Manitoba History: Book Review: Jim Blanchard, Winnipeg’s Great War: A City Comes of Age
by Henry Trachtenberg
In this book, popular historian Jim Blanchard describes the tragic loss to individuals, families, and to Winnipeg of more than 1,658 of its residents in the military during World War I. He aptly argues that given its relatively small size and its isolation, the loss of so many of its young men had a greater impact on Winnipeg than did war losses in major eastern cities. Among the “unknown amount of unrealized potential,” he includes those who would have been Winnipeg’s skilled tradesmen, and the many sons of the city’s leading families who might have built upon their fathers’ successes after the war (p. 8).
Blanchard, the Head of Reference Services at the University of Manitoba library, and author of the award-winning book, Winnipeg 1912 (2005), contends that Winnipeg contributed to the war effort more in people and money than most Canadian cities in proportion to its size (p. 267) and “came of age” during the war years. With other historians, he maintains that the impact of the war in conjunction with several other factors, such as the opening of the Panama Canal in 1913 and the cessation for several years of large-scale European immigration, destroyed Winnipeg’s dream of becoming a pre-eminent North American city, instead relegating it to secondary status. According to Blanchard, Winnipeg was transformed from “a brash and overconfident place, bragging about its growth and future potential” in 1914 to a much demoralized city in 1918, as “old boosterish Winnipeg had had the wind taken out of its sails and ….would now be a more cautious and conservative place” (p. 267).
Blanchard indicates that he wishes to tell “the story of Winnipeg during the First World War, of some of the men who went to fight, as well as the people and the city they left behind, of the sacrifices they all made, the role they played in winning the war, and the profound impact the war had upon them and their city” (p. 8). Nevertheless, Winnipeg’s Great War is not solely, or even mostly, a work of military history. The author examines how the approximately 160,000 people of Winnipeg faced the War, investigating why large numbers enlisted and went overseas. He also analyzes and describes major political, economic, social and demographic developments that the city’s population experienced during these very turbulent four years.
The reader is transported from the blissful summer idyll “at the lake” for Winnipeg’s Anglo-Protestant commercial and political elite to the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. There is much poignancy in Blanchard’s account, including the grief experienced by hundreds of Winnipeg families in losing loved ones, exemplified by the mass casualties of Winnipeg battalions in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 and the Battle of the Somme in September-October 1916. Especially moving are the letters sent home by Winnipeg soldiers overseas, some of whom were later lost. For example, Alec Waugh, shot by a sniper in 1917, was the son of Winnipeg’s mayor (1915–1916) Richard Waugh, who later tried unsuccessfully to find his son’s grave. The Waugh family’s service was illustrated additionally by their daughter, an army nurse and another son who was wounded and permanently disabled.
Figuring prominently in the book are the women engaged in voluntary unpaid labour in support of the war effort on the home front. The author shows how their efforts, including knitting warm socks for overseas soldiers, staging fundraising events, and selling nationalistic sheet music, became central to the everyday lives of numerous Winnipeggers. Although not all organizations were exclusively female, the essential activities of women in associations such as the St. John Ambulance Society, the Winnipeg and Manitoba Patriotic Fund, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and the Manitoba Red Cross (classified as a branch of the British Red Cross), are chronicled. Winnipeg’s social welfare services developed from the work of these women’s volunteer organizations. Also of interest was the precedent of the formation in Winnipeg of a Women’s Military Reserve Corps, whose members were taught to march, shoot, drive ambulances, swim and operate telephones.
The book is arranged into five chapters, one for each year of the war, and an Epilogue centering on the dedication of the Soldiers’ Relatives War Memorial on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislative Building in May 1923. The topics covered are listed conveniently under the chapter headings. There are occasional errors (for example “twenty-five Canadians died in front of firing squads during the war, twenty-three for desertion, two for murder, and one for cowardice,” p. 171) and repetitions (“Winnipeg had done her duty,” and “Winnipeg had done its duty,” pp. 258, 267). Throughout, though, Blanchard writes in a dispassionate and even-handed style. While there is no Bibliography, there are forty-three illustrative and evocative photographs, most from public archives, but some from private individuals and not reproduced previously.
This reviewer has some concerns about the book. It seems amiss for Blanchard to have made no comparisons or contrasts between Winnipeg’s and Regina’s experiences, especially in light of James Pitsula’s popular history For All We Have and Are: Regina and the Experience of the Great War (same publisher, 2008). Also remarkable are the several shortcomings in the footnotes. Many of the topics — such as the formation of military battalions, Manitoba’s elections of 1914 and 1915, the Legislative Building scandal, the fall of the Roblin government, the Norris administration, women’s suffrage, prohibition, unilingual schools, the Shoal Lake Aqueduct, the nativist sentiment, xenophobia, and paranoia reinforced by British Empire and civic boosterism directed against Winnipeggers of Central and Eastern European background, and growing social, ethnic, and class divisions during the war — have been discussed at some length in several books which should have been cited. These include Morton’s Manitoba: A History, and Jackson’s The Centennial History of Manitoba, and Manitoba 125: A History, vol. 2. Indeed, there is only one reference to Artibise’s Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth 1874–1914 and none to his Winnipeg: An Illustrated History. Nor were there any references to Thompson’s The Harvests of War: The Prairie West 1914–1918, Bercuson’s Confrontation at Winnipeg, Smith’s Let Us Rise, or, for an overview of the national experience, Cook and Brown’s Canada 1896–1921: A Nation Transformed. The first two chapters of Loewen’s and Friesen’s Immigrants In Prairie Cities could also have been referenced.
The author, perhaps to reinforce his academic bona fides, has relied heavily on primary sources, some of which have not been utilized elsewhere. Even there, although a scholarly apparatus has been employed, there is a relative paucity of notes. Within these, one also wonders why there are references to documents in the City of Winnipeg Archives for 1914 and 1915, but not for the other years. Similarly, the notes refer to the Manitoba Free Press (which is mistakenly cited as the Winnipeg Free Press) and to The Winnipeg Telegram but not to The Winnipeg Tribune, or from a labour perspective, The Voice. Furthermore, in the Acknowledgements the author makes mention of documents from Library and Archives Canada, but none show up in the footnotes.
With the centenary of the outbreak of World War I rapidly approaching, the publication of Winnipeg’s Great War is timely. Despite its limitations, this is an admirable effort. The book will be of interest not only to the general reader, but to all students of Winnipeg’s history, who will turn to it as a very significant source for the years 1914–1918. The book has won the Margaret McWilliams Popular History Award (2010) and the Manitoba Day Award (2011).
Page revised: 12 January 2017