Montreal at War 1914-1918 was planned as an attempt to understand the experience of Montrealers during the Great War. My research assistants and I sought to accomplish this by examining eight daily and five weekly newspapers published in the city trying to answer the question “what events appear to be important, as measured by the space and passion allotted to them.” Secondary sources were used to identify topics that historians had come to see as significant in their process of constructing useable views of the past. Our approach often resulted in de-constructing many such ideas by placing them in context. A classic example of this was the Papineau-Bourassa debate of 1916, an event which had been used by historians as a representation of a key issue in Canadian history.

On 28 July 1916 the city’s daily newspapers, with the notable exception of Le Devoir printed a lengthy letter written by Captain Talbot Mercier Papineau an officer of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry addressed to his cousin “Henri”. Papineau, a grandson of the patriote leader, attacked Bourassa’s attitude towards the war and presented a defence of Canada’s participation in the conflict.

Papineau sent a draft of his letter to Andrew McMaster, his friend and law partner who was a prominent Laurier liberal. McMaster urged Papineau to change his approach,

You speak of an Imperial War… that is not the keynote of all the appeals made for patriotic purposes here – very often it is the Canadian note that is sounded and that the war is for civilization and liberty.[1]

McMaster was right, Laurier and many other Liberals were countering the Tory-imperialist rhetoric from Ottawa and Toronto with arguments about Canada’s responsibility to participate in a just war against German aggression, to liberate France and defend small nations struggling to be free.

Papineau agreed to revise the letter and asked McMaster to forward it to Bourassa, arranging for publication if there was no immediate reply. The letter, written in English, by a man raised in the United States as an English-speaking Protestant who attended McGill University and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, provoked a dismissive commentary from Bourassa who claimed to barely know his cousin and doubted he had written the letter. Bourassa also offered as restatement of his oft-expressed views on the evils of British imperialism and English-Canadian jingoism. The other newspapers printed Bourassa’s reply, but there was nothing new or remarkable in the exchange and no follow up, so the incident was quickly forgotten until Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War appeared in 1996. In 2007 the made-for-television drama The Great War, starring Justin Trudeau as Papineau, further embellished the image of a tragic hero who had left a safe posting to return to his battalion only to die in the mud of Passchendaele.

Geoff Keelan and Geoff Hayes have recently used the incident to good effect in research and teaching. Keelan’s two published papers and his forthcoming book on Bourassa during the war help us to understand the way in which this memory was constructed. Geoff Hayes has focused on Talbot Papineau’s personal quest to live as a manly hero in the mould of other Imperial adventurers.[2]

My much more mundane approach places the event in the context of a world where the Papineau-Bourassa exchange was utterly overshadowed by events of greater moment. What seemed important in August 1916 was the execution of Roger Casement in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin; a fire which burned large tracts of Northern or New Ontario; the arrival of German merchant marine U-Boat, the Deutschland, in Baltimore; the Somme Offensive and a police raid on what we would today call a gay club in Montreal.

Montreal was notorious for its Red Light District and scores of brothels were known to the police, to be raided only if there were specific complaints. The same rule applied to the Club Carreau which had been tolerated for several years until it moved to a residential district. The raid was botched when an alarm bell was set off and the younger men fled. The six men “found in” the club were charged with “gross indecency” but with bail set at $50.00 Carreau, a prominent merchant who dealt in religious articles for local churches, fled to the United States provoking further controversy and questions in the legislature. The Bourassa-Papineau exchange could not compete with Carreau or Casement.

This commentary on the contrast between a constructed historical memory and lived experience illustrates the approach to history that was inspired by reading Adrian Gregory’s The Last Great War British Society and the First World War. Gregory raises a number of questions which are applicable to Canadian as well as British society beginning with his comment that “Hindsight has been the curse of writing about the war. Of course” he writes “it would be absurd to banish hindsight from our historical judgement… We know how things turned out and can attempt to explain why they happened that way but hindsight is unavailable to those who are living through the experience and it cannot inform their decisions.” We can for example “argue about the First World War as tragedy or necessity” but for those who lived through it there was no such thing as a 1914-1918 Great War but rather an unfolding series of events, with a beginning but no middle and no end until one was suddenly upon them. Gregory argues, convincingly that throughout the conflict the large majority saw the war as a just and necessary choice “between war and German domination of Europe which they believed would be a disaster”. [3]

This view of the conflict was widely shared by the Anglo-Celtic communities in Montreal and their fellow citizens of British birth or background throughout Canada. This understandable, indeed rational response, to the German invasion of Belgium and France was accompanied by a patriotic discourse that too often emphasized loyalty to the mother country rather than the justice of the Allied cause creating conflict with those who did not share an intense identification with the glories of the British Empire.

Sixty-four percent of the city’s population was French Canadian and while elements of the upper class were bi-lingual, the vast majority lived, worked and played in a unilingual milieu with limited contact with the Anglo-Celtic community. Most of those interested in the issues of war and peace accepted the ideas of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Premier of Quebec Lomer Gouin, Archbishop Paul Bruchesi and the three mass circulation French-language newspapers, on the legitimacy and necessity of a significant Canadian war effort based on voluntary enlistment. La Presse consistently supported Canadian participation and promoted enlistment in French Canadian battalions, vigorously defending French Canada’s recruiting record. Le Canada promoted the policies and positions of the Liberal Party and its leaders. Historians have allowed Bourassa to become the central figure in accounts of the French Canadian response to the war but he was in fact marginal in comparison to Laurier. La Patrie defended the policies of the Borden government and encouraged recruiting while waging war against the nationalists.[4] Le Devoir, with the smallest circulation of the city’s dailies, accepted Canadian participation reluctantly. Neither Bourassa, nor his closest collaborator Omer Heroux, directly opposed enlistment during the period of voluntary enlistment, the first two years of the war. Bourassa became the bête noire of the English-language press for his criticism of the British Empire, Ontario “Jingoes”, and his advocacy of a modest war effort focused on food production.

Historians have long had easy access to microfilm copies of Le Devoir and its weekly Le Nationaliste allowing this limited perspective on French-speaking Quebec to dominate their accounts. Now that the Bibliothèque et Archives National du Québec has made many more Quebec newspapers available online Le Devoir and its editor may more easily be seen in context. The pages of Le Pays with regular contributions from freethinkers like Eva Circé-Côte and others who identified with France and its war effort should now be part of the story. Jules Fournier’s L’Action, a secular, nationalist and Francophile weekly that offered a platform for Olivar Asselin when he volunteered to recruit a French Canadian battalion for overseas service in early 1916 is equally important. For the other side of the ideological spectrum researchers should also consider La Croix, the ultramontane weekly that endorsed Pope Benedict XV’s neutrality and advocated independence for Quebec.

Montreal’s population included numerically significant minority communities. The large majority of the city’s Jewish population, were Yiddish-speaking refugees fleeing the pogroms of Czarist Russia. They naturally lacked enthusiasm for a war in which the Czar was a major ally but their west end, anglicized co-religionists vigorously supported Britain and Canada’s war effort. Full unity in support of the war was only achieved after the Balfour Declaration, November 1917. Italians, perhaps two percent of the population were quietly neutral until Italy joined the Allied cause in 1915. The prospect of completing the unification of Italy through the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire galvanized Italians in Montreal and elsewhere in North America and Montreal became a gateway for volunteers and reservists. A large number of immigrants from the Ukraine who had the misfortune to be born under Austro-Hungarian rule lived or had moved to Montreal and as paranoia about “enemy aliens” grew internment camps were established including Spirit Lake in northern Quebec which maintained camps for single men and families until closed in 1916.

The city’s Irish Catholics followed the leadership of John Redmond, the Irish Parliamentary Party leader at Westminster endorsing participation as part of a compact on the promise of Home Rule. The Irish Canadian Rangers, originally organized in 1914 as a militia regiment, became the core of an overseas battalion, the 199th under the slogans “Small Nations Must be Free” and “All in One” references to a free and united Ireland. Montrealers were part of a much wider world than the province or nation.

Gregory also examines “the inequality of sacrifice” in the United Kingdom analysing enlistment and loss by class, region and locality. One of the anomalies he discusses is the higher rate of volunteering in Scotland; another more relevant to Montreal is the class and occupational evidence which suggests a lower participation rate by wage labourers, Gregory writes

ironically the very poverty of the working class (which can be compared to conditions in a contemporary third world slum) was for many their salvation. Childhood malnutrition had rendered staggeringly high proportion unfit for military service.[5]

Inequality of sacrifice both in terms of enlistment and death is an important element of the Canadian experience and nowhere more than in Montreal. Newspaper accounts of recruiting invariably note the large number of volunteers who were rejected as unfit due to vision and dental issues as well as tuberculosis, and nutrition-related factors. The height requirements were particularly important for working class recruits but minimum chest measurements were also a barrier to enlistment. No account of enlistment in Canadian cities should ignore this problem or its implications.

Eight of the city’s nine infantry battalions and most of the artillery and other service units that served at the front were recruited voluntarily from the Anglo-Celtic minority. Roughly 60 percent of these were British-born but an examination of the nominal rolls, which we have made available on this website, indicates that half of these recruits listed their next of kin as living in Montreal. They were seen as part of the Anglo-Celtic community and were counted as Montrealers. Those born in Britain who listed their next of kin in the U.K. were a different group at least as far as casualty-reporting went. The very high participation rate in English-speaking Montreal, comparable to the numbers recruited in Toronto, produced a proportionate casualty rate. McGill University the most important institution in the Anglo-Celtic city was especially hard hit by the war.

French-speaking citizens were far less likely to volunteer and share this experience. The most recent estimate of French-Canadian participation and casualties suggests that 3000 are buried in France and Belgium.[6] If half of these were from Montreal, a third is more probable, the relatively limited nature of their involvement in war is evident. The evidence suggests that the pattern of enlistment of French Canadian volunteers from Quebec was not determined by the Ontario School question or Bourassa’s critical discourse on the purposes of the war but by the attitudes of the Borden government, the military and militant British Canadians towards the use of the French language. The government was forced to agree to the privately funded 22nd Battalion in 1914 but for the balance of the war Borden accepted the army’s opposition to allowing additional French-language units to join the corps.

French Canadian leaders repeatedly argued for the formation of a French-language brigade or for service with the French Army. After the decision to disband the 69th, 150th and 163rd battalions was made, such a brigade could not be formed. The decision to allow the two French Canadian hospitals to settle near Paris and provide care to the wounded of the French army suggests that such service might have worked. The army and British Canadian leaders wanted French Canadians to volunteer or be conscripted but to serve in English-language units.

Perhaps the most difficult argument presented by Gregory is his insistence that despite literary and popular tradition less than one tenth of the British population lost a son, husband or brother in the war. For Canada the numbers directly involved in the tragedy of loss are much smaller. Sixty-five thousand fatalities from a population of eight million involves a great deal of personal tragedy but as roughly twenty percent had next of kin in Britain we are talking about 50,000 Canadian losses over three years. Using Gregory’s multiplier of six close kin we are talking about 300,000 individuals directly impacted, less than five percent of the population. Even if we add the seriously wounded the numbers do not compare to the death toll from preventable infant mortality, tuberculosis and infectious diseases, not to mention the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. After a fire in Montreal caused the death of 53 infants, journalists briefly took up the cause of infant mortality noting that a baby born in the city was nine times more likely to die than a soldier in the trenches. Babies born elsewhere in North America were seven times more likely to die than soldiers.

Gregory’s discussion of the fourth question “the meaning of sacrifice” follows from this perspective on the scale of loss. Remembrance, he believes, is less about personal loss and more about societal concern with giving meaning to sacrifice. Public commemoration in Canada as well as Britain was driven by men and women, drawn largely from local elites with a strong interest in the value of remembrance expressed in Christian and patriotic terms.

Approaching the study of history from this “events as experienced” perspective means constructing a narrative that may contrast sharply with the theme-based enquiry that is normally used by historians and graduate students required to state their thesis, the argument they are to make about the past. Recent discussion of the idea that Canada became a nation on the slopes of Vimy Ridge or at the Versailles Treaty and the counter argument about “Vimyfication” seem to be equally detached from reality if one asks how such events were understood and experienced at the time. In 1917-18 discussion of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was quickly displaced by subsequent military actions, presented as victories, especially Hill 70, Passchendaele and Amiens. It was the decision to place Alwards’ Memorial on Vimy Ridge that determined its iconic status, allowing Canadians to construct a memory of the war in which Vimy represents achievement and sacrifice. For Montrealers and many other Canadians the crucial battlefield was Langemarck / Second Ypres where the enemy’s use of poison gas and the heroic resistance of the Canadians transformed what was for many was a “great adventure” into a “great crusade”.

When Canada signed the Treaty of Versailles, the famous acquisition of “signatory status”, Canada’s signature, along with those of the other Dominions and India were indented under the “British Empire”. Did this mean that India was now autonomous or had come of age? Was the U.S. State Department wrong to argue that League membership for the Dominions was just more votes for Britain? In 1919 everyone who was interested in the issue thought that the Prime Minister and his colleagues had fought for and won the right to have a voice in Imperial and foreign policy and as a consequence Canada would play a larger role in shaping the policy of the Empire.

Mackenzie King inherited a framework for Imperial co-operation, but given his reliance on 65 seats from Quebec he moved to restore the cautious step by step approach to increased autonomy that Laurier had long championed. All of this is clearly articulated in the contemporary documents including Arthur Meighen’s Cri de Coeur in the Chanak Crisis claiming that when Britain asked for support Canada should have declared “Ready, aye ready”. The ultimate statement of Imperial Nationalism.

For Montrealers the end of the war brought a momentary respite from conflict over conscription but the influenza epidemic, inflation, unemployment and labour unrest made for a grim winter. The barriers of class, ethnicity and religion continued to divide the city requiring constant re-negotiation of compromises over language, education and governance.


[1] Geofrey Keelan, “Canada’s Cultural Mobilization during the First World War: Talbot Mercier Papineau in Canadian War Culture” Canadian Historical Review 97, no. 3 (2016) p. 377.

[2] Geoffrey Keelan, Bourassa’s War: Henri Bourassa and the First World War PHD, University of Waterloo 2015.

[3] Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War (Cambridge 2008) p. 1.

[4] See especially the editorials in La Patrie October-November 1918 accusing Bourassa of supporting German war aims.

[5] Gregory, p. 282.

[6] Jean Martin, “Francophone Enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1918: The Evidence” Canadian Military History Vol 25 (2016).

2 thoughts on “Conclusion

  1. In response to Terry Copp’s argument: “Historians have allowed Bourassa to become the central figure in accounts of the French Canadian response to the war but he was in fact marginal in comparison to Laurier.” Many secondary school teachers of Canadian history have traditionally turned to Henri Bourassa to personify dissent to the First World War and conscription in French Canada. Perhaps we too have also been influenced by these earlier accounts of this history. Terry’s research shows that this viewpoint is too simplistic and there are many other perspectives including Laurier’s to consider when examining this theme.


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