Alberta In The Great War

Although I learned about The First World War in secondary school, I don’t remember much about it beyond the Schlieffen Plan and trench warfare. Somehow it never captured my imagination in the same way as The Second World War.

However, I’ve recently been soaking up all the recent TV programmes and documentaries which have been made to mark the 100th anniversary since the The Great War’s outbreak. And the more I learn, the more I want to learn. So when I discovered the Military Museum here in Calgary was offering a lecture to introduce their temporary exhibition, Albertans in The Great War, I was in there like a dirty shirt.

Here are a few tidbits I learned.

alberta map for blogIn 1914, Alberta, as a province in Canadian Confederation, was only 9 years old with a population of 470,000. (Canada’s total population was 7.9million.) During the war, Alberta sent 49,000 men, between the ages of 18-34, to serve overseas. Only Ontario and Manitoba sent more in sheer numbers, but the proportion of men Alberta sent was the highest in Canada.

The majority of Albertan men served in the infantry on The Western Front, but a few joined the navy or the RFC serving at sea (obviously!) or in Palestine, Siberia and at Gallipoli. Supporting units included Artillery Batteries, Cyclist(!), Tunnelling and Railways companies. Medical, engineering, veterinary, supply, forestry and machine gun personnel. (The aim of the bicycle units had been to get the infantry up to the front fast, but were essentially useless in the chewed up battlefields of The Western Front. They did come into their own at the end of 1918 when the front line moved to areas where the roads remained intact.)

During the war, Alberta became the largest exporter of wheat and timber, the 3rd largest exporter of beef, and sent over ½ million horses overseas. The province also raised $42million ($1 billion in 2014 dollars) to war relief efforts such as The Red Cross, The Canadian Patriotic Fund, The Belgium Relief Fund and the YMCA amongst others.

Sam Steele, a hero of The March West, The Riel Rebellion and The Boer War, volunteered to serve, but was officially too old for the armed forces.  However he received special dispensation to help train the men here in Alberta and accompany them to Britain. Once there, the men received further training under Steele, but Steele then had to relinquish command when the troops were sent to the Western Front. His forage cap is part of the current exhibition.

The lecturer told a great story of pilots in the RFC who, after they had destroyed a target (eg ammunition dump/ train) would then land their planes beside the target, collect a souvenir (eg empty shell casing/letter from the engine) then take off again. Apparently one pilot returned with a sack full of mementoes.

And what do you do if you’re caught in a chlorine gas attack and have no gas mask to hand? Urinate into your handkerchief and hold it against your face.

These are just a fraction of the stories told during the current exhibition. It’s on until December 15th.  If you live in Alberta and have an interest in our province’s role during the conflict, I highly recommend you check it out.

 

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