Propaganda and Attitudes towards the War

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The Canadian cheers on the first large contingent of Camrose enlistees, January 28, 1915, George Smith in attendance (image courtesy of ourfutureourpast.ca)

By the time of the outbreak of hostilities between the Allies and the Central Powers, Canada, perhaps more so than any other component of the far-flung British Empire, was ready to fight. Generations of English-speaking Canadians had grown up on stories of the stalwart Crown Loyalists, refusing to abjure their loyalty to the King and withdrawing into the Great White North after the American War of Independence.1 By 1914, this national mythology of sorts had resulted in an Anglophone population that was, by and large, almost fanatically dedicated to the cause of Empire. On the Western Front, Canadian soldiers would repeatedly be thrown into the thickest fighting, sustaining enormous casualties but also winning a number of notable victories, and eventually earning the descriptor of “storm troops of the British Empire” from the German Kaiser for their relentlessness on the assault.2

As widespread as support for the war might be, outside of always-contentious Quebec, however, it was neither universal nor unchallenged. Much trepidation surrounded the prospect of a general European war from the early days, with contributions to the Canadian gloomily and not at all unreasonably predicting casualty counts running into the millions, while the German-Canadian residents of the Camrose area were understandably less than enthusiastic regarding the prospect of a war with their ancestral homeland.3

In this regard, the Camrose Canadian proved itself to be an important organ of propaganda for the war effort in central Alberta, tirelessly trumpeting the virtues of the Allied cause and condemning the Central Powers, most especially the Germans. To this end, the paper employed a myriad of methods to subtly encourage feelings of hostility, including the frequent use of the epithet “Huns”, but also more specific tactics. Some examples of this include a blurb in the March 16, 1916 issue highlighting the exploits of one Emillienne Moreau, a 17-year-old French girl awarded the Croix de Guerre for killing five Germans, while December 9 of 1915 saw an anecdote concerning Belgian nuns taking shelter in British trenches on account of delicately alluded-to fears of rape from advancing German forces. The paper also ran numerous small articles in its pages that made a point of noting the ethnicity of German-Canadians when they were found to be at odds with the law, as well as other, non-Anglo-Saxon ethnies whose countries-of-origin were tied to the Central Powers, such as the “Galicians” (Ukranians) of Central Alberta, cultivating and reinforcing the idea that Germans and others of central European stock were not to be trusted.4

This trend would come to a head in a July 18, 1918 editorial in the Canadian. Musing on the potential for some good to come out of the long blood-letting in Europe, the paper bemoaned the “unfriendly feelings between Britons and Americans”, and, in the hopes of helping redress relations between them, reprinted an interview with American Professor Franklin H. Giddings. As the Canadian would have its readers know, in Giddings’ view, the American War of Independence was not “a war of Englishmen in America against Englishmen in England” but rather, “a war of the liberal elements of both countries against the Germanized crown”. The point, of course, was that “the world war was no accident. It was the culmination of a dream of empire of which the American people should always have been aware”.5

Concerning the events of the war proper, however, one incident that hit particularly close to home in some ways was the German execution of English nurse Edith Cavell in October of 1915 for helping Allied prisoners escape into Holland. Describing the incident, which inspired widespread outrage and miles of anti-German propaganda from the Allied presses, as “one of the most cruel executions of the war”, the Canadian established a hometown immediacy to the event, noting that a Camrose resident, Nurse Woods, had been a personal acquaintance of Cavell and thought highly of her.6

The impact of Cavell’s execution and its exploitation by the press would be seen later in the year at a meeting in the neighboring village of New Norway, where the local Social Democrats society had sent a letter to the Canadian laying out their refusal to contribute to the Canadian Patriotic Fund intended to provide for the wives and children of Canadian soldiers. Disparaging “editors of ‘jingo’ newspapers” and “the ‘kept’ subsidized press”, the five-man group declined, on grounds of Christian pacifism, to contribute materially to a war they could not in good conscience support by any means.7 Unsurprisingly, given the tenor of the times, this resulted in widespread outrage to the extent that these conscientious objectors were burned in effigy in the nearby community of Ferintosh, home of the group’s spokesman, N.J.L. Bergen.8 An open-air, public debate between Bergen and George P. Smith, Camrose-based politician and the Canadian‘s “managing director”, drew a crowd of more than 600 people to the relatively tiny environs of New Norway, many of whom were noted to shout “Edith Cavell!” to back up Smith, in what the Canadian naturally termed “a sweeping victory for the cause of Britain and her Allies”.9

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George Smith, publisher and politician (image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta collection, A2739)

As for Smith himself, he worked tirelessly to promote both the war effort and the Patriotic Fund, spending much of the latter part of 1915 touring the Camrose constituency, making speaking appearances in Camrose’s many satellite communities, armed with slides of the Western Front, a pair of iron lungs and a steel-jacketed faith in the rightness of the Allied cause.10 The general slant of the Canadian was in fact so supportive of the war that the editorial pages frequently attacked the Robert Borden government for not living up to the paper’s expectation of zeal. As a Liberal-affiliated publication, the Canadian was opposed to the Conservative Borden as a matter of course, but accusations that Borden and his Ministers were failing their duty to the Empire by not recruiting troops more enthusiastically would be a continuing refrain in the Canadian‘s pages for a long time.

The Camrose constituency, though, was not lacking for much in the way of enthusiasm. In general, Alberta and the western provinces as a whole were noted by the paper as being markedly more pro-war than the east, with Alberta supplying more men to the Allied war machine than any other province, as well as a considerable number of horses. Further, this willingness to fight was not limited to private citizens, but also extended into the ranks of public figures, with more than a dozen members of the Provincial Government enlisted by 1916, with at least one, Bramley Moore, having been killed in action. 11

Accordingly, the people of Camrose and its satellite communities applied themselves wholeheartedly to the business of supporting the war effort. Whether enlisting in unprecedented numbers, hosting soldiers in their homes or organizing and contributing to a seemingly never-ending series of patriotic dances, patriotic sewing bees, patriotic teas, patriotic euchre games and the like. Some of these activities were devoted to raising funds for Belgian refugee aid, others to the Canadian Red Cross, but perhaps the single biggest benefactor was the aforementioned Canadian Patriotic Fund. Organized soon after the war began, the Fund had by October 21, 1915, a set goal of raising $10,000 in the Camrose constituency. By the end of the year, however, contributors, whipped up into a patriotic frenzy by George Smith and his underlings, had more than doubled this objective, pledging over $21,000 from around the district. In commemoration of this achievement, the Canadian ran a special extra-large “patriotic” edition on, listing each contributor by name, a tally that ran to nearly nine pages of close-set type.12

However, despite the patriotic enthusiasm drummed up in Camrose and elsewhere, individual initiative could only go so far in the face of the voracious demands of total war on the blood and treasure of the nation, and by the summer of 1917, the Canadian was covering the bitterly-contested passage of conscription as a war-measure by the Canadian government.13 Accordingly, the Canadian stepped up its efforts to persuade more volunteers to enlist, reprinting optimistic reports describing Battalions from different parts of Canada getting along “just like chums” and running notices issued by by the Military Service Council directing men in “Class One” (single or widowed without children as of July 6, 1917) to come forward so as to hopefully fill out the 100,000-man quota demanded of Canada by the Military Service Act:

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Notice from the Military Service Council in the November 1, 1917 Camrose Canadian (image courtesy of ourfutureourpast.ca)

By the beginning of 1918, however, despite all efforts to alleviate the strain, the situation both at home and at the front was looking increasingly grim, with Ottawa announcing that men in the first draft were scheduled to be called up by January 10th, and the promise of a five-year prison sentence for anyone attempting to shirk his patriotic duties in response.14 By June, all males in Alberta of at least 19 years of age were required to register under the Military Service Act, with significant penalties for non-compliance.

While Camrose volunteers like Harry Connor had fought and died in the mud of Flanders in hopes of defeating German militarism, the war had resulted in Canadian society itself becoming ever-more militarised, with such effects as Camrose schoolgirls being exhorted to induce their male counterparts to enlist, with the promise of commemorative pins as a reward.15 Eventually, the large numbers of casualties suffered by the Canadian Expeditionary Force left the Ottawa government no choice but to institute a draft, demonstrating the final limits of the patriotic feeling which the Canadian, and ultimately, the British Empire, expected so much of.

  1. Morrison, Katherine L. “The Only Canadians: Canada’s French and British Connection.” International Journal of Canadian Studies. No. 37, (2008): 177-194.
  2. “War Impressions,” The Empire Club of Canada Addresses. http://speeches.empireclub.org/62664/data?n=18
  3. The Camrose Canadian. “What Others Say-After the War.” September 24, 1914. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n68p1075.jpg 
  4. The Camrose Canadian. “School Taxes Must Be Paid and Revolver Must Not Be Carried.” July 1, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0193.jpg
  5. The Camrose Canadian. “Relations Between Britain and the United States.” July 18, 1918. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=nf0p0204.jpg
  6. The Camrose Canadian. “English Nurse Is Cruelly Executed by German Officer. October 28, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0327.jpg
  7. The Camrose Canadian. “Letter in Opposition to the Patriotic Fund.” December 16, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0399.jpg
  8. The Camrose Canadian. “Enthusiastic Settlers of Ferintosh Stage Wild Scene.” December 23, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0410.jpg
  9. The Camrose Canadian. “Six Hundred People Struggle For Admission To Great Patriotic Meeting at New Norway.” December 23, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0410.jpg
  10. The Camrose Canadian. “Happenings Throughout the District: Lake DeMay.” December 16, 1915. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0398.jpg
  11. The Camrose Canadian. “Twelve Members Have Enlisted.” June 1, 1916. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0594.jpg
  12. The Camrose Canadian. “Twenty-One Thousand Dollars Is Amount Subscribed to the Canadian Patriotic Fund in the Camrose Provincial Constituency.” January 6, 1916. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0418.jpg
  13. The Camrose Canadian. “Sir Wilfrid Laurier On the Conscription Bill.” July 12, 1917. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp1072.jpg
  14. The Camrose Canadian. “First Draft to Be Called Jan. 10th.” January 3, 1918. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=nf0p0000.jpg
  15. The Camrose Canadian. “Normal School Notes.” March 16, 1916. http://ourfutureourpast.ca/newspapr/np_page2.asp?code=n5gp0505.jpg