“Hindsight… has been the curse of writing about the war… we know how things turned out and can therefore attempt to explain why they turned out as they did… We must remember that hindsight is unavailable to those who are living through the experience, and it cannot inform their decisions… The First World War was not fought [or experienced] in retrospect and we must stop refighting [and re-writing] it that way.”
Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War
This study of the impact of the Great War on Montreal describes the experiences of civilians, soldiers and returned veterans. The work is based on a reading of primary sources, especially newspapers, journals, government reports and archival records. The published and unpublished writings of other historians have been used as sources of information but the narrative avoids direct engagement with current historiographical debates. The purpose is to understand the war experience as it unfolded leaving retrospective views about what it all meant to studies of post-war construction of memory.
The research began with a systematic examination of the local news reported in the Montreal Star, one of the city’s two mass circulation dailies. The Star, an evening newspaper with a circulation of 112,000 plus a weekend edition, The Standard with 77,000 subscribers was owned and directly influenced by Hugh Graham who, for his services to the Empire, became Lord Atholstan in 1917. Graham’s passionate imperialism and aggressive political partisanship on behalf of the Conservative Party was of little consequence in the day to day coverage of events in the city and the Star had the money to employ good reporters. The Star also provides extensive coverage of the war with particular attention to individuals and units from Montreal.
La Presse an independent, popular daily with the largest circulation, 128,000, in Canada and a U.S. edition claiming 23,000 was checked for specific issues. La Presse was owned by Tréffle Berthiaume, a pioneer of popular journalism, until his death in 1915. Berthiaume’s sons shared control throughout the balance of the war. La Presse included comics, a good deal of crime news and many popular features but also provided detailed reports on life in the city. Coverage of the recruitment and overseas experience of French Canadian soldiers was a major priority for La Presse. Pierre Vennat’s two volumes, Les Poilus Quebecois de 1914-1918 draws upon these reports quoting verbatim thus providing a convenient source.
Six other daily newspapers competed for readership in 1914. The Gazette, Canada’s oldest newspaper, circulation 33,351, was closely linked with the Montreal business community and the Conservative Party. The Herald and Daily Telegraph, 19,279, was by 1914, controlled by Hugh Graham offering a morning version of the crime and human interest approach of the Star. La Patrie, 21,000, owned by sons of founder Israel Tarte imitated the populist approach of La Presse to news coverage, comics and features, while supporting the Conservative Party. Le Canada, 18,900, founded in 1903 as a Liberal Party newspaper was initially edited by Godfrey Langlois, a radical exponent of secular, progressive ideals. Langlois’ campaign for compulsory education antagonized the clergy and he was replaced in 1909 by Fernand Rinfret a less abrasive, moderate liberal. The Montreal Daily Mail, founded in 1913 had been largely forgotten as it ceased publication in August 1917. An afternoon paper attempting to compete with the Star, it was a long-shot financially but is an important source of news.
The sixth daily, Le Devoir, founded in 1910 by the nationaliste icon Henri Bourassa is said to have enjoyed an influence all out of proportion to its circulation which declined from 19,000 to 14,000 during the course of the war. Le Devoir disdained features such as sports, comics and popular entertainment. Its “ponderous signed editorials” resembling “papal pronouncements or legal briefs” were aimed at an elite trained in the province’s Classical Colleges. Bourassa’s take no prisoners approach to politics drew equally aggressive responses from other newspapers greatly enhancing his reputation.
Montreal’s vibrant weekly newspapers provide other windows into the city during the war years. The Montreal Witness, a liberal, protestant, temperance journal owned and edited by John Redpath Dougal offers evidence of the difficulty of easy generalizations about the views of the city’s Anglo-Celtic elite. The Witness began as the Saturday edition of the Montreal Daily Witness 1845-1913. It offered detailed American, international and Canadian news stories during the war years. The Witness was accessed online through the website of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationale du Québec (BANQ) along with a number of other weeklies including Le Nationaliste owned by Le Devoir and Jules Fournier’s literary and political journal L’Action. Le Pays, the paper founded by Godfrey Langlois after he left Le Canada. The Canadian Jewish Chronicle, the successor to the Jewish Times, available online at Google Newspaper Archive, was read for the war years. Other journals were examined for specific topics including the conservative Catholic and openly anti-Semitic La Croix, L’Action Sociale which became L’Action Catholique in 1915, the Quebec Chronicle, and Le Canard the satirical weekly. The BANQ website offers the opportunity to search Le Devoir, Le Pays, Le Nationaliste and Le Canard by topic and names. I have used this sparingly to avoid isolating issues out of context.
Montreal newspapers provided readers with detailed coverage of the war using official dispatches from London and Paris as well as semi-official reporting by war correspondents. Stories by Phillip Gibbs, a prolific author, were especially popular and frequently translated. Gibbs spoke for all correspondents when he wrote that he “identified absolutely with the armies in the field” avoiding any words “that would make the task of officers and men more difficult or dangerous”. Such self-censorship and after 1915 official Canadian censorship has been seen as limiting knowledge of the horrors of war but the publication of explicit letters from the front and the endless series of casualty lists carried in the daily newspapers brought the reality of war home to all who could read.
The Montreal Standard carried regular features on the war written by American journalist Frank H. Simmonds of the New York Herald Tribune. Until America’s entry into the war Simmonds provided a more detached perspective on Allied and German strategy and claims of achievement. The Standard also offered anti-war activists such as George Bernard Shaw space in its pages. From March 1917 Stewart Lyon, former managing editor of the Toronto Globe served as the first Canadian Press war correspondent and his dispatches as well as those of his successors were reproduced in all the city’s daily newspapers. Lyon certainly identified with the Canadian Corps but his articles also illustrated the costs of battles like Passchendaele.
The website is also based on databases linking sources such as the list of 1914 volunteers published in A Call to Arms with the Attestation Papers online at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and the published Sailing List of the First Contingent. A second database involved the analysis of the Nominal Rolls of battalions recruited in Montreal. The Nominal Rolls list each volunteers’ regimental number, rank, name, next of kin with address, country of birth and place of enrollment allowing the researcher to make accurate statements about such questions as the proportion of British-born, residence in Montreal and rural-urban recruits. The Nominal Rolls may be examined HERE.
A more ambitious form of analysis linking casualties with Montreal next of kin to personnel files available online soon and pension files which are being digitized at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) has not yet been completed and will form a separate project.
To begin the story with Montreal prior to 1914, CLICK HERE
 The quoted words are from Ramsay Cook, “Bourassa to Bissonnette: The Evolution of Castor-Rougeism” in Ramsay Cook, Watching Quebec (Montreal M-Q. 2005) p. 132