Manitoba History: “Are You ‘Doing Your Bit’?”: Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women’s Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg

by Andrea Martin, Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union
and Tyyne Petrowski, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg Archives

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Are You ‘Doing Your Bit’? Are you ready to share the burden that will fall upon their shoulders? Are you properly fitted to take his place?
Advertisement, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 23 June 1917, p. 3 [1]

During the Great War, Manitoban women laboured on the home front both physically and emotionally. Like young men of the same era, young women’s lives were changed drastically during the war years. The war not only afforded women opportunities to work in aid of the war effort in both public and private spaces, but they were encouraged to do so. The quotation above, part of an advertisement for Dominion Business College in 1917, captures the attitude towards women moving into more public work. Additionally, through volunteerism and personal occupations such as letter writing, many women found their private lives consumed with war-focussed activity.

To explore the experiences of young women during the years of the First World War, we approach wartime in Winnipeg and the prairies through Edith Robertson. Edith was at once a university student, teacher, engaged citizen, volunteer, as well as fiancée and correspondent to soldier Frederick Baragar who served with the Canadian army overseas during the First World War. Through these roles Edith, and women like her, directly influenced individual and collective experiences of the war. The war simultaneously shaped women’s university experiences, political agency, careers, and relationships.

Edith Anne Robertson (1895–1988) in her photo from the 1917 graduating class in Arts at Wesley College in Winnipeg

Edith Anne Robertson (1895–1988) in her photo from the 1917 graduating class in Arts at Wesley College in Winnipeg.
Source: University of Winnipeg Archives, SC-2-1B_15701.

The complex story of women’s lives on Manitoba’s home front is evident through individual women’s stories, exemplified in this study that combines local archival material, historical Winnipeg newspapers, and personal letters sent to Edith Robertson. Here, Edith’s story is woven through the greater war experience to contextualize her story within the larger Manitoban experience. Archival records about women in the First World War era, particularly records in their own voices, can be difficult to find as archival silences created by historical record-keeping practices tend to exclude marginal groups. [2] Records from the war period reflect the dominant systems of the time, which privileged white middle- and upperclass men. Throughout our researches, we endeavoured to read archives “against the grain” by examining records for what they omit or reveal indirectly. [3] Using this method we track the experiences of young women in Manitoba within private, academic, and public spheres during the war era.

Our key source for uncovering the experiences of Edith Robertson is through the letters written to her by Frederick D. Baragar throughout the war. The couple met while Fred was in his final year at Wesley College (which was at that time affiliated with the University of Manitoba), and Edith in her first. They became engaged while Fred was on leave from military training in Kingston, Ontario. The day of their engagement was the last time Edith and Fred saw each other before Fred returned to Manitoba in 1919. The couple corresponded throughout Fred’s training and war front service; and through Edith’s university career, graduation, and entry into the workforce. The letters span almost the entire war period, starting in November 1914 and ending in April 1919 when Fred arrived home at the family farm in Elm Creek, Manitoba. The letters which make up our study showcase the experiences of a young, white, Anglophone, Protestant, middle-class, university-educated couple, and we acknowledge that the wartime realities of individuals from other economic, social, ethnic, religious, or age groups are likely to have been different in a variety of ways. Edith Robertson was born 8 March 1885 to John and Christine Robertson, Scottish immigrants who moved to Canada by 1883. Among the ten children of the Winnipegbased Presbyterian family Edith was third eldest. When Britain declared war on Germany, Edith was preparing to enter year two of an Arts degree at Wesley College. Like many privileged young women who were politically active during the war, she was academically successful, socially active, and volunteered regularly. Edith’s narrative provides a glimpse into how these experiences were lived out during the years of the First World War in Winnipeg.

Before she had graduated from university, Edith Robertson was already a paid teacher and an active citizen of her city, province, country, and empire. Her experiences reflect a combination of urban and rural prairie life in Canada during the First World War, and more broadly, life in the British Empire. Edith’s story provides a glimpse into her life as a young working woman and a patriotic British-Canadian citizen during the war period, one who was privileged enough to have been a university student as well. Working women in Manitoba, as elsewhere in Canada, were often channelled into unskilled, semi-skilled, and low-paying jobs. Some families relied on working daughters’ extra income but the wages earned by these young women were typically too small to allow independent living. [4] Typically in the war era young women would begin their adult lives in the workforce, with the expectation they would leave paid employment when they married. [5] This was the case with Edith who, despite her fiancé Fred being impressed with her 1918 teaching salary, was listed as having no occupation in the 1921 census following their marriage. [6] Similarly, Edith’s mother had no occupation listed on the 1911 and 1916 censuses alongside her father’s job as a carpenter. [7]

Edith Robertson began her teaching career at one-room schools in rural Saskatchewan during the summer months away from university. In analyzing female teachers at the end of the 19th century and during the first years of the 20th, Eric Sager argued that: “Despite the hierarchy in urban schools and the subordination of women teachers, the occupation was associated with the possession of authority, with a degree of independence, and with a portion of workplace control and discretion not afforded by work in factories, the service sector, or sales.” [8] As such, Edith was employed in a field that allowed her a certain amount of autonomy when compared to many occupations of her time, particularly in her years teaching in rural schools. Edith taught in Flacks, Saskatchewan from May to October 1915, where students attended school while the roads were clear of snow. [9] Winnipeg-raised Edith reported learning about country life including driving oxen, milking a cow, and using a scythe. [10] She participated in local Red Cross fundraisers and reflected on “the thoughtful bachelors who went out of their way to see that my precious mail was delivered quickly, for they knew that my fiancé was serving overseas.” [11] In 1916 Edith taught in a newly opened school in Loverna, Saskatchewan, and in Brombury, Saskatchewan following graduation from university in 1917. [12]

The employment landscape changed by necessity during the war, but public opinion continued to resist women doing what was considered men’s employment. “MAN, LOOK OUT FOR YOUR JOB OR SOME WOMAN WILL GET IT! SCORES INVADE MALE’S SPHERE,” shouted a headline from the 18 August 1917 issue of The Winnipeg Evening Tribune. [13] In the article Carolyn Cornell described increased output from munitions factories after women were hired, and noted the improved working conditions, still a concern in the Great War era since factories were considered dirty, airless places unfit for middle-class women. [14] Fred Baragar wrote to discourage Edith from working in a factory, despite his characteristic support of all of her endeavours. Specifically, he pleaded from his training camp in Kingston, Ontario, “Edith, I understand your desire to go to work even in a factory, and yes, it would be experience, but please don’t if anything else comes to hand.” [15] Cornell discussed other, non-factory work done by women, much of which was new territory. The jobs included mail delivery, truck driving, elevator operation, clerk and teller positions at banks, soda fountain operation, and storefront positions in shops. [16] In terms of patriotic volunteer labour, Cornell pointed to “several orders of Daughters of the Empire”, church groups, and other community organizations who had done work such as planting “win the war” gardens, which were used to grow potatoes that would be sold for $2 a bushel to put towards the war effort.

The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) was one of several volunteer groups through which Canadian women directly contributed to war work. In Manitoba, this included fundraising, knitting socks and blankets, providing aid to soldiers’ wives, and supporting sick and disabled veterans after the war. [17] This organization, through for example its production of Britain-centric curriculum guides and learning materials, fostered British nationalism and patriotism for the war effort. [18] As a teacher and British-Canadian patriot, Edith would likely have been familiar with, even used, such materials in her own teaching career. In addition to the IODE, Canadian politicians and media propagandized Canada’s role in Britain’s war to encourage enlistment and support. These advertisements relied heavily on imperialist sentiments and imagery to mobilize Canadians. [19] This theme, emphasizing Canada’s colonial relationship to Britain and encouraging imperialism, was used to rally people in support of the war, and it continued afterward. [20] Canada’s second most popular Great War charity, with many groups operative in Manitoba, was the Canadian Red Cross—the Canadian Patriotic fund that supported soldiers’ wives and dependants held the top place. [21] The services provided by the Red Cross’ transatlantic network in Britain, France, and on various home fronts, were offered almost exclusively through unpaid work. Yet the Red Cross acknowledged that the creation of items sent to the front, particularly garments, had real monetary value. [22] While much of the dialogue in the historiography around these volunteer activities is described as motherly care, in the case of university students and young women, we should consider their attitude as one of sisterly solidarity; the female students described the goal of their work as “to help our toiling brother[s]”. [23]

While middle- and upper-class women had the financial resources to be able to donate their time to volunteer labour, women of all classes also participated in paid work to fill positions vacated by men who went off to fight on the front lines. Even for traditionally paid tasks, women’s war work came in the forms of both paid and unpaid labour, and the entirety of women’s work developed a militaristic aura that raised the tone of patriotism to a new level.

This new ideology of female militarism described a kind of virtual soldiering, equating women’s work on the home front to the work of soldiers in the trenches. The ideology served to justify the new visibility of women as well as the long hours spent away from home in voluntary war activities or in the paid workforce of the munitions factory. [24]

Some men’s reactionary behaviour towards women taking on new roles was still very evident, despite developing patriotic attitudes towards women working. For instance, on the front page of The Winnipeg Evening Tribune in March 1916, a bread delivery man challenged the ability of women to do his work and questioned their “womanliness” in doing so. [25] In response to this letter, one woman provided her qualifications to the Women’s Registration Bureau to take his job so that he could enlist. [26] Increased attention appears to have been drawn to the Citizen’s Recruiting Office and its Women’s Registration Bureau around that time. Women came to recommend themselves for positions as telegraphers, insurance agents, milk and bread delivery drivers, elevator operators, bank clerks, post office workers, street car conductors, and clothing manufacture “cutters”, and for general clerical work as well as farm work. [27]

“Lady Can Have My Job.” In 1916, a bread truck driver in Winnipeg offered to enlist in the military if a women could prove herself capable of doing his job.

“Lady Can Have My Job.” In 1916, a bread truck driver in Winnipeg offered to enlist in the military if a women could prove herself capable of doing his job.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune, 25 March 1916, page 1.

Some young women even made their way to the front lines. At least two female students were listed among those serving at the front in the 1918 University of Manitoba “Roll of Honour”: Nurse Margaret Angus and Miss M. Robb. [28] The Vox Wesleyana provides a more detailed story of MA graduate Lieutenant Maurine Robb, who joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and obtained an officer’s commission. Robb graduated from Wesley College only two years prior to Edith Robertson and was “drafted to Boulogne to take the place of quartermistress,” where she was responsible for equipment and clothing for six hostels and camps. [29]

As outlined above, women stepped in to fill absences left by men serving in the military, volunteered their time and labour in fundraising, and made and sent items to the warfront, but they also did the emotional work of the war: providing emotional support for their loved ones overseas and for the nation at large. In a 1915 letter to Edith, Fred Baragar expressed a soldier’s perception of women’s emotional work in terms of their relationships with soldiers:

I have noticed this, that in general those who are thinking of a true woman far away, are living the best life here. Do you see, little girl, part of the work that has been given to women to do, and does it seem unworthy work? [30]

This emotional labour was partially done through correspondence. In addition to formally organized letter-writing campaigns, people like Edith took it upon themselves to write to soldiers, even relative strangers, to show support. In autumn 1915 Edith asked if Fred knew any fellow soldiers who received little mail and to whom she could write letters and send packages, if there were any of his fellow soldiers who were not receiving mail from home. Fred responded in December 1915 that he loved her expression of sympathy, but that he could not think of anyone at the time. [31] In February 1916 Fred wrote of this request again, noting that while he had “picked out a comrade”, his arrival at the front lines meant he could no longer include names of Canadian soldiers in his letters due to the censorship rules. [32]

In reading about the emotional and physical labour done on the home front, one can recognise a microcosm of the trends in women’s wartime work and volunteerism among college students in Winnipeg. Numbers of male students decreased throughout the war years and a military presence was introduced to the University of Manitoba campus through the establishment of the University of Manitoba Canadian Officers Training Corps (COTC). [33] Many female students worked to aid the war effort through campus-coordinated volunteerism. Organizations like the Red Cross actively recruited female university students attending school in Manitoba. [34] Wesley College and the larger University of Manitoba community developed student groups which provided aid to the war effort and comfort to soldiers, including Red Cross chapters and a Ladies Auxiliary. The localized home front patriotic work of these societies impacted female students’ university experience during the war years.

The overall reaction of the university community to the turmoil of war mirrored that of Canadian society. The University of Manitoba’s war response is described by J. M. Bumsted as “swift and one of total commitment,” as both staff and students enlisted following the beginning of the war in 1914. [35] Canadian men signed up to serve during the first two years in relatively high numbers, and women stepped in to support the war effort though wage and volunteer labour on the war front and at home. [36] The enlistment, and later conscription, of young men had a dramatic impact on Manitoba’s student population. “Some parts of the university were virtually depopulated for the duration of the war” and by 1917 “there was not a single able-bodied male student over the age of eighteen” attending St. John’s College. [37] Enrolment in the other colleges suffered a similar fate. [38]

Throughout her four-year degree Edith Robertson was an active participant in Wesley College and wider University of Manitoba extracurriculars. She participated on college debating teams and in her final year represented Wesley College on the University of Manitoba’s debate team against Brandon College. [39] She was a competitive hockey player, one of eight women who “put forward” the 1916–1917 women’s champion hockey team for Wesley College. [40] Amateur women’s hockey teams were common in the early 20th century, and Wesley College was not the only institution to support a women’s team. [41] A passion for hockey was something Edith shared with her fiancé Fred. [42] His letters demonstrate their interest through a discussion of the Manitoba Amateur Hockey Association’s decision to hold a “Patriotic Series” to raise money for the war effort. This series used enlisted soldiers as players for the 1915–1916 season, [43] and the team that was assembled by Winnipeg’s 61st Battalion went on to win the Allan Cup, the Canadian senior men’s amateur championship for 1916. [44]

The 1917 ladies’ hockey team at Wesley College included Edith Robertson, third from right

The 1917 ladies’ hockey team at Wesley College included Edith Robertson, third from right.
Source: University of Winnipeg Archives, SC-2-4_19239

Edith excelled academically and socially during her time at Wesley College. [45] She declared a double major of English and History in autumn 1915, and was elected Lady Stick for her senior year (1916-1917). [46] Wesley College had already employed the title of Senior Stick for the male head of student body prior to 1909, and at the beginning of the 1912 academic year the “Ladies’ Student Body” president received an official “stick” to denote her office, and was thereafter referred to as Lady Stick. [47] The November 1916 issue of Vox Wesleyana announced Edith’s appointment:

The office of Lady Stick suggests the highest honour which the women students can give, and also involves duties which are at once arduous and painstaking. An unusual amount of tactfulness is required, combined with sympathy of the most helpful kind. Edith Robertson, our stick for the ’17 year, is a combination of all that is good and true... we find Edith occupying a position for which few are justified. [48]

These heartfelt congratulations were echoed by her fiancé Fred, who wrote with pride from the war front:

I do congratulate you with all my heart, there is nothing, not even whole necklaces of medals, that I would more keenly wish for your last year at Wesley. And you will do honour to Wesley’s finest and best. [49]

Starting in autumn 1914, university student publications like Vox Wesleyana, The Manitoban, and The Varsity Yearbook were filled with war-related news. The enlistment of male faculty members and students into the Canadian military was reported with enthusiasm, and students encouraged their peers to get involved with the war effort. [50] As women were unable to enlist as soldiers, organized volunteerism was the primary way in which university women were expected to contribute to the war.

Edith’s experience as a student engaged to a soldier serving overseas was not unique, but it did shape her experience of attending university in a country at war. We know from the letters in the Frederick D. Baragar collection that on top of her school work and social activities, Edith devoted a certain amount of time each week to writing letters to Fred. [51] Corresponding regularly with soldiers serving overseas was one of the ways that women supported the war effort; the ability of soldiers at the front to communicate with friends and family at home was considered “essential to morale” by the British and Canadian Armies, and women in Manitoba worked to make sure that all soldiers had a “pen pal”. [52]

As early as 1915, female university students in Manitoba organized through the Red Cross corresponded with students and alumni serving overseas. [53] In January 1917, a formal University Correspondence Club was established at the University of Manitoba. [54] The goal of the club in its inaugural year was to ensure “that every student from this University who has enlisted for active service receives from [the club], periodically, a ‘news letter’”. [55] The language used to describe the work undertaken by the club was similar to the language used to describe women’s wartime volunteer work. Particularly, describing the work of the club as comforting soldiers through “the horrors and carnage of battle fury” echoes what Sarah Glassford calls “the languages of patriotism and care” that permeated women’s volunteer work for the Canadian Red Cross. [56]

Linda J. Quiney argues that across Canada, the Red Cross encouraged “monetary contributions” and participation in “fund-raising events” from female students. [57] Gendered tasks like “sewing and knitting hospital garments” made up the largest “portion of Red Cross work expected of university” students and women in Canada. [58] Edith Robertson and Wesley College’s female students organized a Red Cross Society beginning in 1915. [59] By November that year the group was “already well advanced” on their volunteer work. [60] The Red Cross report in November 1915’s Vox Wesleyana made use of distinctive patriotic rhetoric, encouraging female students who had not yet joined the society to “make it a point to” join while also pressuring male students to “contribute some small sum towards bearing the expense entailed in this work.” [61] That male students supported the wartime volunteer work of their female counterparts demonstrates that this volunteer work was seen as a patriotic effort worth supporting and was recognized as having a tangible positive impact on the experiences and outcomes of the war. [62] Female students described this work as “varied and interesting.” [63] In the Red Cross report for the July 1916 issue of Vox Wesleyana, Edith wrote that student volunteers became aware over the course of the year “just how great their responsibilities were becoming.” [64] The “Red Cross work occupied a large place in the hearts of the girls at Wesley,” Edith argued, “but, at heart, the chief interest lay in the mighty struggle and those who were representing” Wesley College overseas. [65] While students recognized this work as undeniably valuable, reports in Vox Wesleyana, The Manitoban, and The Varsity Yearbook glossed over the labour involved in the work performed by female students to complete these tasks. “Producing and raising money for comforts required time and skill” and “the labour involved in Red Cross work”, Glassford argues, much like other forms of women’s unpaid labour during this time period, went unacknowledged. [66]

Donating time and labour to the war effort was a difficult balancing act for female students. Fred’s letters to Edith while she was a student include many references to her busy schedule. [67] Fred demonstrated that every letter Edith wrote to him took time away from another commitment, but writing to her fiancé was something to which Edith gave high priority. Edith and many female university students like her found ways to balance their academic commitments, careers, and social lives with their volunteer efforts and community activism.

The volunteerism and activism that filled women’s time went beyond activities related strictly to the war. Suffrage and prohibition movements, which had been rising to prominence before the outbreak of war, exemplified women’s growing political agency throughout the war period. Manitoba’s suffrage movement gained strength during the first years of the war, bolstered by women’s war work. The political issues of prohibition and social reform had also been taken up by suffragists of all ages, and these movements represented public declarations of women’s political opinions and ability to effect political change. After an extensive public campaign, on 28 January 1916 Manitoba became the first Canadian province to grant women the right to vote in provincial elections. While University of Manitoba sources are fairly quiet on the suffrage question, it’s clear from what was said that many students were suffrage supporters. [68] The letters in the Frederick D. Baragar collection demonstrate that both Fred and Edith were suffrage proponents, “Of course I believe in suffrage, I always did,” Fred wrote on 25 December 1915, a month before women’s voting rights were legislated in Manitoba. These letters also tell us that Edith supported the popular prohibition movement, a sentiment that was shared with her classmates. [69] In February 1916 the Wesley College student body decided collectively “to assist in the coming prohibition campaign in Manitoba”. [70] On 13 March 1916 a majority of Manitobans voted in favour of prohibition; [71] the province was officially ‘dry’ throughout the rest of the war. The suffrage and prohibition movements, and Edith’s support of both, exemplify the reformative nature of the war years in Manitoba and demonstrate the impact women had in the wartime political landscape.

The suffrage and prohibition movements, as with women’s wartime participation in previously maledominated jobs, inspired varying degrees of support and opposition from Manitobans. Even proponents and allies of the suffrage movement supported it on the basis of women continuing to behave in typically feminine ways. Months after Manitoba had legislated women’s right to vote, in August 1916, Fred Baragar passed on a story to Edith from his brother Arthur that exemplified the feminine codes women suffragists were expected to follow. Arthur, a doctor serving in England with the Canadian military, attended a dinner party where a number of English suffragists were in attendance. He described the female suffragists as “the type who think they’ve got to be mannish and crude to show their right to suffrage.” [72] Fred added to Edith, “Thank the Lord that as yet that type is very scarce in Canada,” implying that Edith (and mutual female acquaintances) embodied an appropriately feminine brand of suffragist. [73]

The First World War disrupted not only the political and social status quo of Canadians, but also their personal relationships. Fred and Edith’s wartime engagement provides a glimpse into wartime relationships. The pair shared similar religious, economic, and educational perspectives. Fred had a Methodist background and Dutch heritage on his father’s side, Irish and Anglican heritage on his mother’s. [74] Fred’s family were farmers near Elm Creek, Manitoba. Though Scottish-Presbyterian Edith lived in Winnipeg, it appears both had similar experiences. They attained college degrees from the same institution within a few years of each other, Fred having studied English and Latin, and Edith having majored in English and History, both with the aim of becoming teachers. Due to these factors we do not get a particularly culturally diverse representation of the courtship experience from this couple. However, if we follow the assertion that “the courtship and marriage rites of English Canadians cut across most social boundaries,” in the pre-war, we can accept that Fred and Edith’s wartime courtship as typical of the young Englishspeaking Canadians of their time. [75]

Engagements prior to young men’s enlistment were common, but there was a divide between whether young people chose to marry prior to soldiers’ heading to war, or to wait hopefully for their return. [76] Whatever the case, young lovers were forced to put their first married years together on hold until the soldier returned. Some women travelled across the Atlantic to marry their fiancés during a brief leave from the front, including Winnipegger Doris Aldous. [77] We know that Fred and Edith at least contemplated this action, as Fred wrote the following in October 1917:

If ever I could get a leave I would come home, do you think it would be foolish for us to be married? And dear girl, I often wonder if anything should happen to me, would you rather it were as it is now, or with a greater hold on our comradeship and love that marriage would give … I often wonder in my heart which you in your most sensible mood would wish for. [78]

Fred and Edith were no strangers to a long-distance relationship. They began their courtship while both in Winnipeg, but Fred headed to Toronto to complete a year in the University of Toronto’s Education program during the 1914–1915 school year. In March 1915, Fred wrote that he had joined the University of Toronto’s Canadian Officer Training Corps, signing-off with the sentiment, “I ask if you can save a place for me against the time that I shall return, if God will that it shall be.” [79] Fred returned home to Manitoba very briefly on 20 May 1915 and had one day with Edith as she prepared to leave to teach in Flacks, Saskatchewan. [80] During their day together Fred proposed to Edith, she accepted. [81]

Like Fred and Edith, women and men wrote to each other frequently throughout the war, often outside of romantic relationships as well, as a means of supporting soldiers at the front. [82] All mail was valued by the soldiers, as evidenced by one of Fred’s letters when he writes about a several-week Canadian mail delivery delay at the front lines, “By jove, it makes a hole in our existence that nothing can fill up.” [83] Letters were not only the primary means of communication, but were also an outlet for consolation and sympathy through which women performed the “emotional labour that evolved around bereavement” during the war. Women in Manitoba played a role in comforting soldiers overseas who lost friends and family members fighting at the front. For Edith and Fred this is demonstrated in his letters about the death of a friend: “No incident of this whole war has touched me so deeply as the death of Bill Crummy,” Fred wrote in April 1916. [84] The two young men graduated from Wesley College a year apart, and Fred considered Bill to be one of his “best friends”. [85] Fred subsequently wrote to Edith about his grief over this loss, and about how important it was for the two of them to support each other through the “sorrows” of war. [86] Emotional supports provided by women at home didn’t go unnoticed. As Fred wrote, “Were it not for loved ones at home, we would care little what happened” in battle. [87] The scale of loss experienced in the First World War is hard to imagine, but during the war years Canadians experienced such loss daily.

While many of Fred’s letters were thoughtful and detailed, once he was fighting at the front, maintaining detailed correspondence with Edith was not always possible. Fred regularly thanked Edith for the abundance and quality of letters. At one point he wrote, “You are a dear and no one can deny that. Two letters from you last night, indeed you are wasting far too much time on a lonely soldier.” [88] At times Fred was able to compose only short notes due to the activity at the front lines. When spare time for letter writing was non-existent, Fred sent “wizz-bangs”: military form postcards upon which statements were circled and brief sentences were written before being sent off. He occasionally sent postcards, which were common at the time, and included varieties such as those covered with embroidered silk samplers from France and elsewhere. [89] Young women like Edith would receive these short notices, often carrying gratitude for their letters and care packages received at the front lines.

Looking at the paper and cards sent by soldiers, we can see that the very fabric of wartime correspondence was infused with reminders of patriotism. The stationery which Fred used occasionally featured the Union Jack, Canadian flags, or other Canadian insignia. Some paper even included a censorship reminder, [90] which hints at the limitations put on soldiers when writing home, and the ways in which their communications with loved ones were restricted by military regulations. Soldiers were instructed:

Do not mention your rank or battalion, brigade, or the names of places: Expected operations, movements or numbers of troops: Casualties, previous to publication of official lists, or make specific reference to the moral or physical condition of the troops. J. M. Mackendrick Secretary. [91]

During wartime, closeness with loved ones was maintained by sharing experiences outside the constant reality of war. Fred and Edith discussed the contents of the Manitoba Free Press and Vox Wesleyana issues, as well as church sermons they had read or heard. They wrote to each other of Wesley College and local news, and of updates on their circle of friends, and Edith sent Fred books and magazines to read, which they later discussed. In this way the archival record provides us with another clue to Edith’s interests through Fred’s responses to her opinions.

The day the Armistice was signed, 11 November 1918, Fred Baragar wrote two letters. One was to his brother Ernest, and the other a joyful celebration sent to Edith, telling his fiancée to expect him home by mid-summer at the latest, and that at long last she could begin planning for their wedding. [92] Their happy reunion took place in April 1919, and February 1920’s Vox Wesleyana includes the following announcement:

“On Dec. 31st, Miss Edith A. Robertson ’17, became the bride of Fred D. Baragar ’14, the ceremony being performed by Rev. R. F. Argue ’11. The happy couple are living at 95 Lansdowne Ave., Winnipeg.” [93]

Edith carefully preserved the letters received from Fred, and we know from his letters that Fred routinely sent her letters to him home for safekeeping under the care of his brother Ernest. A selection of letters from those sent home to various family members were also saved. The letters still exist today because Edith and Fred’s family actively chose to keep the letters, and their children and grandchildren valued the collection enough to save it and donate it to an archival institution. It is a chain of choices resulting from the fact that Fred survived the war, came home, married his fiancée, and lived a long life following the end of “the Great Killing.” [94] If Fred Baragar had not survived the war, his letters home—now preserved at the University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections—would likely not have been saved and would not be available to us today.

The documentary record in Edith’s own voice remains minimal. Fred Baragar’s letters provide a wealth of material on a young soldier’s experience of the First World War and have been preserved largely for that purpose. Yet despite the archival silence we are able to read Edith’s activities, her experiences, her interests, her successes, and her relationship with the man she loved through Fred’s letters to her and to his family. We are also able to follow Edith’s student years and teaching career through Vox Wesleyana and a history book featuring brief memoirs of her 1915 and 1916 teaching experiences. Edith participated in these documentary activities as a student, a teacher, a citizen, and a woman with a post-secondary education. She was privileged to have both the skills and time to participate in recording her own experiences and those of young women like her on the prairie home front during the dynamic years of the First World War.

Women’s labour, both physical and emotional, made a significant contribution to the home front and battle front experiences of war. Correspondence, care packages of various kinds, fundraising efforts, moral support, and the many home front workforce positions which women moved into, were just some of the ways they contributed to the fabric of society during the First World War. Young women in particular, especially those with the privileges of middle- or upper-class leisure and without the responsibilities of taking care of a home or children, had the time and energy to put into these wartime home front labours. The story of Edith Robertson helps to provide a starting point for further explorations into how young women on the Manitoba home front experienced the years of the First World War.

“Are You ‘Doing Your Bit’?” An advertisement by the Dominion Business College in the Winnipeg Tribune in June 1917 appealed to the patriotism of women when it offered courses in shorthand, English, and bookkeeping.

“Are You ‘Doing Your Bit’?” An advertisement by the Dominion Business College in the Winnipeg Tribune in June 1917 appealed to the patriotism of women when it offered courses in shorthand, English, and bookkeeping.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune, 23 June 1917, page 3.


1. Dominion Business College, “Women of Canada! Your Country is Calling you”, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 23 June 1914, p. 3.

2. Rodney S. Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence,” Archivaria 61: Special Section on Archives: Space and Power (Spring 2006), pp. 219, 220.

3. Carter, “Of Things Said and Unsaid”, pp. 223-224.

4. Ibid., pp. 41-42.

5. Veronica Strong-Boag, The New Day Recalled: Lives of Girls and Women in English Canada, 1919-1939, Markham: Penguin Books, 1988, p. 2.

6. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Frederick D. Baragar fonds, Mss 283 (A08-156), Frederick Baragar to Edith Robertson, 12 November 1918; Frederick Baragar Household, 1921 Census of Canada, Manitoba, Winnipeg (District 39, Sub-District 16), p. 14, Family Number 137, Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa, Ontario): Series RG31 (Statistics Canada Fonds).

7. John Robertson Household, 1911 Census of Canada, Manitoba, Winnipeg, (District 24, Sub-District 6), p. 19, Family Number 187, Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa, Ontario): Series RG31 (Statistics Canada Fonds); John Robertson Household, 1916 Census of Canada, Manitoba, Winnipeg (District 15, Sub-District 10), p. 46, Family Number 504, Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa, Ontario): Series RG31 (Statistics Canada Fonds).

8. Eric W. Sager, “Women Teachers in Canada, 1881–1901: Revisiting the ‘Feminization’ of an Occupation,” Canadian Historical Review 88:2 (2007): 201-236.

9. Edith Baragar, “Hilldale School District, May 23 to Oct. 16, 1915,” in The School Beneath The Hill, Kindersley, SK: Jamac Publishing Ltd.: 1976, p. 200.

10. Ibid., p. 201.

11. Ibid., p. 53.

12. Ibid., p. 52; Vox Wesleyana, vol. XXI, no. 1, (November 1917): p. 37.

13. Carolyn Cornell, “Man, Look Out For Your Job Or Some Woman Will Get It! Scores Invade Male’s Sphere,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 18 August 1917, p. 17.

14. Mary Kinnear, A Female Economy: Women’s Work in a Prairie Province, 1870-1970, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998, p. 27.

15. Baragar to Robertson, 4 April 1915.

16. Cornell, p. 17.

17. IODE Fonds, Records of the Provincial Chapter of Manitoba, “The Organizational Meeting of the Provincial Chapter of MB,” 28 April 1915; 3-5 April 1919; 24 October 1924.

18. Shauna Wilton, “Manitoba Women Nurturing the Nation: The Manitoba IODE and Maternal Nationalism, 1913-1920,” Journal of Canadian Studies vol. 35, no.2 (Summer 2000): 159-161.

19. Suzanne Evans, “Raising ‘Human Ammunition’: Motherhood, Propaganda, and the Great War”, Active History, 18 August 2015,, Accessed 14 April 2016.

20. Kurt Korneski, “Minnie J. B. Campbell, Reform, and Empire” in Prairie Metropolis: New Essays on Winnipeg Social History, Esyllt W. Jones and Gerald Friesen (eds.), Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2009, pp. 18-43. Also see: “Canada and the First World War - Recruitment Posters”, Canadian War Museum, Accessed 14 April 2016,

21. Sarah Glassford, “‘The Greatest Mother in the World’ Carework and the Discourse of Mothering in the Canadian Red Cross Society during the First World War”, Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering vol. 10, no. 1 (2008): 220.

22. Ibid., p. 228.

23. The Wesley College Red Cross group even specifically used “To help our toiling brother” in their motto. See “Red Cross”, Vox Wesleyana vol. 20, no. 2 (December 1916): 45.

24. Linda J. Quiney, “‘Bravely and Loyally they Answered the Call’: St. John Ambulance, the Red Cross, and the Patriotic Service of Women of Canadian Women During the Great War,” History of Intellectual Culture, vol. 5, no. 1 (2005): 3.

25. “‘Lady Can Have My Job’ Says Bread Wagon Man,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 25 March 1916, p. 1.

26. “‘I’ll Take That Bread Job’ She Says,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 27 March 1916, p. 1.

27. “70 Women Seek Jobs So Men May Enlist,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 24 March 1916: p. 1; “2 Women Ask Jobs on Farms,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 29 March 1916, p. 5.

28. University of Manitoba Students’ Association, University of Manitoba Varsity Year Book, 1917-1918, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Students Association, 1918, pp. 10, 15.

29. Vox Wesleyana, (November 1917): p. 14.

30. Baragar to Robertson, 9 July 1915.

31. Baragar to Robertson, 1 December 1915.

32. Baragar to Robertson, 1 February 1916.

33. “University of Manitoba Contingent of the Canadian Officers Training Corps”, The Manitoban, 28 January 1915, p. 92. By January of 1915, five months after the outbreak of war, the University announced that it planned to host a contingent of the COTC. The COTC was created in Canada to provide standardized introductory military training for students. Members could undergo exams which granted the member a certificate of proficiency, that allowed them to skip portions of the military’s introductory training.

34. Quiney, “Bravely and Loyally they Answered the Call”, p. 6.

35. J. M. Bumsted, The University of Manitoba: An Illustrated History, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2001, p. 43. Also see: Vox Wesleyana, vol. XVIII, no. 1, November 1914.

36. Jim Blanchard, “World War One in Winnipeg - Conscription,” Active History, 21 October 2014,, Accessed 14 April 2016.

37. Bumsted, University of Manitoba, p. 45.

38. Ibid.

39. J. E. C., Vox Wesleyana, vol. XX, no. 5, April 1917, p. 41; Baragar to Robertson, 25 July 1915. He also references her debating in Baragar to Robertson, 24 December 1915.; E. I. T., Vox Wesleyana, April 1917, p. 55.

40. E. F. M., Vox Wesleyana, April 1917, p. 31.

41. “’Peg Women to Play Selkirk Hockey Seven”, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 12 March 1917, p. 10.; “Winnipeg’s ‘Hello Girls’ Better Cared for Than Workers of Any Other Class”, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 4 November 1916, p. 17.; “Ladies Hockey”, Vox Wesleyana, vol. XX, no. 5, April 1917, p. 44.

42. Baragar to Robertson, 9 January 1916.

43. Tim Ching, “6 Teams Likely for ’Peg Senior Patriotic Hockey Competition”, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 27 November 1915, p. 19.

44. Tim Ching, “Sixty-first Outclass Regina Vics and Register 8-2 Victory In Final Allan Cup Contest”, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 20 March 1916, p. 10.

45. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, University Publications, UPC GEN 185, University of Manitoba Convocation Program and Class and Honor Lists, 1916-1917.

46. The Senior Stick position, now gender-neutral, is a title still used at the University of Manitoba to indicate the heads of some of the student bodies. See: “Faculty of Arts fonds, Senior and Lady Stick series,” University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections,, Accessed 16 April 2016.

47. Vox Wesleyana, vol. 13, no. 6, June 1909, p. 136; vol. 16, no. 1, November 1912, p. 25.

48. Vox Wesleyana, vol. XX, no. 1, November 1916, p. 37.

49. Baragar to Robertson, 3 April 1916.

50. Vox Wesleyana, November 1914.

51. Baragar to Robertson, 11 March 1916, 16 March 1916, 3 July 1917.

52. Alan Johnson, “World War One: How did 12 million letters a week reach soldiers?” BBC News Magazine, 31 January 2014, Accessed 13 April 2016,

53. Baragar to Robertson, 1 December 1915, 1 February 1916.; Manitoba Agricultural College, Letters from the Front, M.A.C. Students 1915-18, 1918/1919.

54. “The University of Manitoba Overseas Correspondence Club”, The Manitoban, 1 January 1917, p. 32.

55. U. D. C., University of Manitoba Varsity Year Book, 1916-1917, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Students Association, 1917, p. 7.

56. Norman Macdonald, “The University of Manitoba Overseas Correspondence Club,” University of Manitoba Varsity Year Book, 1916-1917, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Students Association, 1917, p. 20; Glassford, “The Greatest Mother in the World”, p. 222. Glassford’s article links the idea of providing non-medical “comforts” to Canadian soldiers overseas to early 20th-century maternal feminist movements, and specifically to women’s volunteer work through the Canadian Red Cross.

57. Quiney, “Bravely and Loyally they Answered the Call”, p. 6.

58. Ibid.

59. Editors, Vox Wesleyana, vol. XIX, no. 1 (November 1915), p. 7.

60. Ibid.

61. Ibid.

62. Quiney, “Bravely and Loyally they Answered the Call”.; W. A. C. “For Those in the Service”, Vox Wesleyana, vol. XIX, no. 2, December 1915, p. 18.

63. E. A. R., Vox Wesleyana, vol. XIX, no. 5, July 1916, p. 23.

64. Ibid.

65. Ibid., p. 24.

66. Glassford, “‘The Greatest Mother in the World’, p. 225.

67. Baragar to Robertson: 9 October 1915, 18 December 1915, 1 February 1916, 3 April 1916, 30 April 1917, among others.

68. “Good Bye Fifteens!,” The Manitoban, 15 April 1915, p. 184.

69. Baragar to Robertson, 4 April 1916; Kinnear, A Female Economy, p. 146.

70. “Notes from the Student Body,” Vox Wesleyana, vol. XIX, no. 3, February 1916, p. 42.

71. “Vote in City Heavy,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 13 March 1916, p. 1; “Margin for Dry Goes to 24, 679,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 14 March 1916, p. 1.

72. Baragar to Robertson, 8 August 1916.

73. Ibid.

74. John Robertson Household, 1911 Census of Canada.

75. Peter Ward, Courtship, Love, and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century English Canada, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990, p. 174.

76. Dan Azoulay, Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930, Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press, 2011, pp. 168-170.

77. “Scene at Wedding of Miss Aldous in London, England,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 22 January 1918, p. 6; Jane Houston, an American, sailed across the sea a reported 8 times over two and a half years to try to meet up with her fiancé during brief windows of leave so that they could be married: “Sails Sea 8 times in 2-Year Pursuit of Soldier Fiancé,” The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 27 July 1918, p. 21.

78. Baragar to Robertson, 28 October 1917.

79. Baragar to Robertson, 28 March 1915.

80. Baragar to Robertson, 21 May 1915.

81. Ibid.

82. The University of Manitoba’s Overseas Correspondence Club, and references to letters from mutual friends in Fred’s letters, tell us this.

83. Baragar to Robertson, 16 March 1916.

84. Baragar to Robertson, 27 April 1916.

85. Fred Baragar graduated in 1914, William “Bill” Crummy (and his brother Richard “Dick”) graduated in 1913.

86. Baragar to Robertson, 9 June 1916.

87. Baragar to Robertson, 21 November 1916.

88. Baragar to Robertson, 29 February 1916.

89. Pat Tomczyszyn, “With Love From the Trenches: Embroidered Silk Postcards of the First World War,” Material History Review 51 (Spring 2000): pp. 43-49.

90. Baragar to Robertson, 17 March 1916.

91. Baragar to Robertson, 17 March 1916. This censorship reminder was printed on the YMCA letterhead on which this letter was written.

92. Baragar to Robertson, 12 November 1918.

93. “Alumni - Wedding Bells!”, Vox Wesleyana, vol. XXIII, no. 3 (February 1920), p. 40.

94. Frederick Baragar to Ernest Baragar, 12 November 1918; Baragar to Robertson, 12 November 1918.

Page revised: 28 February 2019