Manitoba History: Winnipeg: 1914-1918 and Beyond

by Alan Mason
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 87, Summer 2018

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 As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Books on the First World War, extensive though they may be in number, rarely deal with what was happening at home, where home might be behind the lines in Europe, both the Eastern and Western Fronts, as well as in allied countries not in Europe. Recent publications are beginning to give us those valuable insights as to how life continued whilst the men and women were away. Obviously, the impact would be felt emotionally wherever one lived, but the economic impact would certainly vary between city, town, village, or hamlet. Research into personal letters, postcards, telegrams, newspapers, and archives starts to give us an insight as to how life went on, how people coped, how they dealt with loss, and how the war gave rise to necessary socio-economic shifts. Jim Blanchard’s book Winnipeg’s Great War: A City Comes of Age is a valuable addition to any First World War library. The city quickly become aware of the enthusiasm that the declaration of war generated, and the equal enthusiasm with which large numbers of men eagerly volunteered for the army. If they could have imagined the Armageddon that they were going to venture into their enthusiasm might have been tempered somewhat.

There were, of course, clues, but these seem to have been deliberately ignored by the leading allied generals of the time. Less than seventy years separated 1914 from the Crimean War, 1853–1856, and the American Civil War, 1861–1865. The former clearly pointed to the need for serious reform in the whole British military structure, and this, to a point, had been implemented by 1914. What lesson had not seemingly been absorbed was the one that should have been learnt from the Second Boer War, 1899–1902, and that was what modern fire power could do. It should also be noted that many of the senior military officers in 1914 were Boer War Veterans. The efficacy of firepower had clearly been demonstrated at such battles as Omdurman in 1898, where a mixed British, Egyptian, Sudanese force of some 25,000 men, achieved, with the help of modern technology, a decisive victory over the Mahdi’s force of some 50,000, killing some 12,000, and injuring another 13,000 while losing only 47 or 48 dead and some 382 wounded. Again, if we look at the American Civil War battles of Shiloh in 1862, where nearly 24,000 were killed and wounded, and Antietam, aka Sharpsburg in 1862, where losses just under 23,000 were suffered, we can see that there was clear evidence as to what modern firepower can do. One only needs to stand on the ridge at Gettysburg and gaze quietly and respectfully across that open land until one reaches the tree line on the other side to wonder at the courage and tenacity of the men who were part of Picket’s fateful charge on that third day. And, finally, consideration of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870–1871 will again corroborate the above and point out the dangers. Clearly, tactics have not developed alongside technology. Whether or not the young men that happily marched down Portage Avenue and Main Street were aware of the above will probably never be known, but it is unlikely.

The need to go to war, and the necessity of such a war, has been endlessly debated and the question of whether or not it could have been avoided will probably never be decided. What we do know is that once the war started the progress seemed unstoppable, especially with regards to the Western Front where the Schlieffen Plan was slowly unfolding.

The plan had its ancient origins in Italy near the Adriatic Sea. There, on 2 August 216 BCE, Hannibal inflicted a massive and bloody defeat on a Roman army. His tactic, known as the double envelopment or pincer movement, changed how warfare was conducted. Here was the way to not only defeat your opponent, but to also annihilate him. It is most certainly a risky manoeuvre, but one that could pay enormous dividends if it came off. Hannibal was victorious, but Rome did not do what Hannibal probably expected them to do, sue for peace, but chose to continue the war by using Fabian tactics. In the end, the victory counted for nothing and Hannibal met his end at Zama in 202 BCE. The Second Punic War was over, and so, eventually, was the future of Carthage, but the memory of Hannibal is still with us as one of the great generals of history.

Let us now move forward to the late 1800s, and slowly wend our way back to our province. But first, we need to acquaint ourselves with the impact of Cannae on German military thinking. Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (1833–1913), a German Field Marshall, a military strategist of note, and a member of the Imperial German General Staff (1891–1906) is now probably known to most people because the name is attached to what most people have come to know as the Schlieffen Plan, the plans for what would happen in the event of war. It was not unusual for European countries in the 19th century to have contingency plans, but Germany’s was a thoroughly researched document that Schlieffen had spent a considerable amount of time researching, reviewing, and revising. The origin of the idea behind the plan can, in part, be attributed to Hannibal’s strategy at Cannae, hence our link. This, in Schlieffen’s eyes, may be the answer to a future war with France, always a possibility after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War, and the possibility of war with both France and Russia, and, maybe, also involving Great Britain. The problem was how to effectively and efficiently deliver a swift blow, and here geography and statehood posed problems, and, if possible, to avoid a two-front war. Therefore, numerous considerations had to be accommodated, some of which were the distances involved, the number of troops to be committed, the risk of violating borders, namely those of Belgium, logistics, including food, transportation, and ammunition, and the speed with which all the aforementioned could be mobilized and be ready for attack and/or defence.

What has happened over the years since the First World War is that Schlieffen has been attributed with more than he would concur with. The war plan that was used in late 1914, did not have the number of troops available that Schlieffen thought were necessary, namely about 1.36 million men as opposed to what was actually available which was roughly 970,000. The General Staff were well aware that, due to the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904–1905, Russian military reforms had been taking place which, in part due to an improvement in railway connections that were generously financed by the French, would lessen Russian mobilization time and would therefore put pressure on Germany to quickly resolve one front or the other. What has transpired is something of a misreading or misunderstanding of the plan. Schlieffen wrote in terms of the defensive-offensive, namely recognition, following Clausewitzian thinking, that a general must know when the shift occurs between offensive power and defensive power. An offensive movement by German troops would necessarily have to deal with powerful military locales, as well as geographic ones such as lakes, rivers, and hills. A good general needed to be clearly aware of the implications of these, as well as the level of human endurance required to achieve success over them.

As we know, neither front was resolved, although the Eastern Front, much more mobile than the Western, was somewhat neutralized by the Battle of Tannenberg, 26–30 August 1914, when Russian forces were decisively defeated by actions that certainly could claim a resemblance to the tactics at Cannae. The Western Front, soon to become all too familiar to young Canadian men, was caused, in part, by trying to do too much with too little. This is somewhat simplistic in its simplicity, but human endurance is hard to measure, and the best battle plan cannot rely on the enemy to comply with it. Consequently, from late 1914 to November 1918, millions of young men would find themselves up to their knees in mud and blood, and did doubtlessly give frequent thought as to why they were there and why nobody seemed to know how to resolve the seemingly never-ending conflict.

Manitoba’s soldiers returned as men inured to the miseries of trenches, traumatized by the horrors that they had endured, with injuries both physical and mental. And in painfully large numbers, many never returned, causing misery that we may not be able to comprehend. Thoughts of empire and glory, as espoused by Rupert Brooke amongst others, were, when put alongside the poetic reminiscences of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, probably of little comfort when families had nothing to mourn over except letters, postcards, and photographs. The lack of tangibility was, in its own way, yet one more sorrow to endure. What could be done to help ameliorate that sorrow?

Memorials for the fallen are dotted all over the battlefields of the Western Front. Doubtless we have all seen or visited the Menin Gate Memorial, gazed reflectively at the 54,896 names that are engraved upon it, have done the same at Vimy, and maybe also at the Brooding Soldier Memorial erected to commemorate Canadian victims of mustard gas attacks. We may also have reflected upon Will Longstaff’s harrowing painting of the Menin Gate at Midnight. But these are a continent or more away; so, even though they are powerful expressions of loss they are not necessarily tangible to us. Therefore, understandably, we look closer to home. Travels throughout our province will reveal many city, town, and village memorials. In the community of Alexander west of Brandon, we read “Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten. 1914–1919.” It was erected by the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire at Alexander. Then there is the memorial in Kelwood on Highway 5 that lists fifteen names below the statue of a young man looking out towards the horizon with a look of modest optimism, or the one at the ghost town of Polonia, where the name of George Kolesar, d. 02.06.1916, is listed, and below that possibly a relative, Charles Kolesar, d. 23.08.1946.

The appearance of the statuary is important because, to the best of my knowledge, they reflect optimism, perhaps because sorrow and sadness were already there in intangible form and nobody would wish a memorial to reflect that the departed had done so for a cause that did not, in some form or another, have some optimism attached to it. Otherwise, the sense of loss would merely be amplified by the feeling of wastage for a useless cause.

Today those names are noted by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, or maybe by no relative at all. But they are noted, and that is what is important, as are our official moments of memory, because their contribution, in the vast majority by volunteers, not only changed what was happening in Europe—and it is no exaggeration to state that the value of the contribution of our soldiers far outweighed our numbers—but also, irrevocably, changed our own country and, of course, our province. A country, or a province, cannot lose the numbers that we did without changes occurring. There was the loss of thousands of talented young men, the enduring pain of both physical and mental injury, the enormous contribution that women made, ably noted by Jim Blanchard in his book, the political changes that were coming for women, and the emergence of our country onto the world stage as a country in its own right and not as an ex-colony. It is sad that we have to take pride in loss, but that does not diminish the value of that pride. It becomes an indelible part of our history, and it is a history that we, in the Manitoba Historical Society, can support by our studies and research, and by our recognition, through both photographs and the written word, of the enduring importance of what ended 100 years ago this year.

Finally, a personal reminiscence that happened to me in England some sixty-one years ago. I used to happily spend my holidays with my grandparents, both born in Queen Victoria’s time, both staunch monarchists, both imperialists, and both staunch conservatives. Their influence on me was considerable, not only in what they stood for, but for what they encouraged, namely the value of education and the importance of reading as much as possible. I was happy with both ideals and can recall, with reference to the latter one, that the first real history book that I ever had was a gift from them entitled Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall (1908). The title tells all, and, as a book for young readers, it did offer a somewhat biased view of its subject. Empire as such came home to me during my twelfth year when my grandfather and I had cause to visit a beautiful stately home in the New Forest that, since the end of the First World War, had been used as a rest home for injured soldiers. My grandfather went ahead of me and returned to tell me that I could not go into the building. I waited in the car until he returned, having finished his business there. He then explained in halting voice, he too being a veteran of the war, why I could not enter. Inside were 840-odd men who had been there for at least forty years. They were so horribly damaged, both physically and mentally, that it was decided that they could never re-enter society in a safe and secure way. What that reminds us of is that the casualty list most certainly did not finish on 11 November 1918. It was still with us and growing some forty years later.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 April 2021