewata Park. The site was already being used as an athletic field and had originally been designated a civic park for the people of Calgary. The site was centrally located, which meant that it would be impossible for the structure to be missed by many Calgarians during their daily commute downtown.
As the plans for the new armoury proceeded, the project was met with opposition, notably from Alberta Liberals, who felt that the federal government had no right to devote public land to a military institution. They also raised concern over the cost that would be incurred to construct the new building. The daily pro-Liberal newspaper, Morning Albertan, voiced their opinion against the construction of an armoury, citing that “an expenditure of such an amount would be a lavish and inexcusable waste of money.” However, this did not appear to be the sentiment of the majority of the citizens of Calgary. The opposition was soon squashed by people who came out in strong support of the armoury during the 1913 municipal election. This was a heated election issue that year and included a question on the ballot enquiring if citizens wanted to see the project move forward. More than 70% of voters were in favour of constructing an armoury at Mewata Park, indicating their support for the local military. In 1916, supporters were granted their request and the City of Calgary donated the land to the federal government to build the armoury.
The First World War erupted in August of 1914 and the armoury’s construction was therefore delayed for a few years. This was due to the city’s resources being allocated to more necessary and immediate projects for the war efforts. A brick shortage contributed to construction being deferred even further. Building was eventually underway in September, 1916 and was finalized in the fall of 1918. Once completed, the armoury was used as a training centre and demobilization depot for soldiers returning from WWI. Although it was too late for the armoury to be fully utilized for the war, the construction of an impressive military facility helped to encourage pride among its citizens.
Although the armoury’s interior has been remodelled substantially, the exterior has retained its original appearance as constructed in 1916. The building is one of only two similar structures in the province (the other being the Prince of Wales Armoury in Edmonton). The architectural design is a classic example of the gothic and Tudor revival, which was built to look like a fortress with its four corner towers and six smaller side towers. What makes the Mewata Armoury unique is its castle-like style, massive size and the use of brick and sandstone construction. This is one of the last buildings in Calgary that was created with sandstone.
Mewata Armoury remains a long-standing military landmark and shows the federal government’s commitment to a militia-presence in Calgary. A number of regiments have called the armoury home over the years, including the Calgary Regiment’s First Battalion (currently the Calgary Highlanders), the Second Battalion (now the King’s Own Calgary Regiment) and various cavalry units. Mewata Armoury has primarily been used as a military facility, but has also been a training centre for the police, a base for numerous Cadet Corps and is the headquarters for the Southern Alberta Militia District. Various sporting events have been held at the armoury and Mewata Park was still used as an athletic field. The armoury remains an important site, as it was constructed to connect the military with the civilian population, amidst the First World War.
This was the third part of a series commemorating the First World War. This series will look at a range of topics that will show Alberta’s involvement in this historic event.
Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer
Designation File # 177, in the custody of the Historic Resources Management Branch.
Lackenbauer, P. Whitney “Partisan Politics, Civic Priorities, and the Urban Militia: Situating the Calgary Armoury, 1907-1917.” Urban History Review 33, no. 2 (2005): 45-60.
“Mewata Armoury” Alberta Register of Historic Places. HeRMIS. (Accessed August 12, 2014).
Rowe, Allan “Historical Context Paper Mewata Armoury (Calgary),” Historic Resources Management Branch, Des. File #177. (April 25, 2014).
In Jasper National Park there are five mountains named for First World War Victoria Cross recipients with Alberta connections. The peaks are located within a series of mountains known as the Victoria Cross Ranges. The names of these mountains honour Private John Chipman Kerr, Private Cecil John Kinross, Captain George Burdon McKean, Private John George Pattison and Sergeant Raphael Louis Zengel.
The Victoria Cross was established in 1856 by Queen Victoria to recognize military personnel who demonstrated bravery when faced with the opposition during wartime. It is the highest military decoration that can be bestowed upon a soldier in the British Commonwealth. This post will look at the recipients of the Victoria Cross who the mountains in Jasper National Park are dedicated to.
Mount Kerr is named in honour of Private John Chipman Kerr, who served in the Alberta raised, 49th Battalion (Edmonton Regiment), Canadian Expeditionary Force. Kerr, originally from Fox River, Nova Scotia, moved to Spirit River, Alberta before enlisting for service in 1915.
On September 16, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Kerr and his unit prepared to ambush German soldiers. As the lead bayonet man, Kerr was 30 metres ahead of his comrades and exchanged fire with enemy troops. The Germans, believing that they had been surrounded, surrendered to Kerr. Sixty-two prisoners were captured and 250 yards of enemy territory was seized. Kerr was injured and lost a finger in the attack, but reported back for active duty before the wound had been fully dressed.
For his actions on that day, Private Kerr was awarded the Victoria Cross.
After the war, Kerr returned to farming, worked in the Turner Valley oil fields and as a forest ranger. He enlisted in the Second World War and transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force. John Kerr died in Port Moody, British Columbia in February 1963. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Mount Kinross was named for Private Cecil John Kinross. Originally from England, he had immigrated to a rural Alberta farm with his family at the age of 16. He enlisted in the 51st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915 and later transferred to the 49th Battalion in France.
On October 30, 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium, Kinross’s unit was under intense artillery fire. Showing no concern for his own personal safety, he took off alone and charged towards the enemy, killing six soldiers and destroying their machine gun. His action inspired his comrades and their unit to advance 300 yards into enemy territory. Kinross was severely injured in the battle and did not return to the front lines.
Kinross received the Victoria Cross for his act of bravery that day.
His citation announced “he showed marvellous coolness and courage, fighting with the utmost aggressiveness against heavy odds until seriously wounded.” Private Kinross was honourably discharged and he returned to Lougheed, Alberta, where he lived until his death in June of 1957. His Victoria Cross remains with his family and the miniature is on display at the Loyal Edmonton Regiment Museum in Edmonton.
Mount McKean is dedicated to Captain George Burdon McKean, who immigrated to Canada from England in 1902 to join his brother on a farm near Lethbridge. He studied at Robertson College, a theological school in Edmonton, and was an assistant minister at the time of his enlistment in 1915. McKean first enlisted as a Private in the 51st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force and later became a Lieutenant in the 14th battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment).
In April of 1918, while stationed near Gavrelle, France, McKean led his troops in a raid against German forces. When his men hesitated, McKean took off alone towards the enemy’s heavily fortified trench, taking out two of their soldiers. This move instilled confidence in his unit, who quickly followed to seize the trench and capture its remaining soldiers. Lieutenant McKean was praised for his actions and was awarded the Victoria Cross. His citation reads “This officer’s splendid bravery and dash undoubtedly saved many lives, for had not this position been captured, the whole of the raiding party would have been exposed to dangerous enfilading fire during the withdrawal.”
In addition to the Victoria Cross, McKean also received the Military Cross and the Military Medal for his service during the war. He was later promoted to Captain. After the war, he returned to England. He was killed in an industrial accident in November 1926. In addition to being commemorated by Mount McKean, in 2003, a public square in Cagnicourt, France was named La Place George Burdon McKean. His Victoria Cross is in the collection of the Canadian War Museum.
Mount Pattison is dedicated to Private John George Pattison. He was born and raised in England and moved to Canada in 1906 with his wife and four children. He worked for the Calgary Gas Company. In 1916, at 40 years of age, he enlisted in Calgary with the 50th (Calgary) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force.
In April of 1917 at Vimy Ridge, the 50th Battalion was advancing towards German occupied territory when they were confronted with heavy machine gun fire. Pattison charged forward to face the opposition and hurled grenades at the enemy which allowed him to take out the remainder of the German crew. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions and credited with making further advances possible. Pattison was one of four Canadians to receive the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
A few weeks later, Private Pattison was killed in action on June 3, 1917, during an attack on a German occupied power station in Lens, France. In addition to the mountain named in his honour, Pattison Bridge over the Elbow River in Calgary commemorates his service and sacrifice.
Mount Zengel is named in honour of Sergeant Raphael Louis Zengel, who came to Canada from Minnesota at a young age. The Zengel family initially settled on a homestead in Saskatchewan before Raphael enlisted to the 45th (Manitoba) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. He later became a sergeant in the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion.
On August 9, 1918 near Amiens, France, on the second day of a massive campaign against German forces, Sergeant Zengel’s platoon came under heavy machine-gun fire. He rushed ahead and met the defensive unit, killing two of their machine gunners and forcing the others to scatter. He was cited for his excellent work through the attack and for showing utter disregard for his own personal safety.
Sergeant Zengel was awarded the Victoria Cross for his contribution at the Battle of Amiens. (He had previously been awarded the Military Medal for his service at the Battle of Passchendaele). After the war he became a long-time resident of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. He died in February 1977. Branch No. 8 of the Royal Canadian Legion in Rocky Mountain House is named the R.L. Zengel V.C. to commemorate his award distinction. In 1936, the Geographic Board of Canada named Zengle Lake in Saskatchewan in his honour, misspelling his name in the process.
The tribute to these soldiers in 1951 was made possible by the co-operation of federal and provincial governments. However, at the time, the proposal created controversy. The issue’s resolution would bring about the creation of the Victoria Cross Ranges and an agreement between the Governments of Alberta and Canada still governs geographical naming in in Alberta today. That will be the subject of our next place names post.
In August of 1914, Canada entered the First World War, an arduous experience for Albertans who served on the battlefront and for those who remained in Canada. Thousands of men enlisted and quickly left Alberta for the front, leaving a gap in both the workforce and civil society. During the war, women took on many of these roles, opening a realm of new possibilities. Women helped raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross Society and entered the workforce, while others enlisted in the medical core as nurses. This post will give an overview of Canadian women in the First World War by looking at the shift in traditional labour roles, Canadian nurses and the voluntary initiatives that women organized. It is important to recognize the sacrifices that were made by these women and to show how they contributed to the war effort, on the home front as well as overseas.
For most Canadian women, participation in the First World War was limited to serving on the home front. With almost 50,000 of Alberta’s men deployed overseas, this created openings in the service and farming industries back home. The demand for more workers increased and jobs that were traditionally reserved for men were opened to women for the first time. The need for additional labour differed by region across the country. Central Canada, for instance, experienced a greater need for employees to work in munitions factories, while in Alberta, labourers were needed to assist with farm work. Other positions that women filled were administrative clerks, factory workers and as delivery vehicle drivers. Female participation in the clerical and banking fields increased significantly and there were women who remained in this line of work even after the war ended. Women were exposed to more job opportunities than ever before, whereas prior to the First World War, they were largely limited to domestic duties.
Between 1914 and 1918, there was an overwhelming need for labour and this compelled employers to hire women. Many employers, and even some women, viewed the female worker as a temporary substitute needed to meet a wartime emergency. Not surprisingly, women faced opposition at times for their participation in the workforce, particularly during the initial outbreak of the war in the street railway service and banking fields. In several cities across Canada, male workers with the railway system were outraged that women were allowed to be hired as conductors on their cars. While some areas disapproved of women taking on non-traditional labour roles, other employers recognized that women were a much needed source of labour. The Canadian government hired 1,325 women in civilian jobs, such as clerks and typists, with the military. Another 1,200 women were employed by the Royal Air Force in Canada to work in mainly technical positions, and by 1918, they had hired 750 female mechanics. This indicates that the prejudice against working women had to be overruled in order to alleviate the shortage of manpower. The war produced a necessity for human labour and this opened up a wider array of opportunities for women. The roles that women stepped into during the war years had a significant impact on the province by challenging traditional gender roles and began legitimizing the idea of women in the labour force.
Many women initially entered the labour market to demonstrate their patriotism, but this move had a number of positive effects. There was an increase in financial opportunities for women and wage disparity between men and women began to lessen. In addition, the war opened up a whole host of social opportunities. Women were participating more in the public sphere, both in the workforce and social circles, and this provided the foundation for a fervent energy that helped to ignite the women’s movement across Canada. Women desired greater participation in politics and the idea that women should vote and run for office quickly became mainstream. On April 19, 1916, this right was granted to Alberta women. Obtaining the vote was an achievement which contributed to an increased political consciousness amongst women in Alberta. This momentum continued and by the following year, Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams, had become the first women to be elected to the Alberta legislature. The dramatic increase of women in the labour field and social community was a significant force that paved the way for women’s rights in Canada.
There were a number of Canadian women who contributed their services abroad, primarily in the medical service field. The Canadian Army Medical Corps required a number of trained nurses to help provide medical care to Canadian soldiers. Trained nurses joined the Nursing Sisters of Canada and there was no shortage of volunteers. 3,141 nurses served in the medical core, with 2,504 of those serving overseas. There were women from Alberta who enlisted as military nurses and at the initial outbreak of the war in 1914, 10 nurses from Edmonton went abroad and assisted the troops serving on the front. Canadian nurses worked tirelessly to provide medical services to those who were wounded in battle and cared for recovering soldiers. They were commonly known as “bluebirds” due to their uniform colours. Later on, the nurses were referred to as the “Sisters” or “Angels of Mercy” by the soldiers. These monikers are indicative of the caring service that the nurses provided and were often praised for. Throughout the First World War, Canadian nurses were commended for their heroism and became well known for their compassion when treating the afflicted.
Women without nursing experience could enlist through the Voluntary Aid Detachment which was operated by the Canadian branch of the St. John Ambulance. V.A.D. nurses received basic first aid training and worked in hospitals as medical assistants and carried out general duties such as cooking and cleaning. The role of the V.A.D. allowed women who were not trained as nurses to be directly involved in the war efforts and approximately 2,000 Canadian women served as unpaid nurses during the First World War. Around 500 were sent to Europe and the majority remained at convalescent hospitals in Canada. Nine Edmonton women were trained as V.A.D.s and deployed overseas.
The First World War brought changes to the military medical services. Medical units were originally established in hospitals and then Casualty Clearing Stations were created near the frontlines to give faster treatment to the soldiers injured in battle. While this provided better service for the wounded, it put Canada’s nurses closer to combat. They faced the danger of enemy artillery attacks, air raids and also endured vermin, fleas and disease, just as the men in the trenches. Canadian nurse, Katherine Wilson-Simmie, details her account in The Memoirs of Nursing Sister Kate Wilson, Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915-1917. While stationed near the front lines, Wilson-Simmie witnessed an unforgettable day when the first gassed soldiers were admitted for medical assistance. She describes the event as “an entirely new kind of warfare – horrible, and contemptible. It was a terrible experience for the men and for those trying to help them.” Women not only observed the abysmal conditions of war, they were eyewitness to the immediate impact that battle had on human life.
As the nurses returned from overseas, they could take pride in the contribution that they had made for their country, but they had also witnessed firsthand the devastating toll of war. Approximately 50 Canadian nurses lost their lives in the First World War. The Canadian Nursing Sisters are commemorated at The Nurses’ Memorial on Parliament Hill, Ottawa.
Women supported numerous initiatives across Canada and overseas during the First World War, but the Canadian Red Cross Society (CRCS) was the primary humanitarian organization in the country. Women were eager to serve the Red Cross which gave them the opportunity to participate in the war from the home front. The society provided aid and comfort to soldiers and their families who were affected by the war and women supported these relief efforts in a number of ways. They fundraised, distributed gifts, prepared care packages and medical supply kits as well as knitted extra clothing to send to soldiers.
When the war was declared, women endorsed the work of the Red Cross Society without hesitation and a number of auxiliaries emerged across the country during this time. This support allowed the Canadian Red Cross to provide relief assistance and volunteers visited recovering soldiers in British hospitals, attempted to trace missing people and helped Canadians correspond with their families and friends abroad. The society also worked with Red Cross affiliates overseas to fulfill requests for medical assistance when possible. A volunteer, and later Alberta resident, Madeleine Jaffray, was one of ten Canadian nurses who were recruited through the Red Cross to serve in the French Flag Nursing Corp. In Belgium, just miles from the frontlines, Jaffrey’s unit was frequently targeted by bombs. During one attack, her foot became severely wounded and was later amputated. She was awarded a French military medal, the Croix de Guerre, for her service and was the first Canadian woman to receive this honour.
With the help of donors and dedicated volunteers, the Canadian Red Cross Society established a headquarters in London, so they could better coordinate with the people on the front line in France. The organization also helped to create and maintain hospitals for soldiers who were wounded in battle. The Red Cross played a significant role by providing comfort and support services to Canadians. This was made possible through the voluntary services that were initiated by women on the home front. The Red Cross was a valuable organization in a time of need and gave women a variety of ways to help their loved ones who had gone overseas to war.
Alberta women contributed to the Canadian efforts to win the First World War in many ways. Initial participation in the war efforts was largely out of patriotic respect, but a number of outcomes emerged as a result. Notably, there was an increased female presence in civil society and the Alberta suffragist movement emerged. The efforts displayed by women during the Great War are remembered for the impact that they have had on women’s history in Canada.
This was the second part of a series commemorating the First World War. This series will look at a range of topics that will show Alberta’s involvement in this historic event.
To learn more about women in Alberta’s history, refer to the Alberta Women’s Memory Project, an initiative that was created to preserve and promote the history of women in Alberta.
Written by: Erin Hoar, Historic Resources Management Branch Officer
Byfield, Ted, ed. Alberta in the 20th Century: The Great War and its Consequences 1914-1920. Vol. 4. Edmonton, Canada: CanMedia Inc., 1995.