Randall House Exhibit, Summer 2014 – 1914: War Comes to Wolfville
In the early 20th century, Wolfville was in a state of rapid change: the town was modernizing, physically and culturally. Wood and mud were replaced with steel, stone, and asphalt. New transportation and communication links were forged with new technologies like the railway, the automobile and the telephone; mass culture had arrived with new media like motion pictures. In this agricultural town, tradition was being transformed by the forces of modernity.
Change brought prosperity and convenience, but newly strengthened connections to the wider world made Wolfville more vulnerable to global disorder. On August 4th, 1914, Britain went to war, taking Canada along with it. Wolfville mobilized. Men–rich and poor alike–enlisted, and women stepped up to temporarily take their places. The old order of things was upset. The railway carried away Wolfville’s enlisted, as friends and family waved from the platform. For too many, it was a final farewell.
Wolfville citizens’ motivations often originated in civil society, but perhaps the deepest motivation of all was loyalty. “Social gospel” churches and organizations like the Boy Scouts and Give Service Girls encouraged their members to contribute to the war effort however they could, from enlistment to sewing clothes for Belgian orphans. When the Duke of Connaught – then Canada’s Governor General – visited the town in 1912, he was greeted enthusiastically by the town and the visit was met with acclaim from locals. In 1918, the Give Service Girls put on a parade led by “Britannia,” a club member dressed as the female personification of Great Britain. Wolfville, as part of English Canada, felt bonds to the mother country pulling them into war and dutifully – even eagerly early on – responded by signing up.
Arriving on the battlefields of continental Europe, Wolfville soldiers encountered a familiar element in an altogether unwelcome context: mud in the trenches. They were accustomed to the tidal mud flats of the Minas Basin – which then reached right through the town centre at Mud Bridge – but the mud at Passchendaele and elsewhere proved a sinister cousin, threatening much worse than a brown stain. The landscapes they fought upon were similar to those they had left behind, but deformed by battle.
Many Wolfville men went over in Nova Scotian battalions, including the 85th and 219th. During the recruitment of these battalions, their homogenous Nova Scotian composition was guaranteed and used to attract men eager to earn glory for their province, though this guarantee fell apart for the 219th before even seeing battle. Both had distinctive dress and insignia, including the red hackles of the 85th and the purple of the 219th. When the 85th did step into the fray (by then including 350 men of the 219th) it distinguished itself with courage and confidence.
When the war lasted well past its expected end while the trench mud ran red, the Canadian attitude towards the war turned grim. Recruiting efforts intensified and ruthlessly manipulated men using guilt, fear, and shame. Under immense stress, French and English Canada disagreed about Canada’s commitment to the war. The English were devoted to the cause and wanted to redouble the country’s efforts in order to ensure victory. The French were war-weary and no longer wanted to send off so many of their own to Europe. Eventually, after agonizing sacrifice from both the united English and disillusioned French constituencies of Canada, the war ended on November 11, 1918.
Wolfville in the Modern Century
Wolfville in the Modern Century
In 1914, Wolfville was a prosperous, progressive town, ever more densely interconnected with the modern world around it. It was a time of movement and of growing personal freedom: the railway, the telegraph and telephone, steamships, motor cars all sped up the pace of life in Nova Scotia and across the world. Wolfville residents travelled with ease and speed to all corners of the globe.
At the Opera House the world came to them, as the cinema brought the glamour and racy morals of Hollywood stars—including Canada’s Mary Pickford—to the heart of Wolfville’s Main Street. Long-held values of church and family competed with those of a growing, glittering mass culture.
The town looked more modern, too. Brick and stone buildings replaced familiar wooden structures. In 1912, an imposing new post office opened on Main Street, proclaiming the growing power of the Canadian federal government in its massive stonework and dignified design. In the same year, a wooden train shed on the edge of the dykelands was replaced by a busy new platform and brick station. It soon became a hub of civic life, a centre of business and stylish display. Even the town’s infamous mud was tamed by technology, as Wolfville became one of the first municipalities in Canada to pave its streets.
But the changes that made Wolfville modern made it vulnerable. Railways and steamships took young people out of the region, on one-way trips to Boston, the Canadian West, and points beyond. The town’s openness subjected it to forces beyond its control, to economic crises and political conflicts hatched in London, New York, Berlin, and Sarajevo. In August 1914, the forces that had made Wolfville vibrant and progressive led it to the brink of the costliest and most brutal war in history, a war driven by patriotism and industrial power.
A World Turned Upside Down
A World Turned Upside Down
The war came to Wolfville, as the town mobilized to support the fighting overseas. And the men and women who went to the war took Wolfville with them. The First World War was a complexly organized industrial conflict. It was also familiar and strangely intimate. Soldiers at the front wore socks knitted by women and children from their home towns. Under fire in the trenches, they ate cakes and cookies baked by their mothers thousands of miles across the ocean.
In important and lasting ways, war turned life in the town upside down. As men went off to fight, women seized new opportunities. More and more, they left familiar domestic worlds to take paid work outside their homes. Women took leadership roles in voluntary and service organizations. At the university, they became a majority of the student body, serving as editors of the school newspaper and as valedictorians. In 1917, the Military Voters Act gave the first Canadian women the right to vote in federal elections.
The war also upset established experience of privilege in the town. Men from humble homes rose to command their wealthier peers. Sons of the town’s most prosperous families enlisted as private soldiers, learning skills and doing work far outside the range of their pre-war lives. William Henry Chase Jr., scion of a prominent local apple-exporting family, enlisted to go overseas as an orderly with the Number 7 Stationary Hospital, a medical unit working a few miles behind the front lines in northern France. The life he found there was a shock.
Chase had hoped to gain experience to prepare him for university training as a doctor. He was disappointed, finding “the medical experience…not worth what one could learn in two weeks in the anatomy room at McGill.” Instead, he was ordered to perform the most menial work: hauling ashes, polishing brass, bathing injured soldiers. He watched as simple wounds, infected with the septic mud of Flanders, grew to threaten men’s lives. He was unable even to change their dressings, a task reserved for the nursing sisters who directed his work. Frustrated by unfamiliar helplessness and subordination, he found comfort in the small parts of Wolfville, the socks and cookies, that made it to the front: “You can little imagine the excitement and pleasure of opening a box from home.”
Boy Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, and the War
An extended version of the Interpretive Panel
Youth organizations in Wolfville were in their first years of existence when the First World War began. The best-known of these organizations, the Boy Scouts, was founded in April 1911 by E. Percy Brown, affectionately known as “Uncle Percy”. Brown would receive numerous honours for his work with the Scouts, including a medal for his many years of service, the Silver Wolf award, even being made a Member of the British Empire in 1935. He was prompted to create the Wolfville chapter, later registered as the 1st Wolfville Boy Scout Troop, by his son Arthur, who encountered the organization on holiday in Dartmouth.
The Scout movement had spread quickly after its founder, Lord Robert Baden-Powell, published a book called Scouting for Boys in 1908 after adapting it from an army training manual he wrote. In fact, by 1909, there were roughly one million scouts worldwide. Prior to finding his calling as founder of the Boy Scouts, Baden-Powell was hailed in England as a hero of the Boer War. During that conflict, he led the successful defense of the city of Mafeking through a 217-day siege, being outnumbered 9 to 1. During the siege, Baden-Powell conscripted boys too young to fight and used them as messengers, signallers, and first aid medics, among other similar roles. Upon returning from the war, it seems that Baden-Powell was worried about the state he found his fellow Englishmen in. Baden-Powell feared that young Englishmen were weaklings and ill-prepared for war, which he saw as imminent. Meanwhile, British youngsters had been inspired by the role their peers in Mafeking had played in their city’s defense and were already beginning to imitate them. Baden-Powell had found an itch waiting to be scratched. In 1910, he retired from the army on the advice of King Edward VII, who believed Baden-Powell could better serve his country through the Boy Scouts. In that same year, Baden-Powell toured Canada, and the first Canadian Boy Scout troop was founded in Port Morien, Nova Scotia. Baden-Powell was knighted for his services in 1928.
During the Wolfville Boy Scouts’ first year, more than thirty boys joined the organization, and two years later, in 1913, it acquired a building which would serve as Scout Hall for 57 years. When war came to Wolfville in 1914, 37 Scouts left, happily all returning. In 1918, another 30 enlisted, in addition to four Assistant Scoutmasters, leaving the troop with 97 Scouts remaining.
The first King’s Scout badge to be awarded in Nova Scotia went to Wolfville Boy Scout Morgan Tamplin in 1912. Six years later, another member of the Wolfville troop, Vincent Schofield, was awarded the same honour. By 1920, Schofield had amassed over 40 proficiency medals, more than any other Scout in Canada. Later, his impressive knowledge of natural history would earn him a full scholarship to Horton Academy, Acadia University’s predecessor.
Randall House itself has an interesting connection to the Boy Scouts. Charles Patriquin, who donated the house to the Wolfville Historical Society upon his passing in 1947, was a member of the Boy Scouts and instructed some of the boys in ornithology.
The young ladies of Wolfville had their own youth organization: the Camp Fire Girls, a voluntary association founded in Sebago Lake, Maine, in 1910. Mrs. W. T. Stackhouse desired a group similar to the Boy Scouts to be made available to her daughters and the other young girls of Wolfville. After hearing about the Camp Fire Girls of America from an American tourist, Mrs. Stackhouse became a certified Camp Fire Girls Guardian via correspondence and the club was founded in 1912. The club members chose Gluskap to be their club name, after the Mi’kmaw god. It was the club’s goal to instill certain qualities in its members and instruct them in a variety of areas, including patriotism, health, home craft, nature lore, camp craft, hand craft, and business.
On July 10th 1917, the Camp Fire Girls would be incorporated into a new club for young ladies, founded by Camp Fire Girls members: the Give Service Girls. This new club numbered sixty upon incorporation and soon counted 81 members, proudly claiming to have “all of the young ladies of Wolfville from 16 up” in the fold. The club obligated all members to complete first aid and military drill courses, labour at work “of a patriotic purpose” for 36 hours over three months, garden or raise small livestock and raise money for the Club through individual efforts and canning fruits or vegetables. Monies were also raised collectively through the operation of a tea room. Soldiers visiting from Aldershot regularly patronized the small establishment. The club donated the large part of its revenues to organizations such as the Red Cross, YMCA, and soldiers’ funds, among others. Plays were staged by the club, with its members playing most of the roles, and it was involved in numerous parades. The largest of these parades was the Victory Loans Parade of October 1918. One of its members, representing Britannia, led the parade, and many others were in the parade as well. When the war ended, the club organized an impromptu parade from Wolfville’s east end to Acadia’s campus where a short service was held. Less than a year later, the club organized its final event, a play, and disbanded soon thereafter, to be replaced by the Girl Guides.
Wolfville men and women who went overseas between 1914 and 1918 would have found the landscapes of Flanders hauntingly familiar. At home, they well knew the abrupt contrast between the muddy river at low tide and the long, ditched fields running south toward the ridge. They knew the smell of the basin at low tide, and the warm odour of manure on the fields at springtime. They took this sense experience of place with them to the front.
Overseas, they would have seen degraded images of home in the devastated battleground landscapes. There, lives were likewise structured between trenches and dykes, flat plains and tactically vital ridges. Vimy was such a ridge, as was Passchendaele. At home they climbed the ridge for picnics, for the view across to Blomidon and the Cobequids, for unsupervised fun. At the front, they advanced up ridges against storms of bullets and jagged shrapnel. Many never made it to the top.
Passchendaele featured what must have been the most obscene mud in all of history. It was churned and re-churned by years of fruitless combat. Men sank in it and were never seen again. As Wolfville’s people fought and were maimed and killed in these landscapes of war they would have been reminded of home, of the sweetness of the place they left behind, and that many never saw again.
Histories of the 85th and 219th Nova Scotia Highland Battalions
An extended version of the Interpretive Panel
In the fall of 1915, the idea of a Nova Scotian battalion to fight overseas – the 85th Nova Scotia Highland Battalion – was approved. The idea’s originator was Lieut.-Col. A. H. Borden, who handpicked the unit’s officers and exploited provincial pride to fill the ranks quickly – recruitment was finished in under a month. This success spurred the creation of the Nova Scotian Highland Brigade, the fastest-recruited Brigade in the country. After training at Aldershot, the 85th Highlanders sailed for England the Olympic, sister ship of the Titanic, on Friday the 13th of October 1916. Before even seeing combat, the 85th was referred to as “the flower of Nova Scotia’s manhood” and a British officer called it “the finest body of troops sent over from Canada.” Before crossing the Channel in February, the 85th added 350 men from the 219th. The unit fought at many battles, including Vimy, Lens, Passchendaele, Amiens, and Cambrai, among others. By November 1918, reinforcements had brought the total membership to 2603. During the course of the war 2337 casualties were suffered within the unit. 584 died. Members of the 85th earned 259 honours and awards for their services. Perhaps the sweetest reward of all was to return safe. When the 85th arrived back in Halifax on 8 June 1919, it was welcomed home by 60 000 people.
In the wake of the success of the recruitment of the 85th, a Nova Scotian Highland Brigade was formed, with its constituent battalions to include the 85th, 185th, 193rd, and 219th. The recruiting tour for the 219th, led by Lieut.-Col. A.H. Borden, started in Lunenburg in late February 1916 and finished roughly two weeks later in Wolfville. After training at Aldershot, the battalion was sent to Britain on the Olympic with the 85th. While waiting to sail for France, orders came through, despite protests on the part of the battalion’s officers, that the 219th was to be broken up. 350 went to the 85th, 115 went to France to supplement units there, while the remainder were absorbed into the 17th, a reserve battalion. This marked the end of the 219th, though some of its members continued wearing their distinctive purple hackles.
Stories of the 85th and 219th
In September 1916, the men of the 219th were informed that they were to leave Camp Aldershot without any time to say goodbye. Having expected “farewell leave,” the soldiers flaunted orders, ignored cordons, and bicycled, rode and walked to see their families and friends, many of whom lived nearby. After a short period of uncertainty, the men returned in full force.
The first casualty of the 219th almost came as a result of a fire in Halifax. A burned body was found, presumed to be a member of the battalion, and given a full military funeral, complete with firing party. The supposedly dead man walked into the barracks days later, having thoroughly enjoyed his leave, which happily had not included a visit to the grave. The identity of the deceased remains a mystery.
Opening the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a deafening hour and forty minutes of artillery fire landing six million shells, with the Germans responding in kind. The exchange was heard in England. Despite the shelling, Hill 145 – “’a pivotal strategic stronghold’” – could not be taken and it was decided fresh men were needed. Originally designated a working unit (to see combat only in emergencies) due to a lack of experience, the 85th was called upon. Prior to the battle’s start, Borden and his officers had elected to prepare the unit to fight, which proved a wise decision. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies were chosen to assault the enemy position with Captain Percival Anderson in command. At the last minute it was decided that no artillery barrage was to precede the advance, as it would endanger the Canadians. ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies could not be informed of this in time. When zero hour came, they went over the top surprised but unhesitating. The two “green” but well-trained companies held steady in the face of heavy machine gun fire from concealed nests and rifle fire from trenches. The unwavering steadiness of the 85th, in spite of their inexperience, “amazed” and “disconcerted” the Germans, who ran, giving up Hill 145. According to one officer of the 85th, “[t]he very audacity of their demeanor was one of the greatest factors in their success.” Sadly, audacity cannot heal wounds, and this great strategic victory came with dire human consequences. “[O]ver twenty-five percent” of the 85th were casualties by the end of the battle, with 56 killed in battle and “many more” dying of their wounds thereafter.
The captains of the companies that took Hill 145 both showed their mettle at Vimy. Captain Harvey Crowell, commanding ‘C’ Company, was badly wounded just after going over the top, but continued to rally and order his men onward. He stayed until Hill 145 was taken, only allowing his wound to be dressed when so ordered. He then tried to return to his men but was “collared by the Medical Officer and sent to the hospital.” Capt. Percival Anderson of ‘D’ Company earned the Military Cross for his part. The moans of an injured compatriot stranded in No Man’s Land were heard while German machine gunners and infantry raked the mud with bullets. Capt. Anderson, unable to risk anyone else’s life in good conscience, went over the top himself and dragged his comrade back to relative safety while bullets rained down around them. Anderson, after being made Major, died at Passchendaele months later.
At Passchendaele, Captain Ross MacKenzie, commanding ‘D’ Company, volunteered to reinforce a retreating Canadian battalion. He ordered his men to “drop all kit . . . equip bayonets, and advance in true Highland fashion.” They charged at the Germans, who were so bewildered and frightened, they panicked and retreated. Casualties were many, and Capt. MacKenzie was shot in the abdomen. Some claimed he was “riddled” with bullets. Despite this wound, he rose and continued to direct his men, encouraging them even after collapsing from exhaustion. He refused medical assistance, instructing medics to help others instead. He was, at last, carried away, but died soon after.
The Strain of War
As the conflict ground on for months and then years, Wolfville’s enthusiasm was replaced by a grim need to carry the war through to the end. Young people were killed overseas, in growing numbers. More than one hundred men and two women from Wolfville, Acadia University, and Horton Academy died in the war. In a small town, no-one was untouched by untimely death. Veterans returned home, terribly injured by their experience. It became more difficult to see the conflict as a romantic adventure, or a noble crusade. Fewer men volunteered to take the place of those who could no longer fight.
Continuing the war in Europe meant sustaining the will to fight at home. Social pressure to enlist, to produce more, to volunteer more, was heightened by the desire to end the war soon. Recruiting became more intense and forceful. Acadia president George Cutten recruited by rail through western Nova Scotia, from Lunenburg around to Wolfville, preaching the justness of the Allied fight for democracy at every stop, urging men to join it.
Recruiting posters shamed men into enlisting. They played on guilt and fear. They appealed to the need to push forward advances made early in the war. But advances soon bogged down in immobile trench warfare. Each side pounded the other with explosive shells, machine guns, poison gas. Stalemate prevailed for years on end. The French and Belgian countryside was churned into a terrible, pocked landscape of mud, wire, and wreckage. The army’s strength was sapped as men were killed, wounded, worn out.
In 1917, the government of Grand Pré-born Prime Minister Robert Laird Borden adopted extreme measures. The War Measures Act, passed in 1914, had replaced parliamentary government with rule by cabinet decree. It suspended basic civil liberties. Now the government would force Canadian men to serve in the army. Conscription would provide the soldiers needed to finish the war. Many, especially in Quebec, resisted conscription. The nation split along lines of language and ethnicity. Borden’s Union Government brought English-Canadians together, across party lines, to compel a weary country to keep fighting.