The business of war: Canadian businesses and the First World War

[Lyman Tube and Supply Co. Roll of Honour],[c1919], Collections CCGW/CCGG
[Lyman Tube and Supply Co. Roll of Honour],[c1919], Collections CCGW/CCGG
Waging total war takes an enormous toll not only on a country’s population, but its industry and economy as well. The First World War was the first such modern war; a conflict that dominated all aspects of life in the participating countries for almost 5 years and continued to affect how they would be governed and how individuals would live their lives for years afterwards. Canada, though the country did not see war on its own soil, was no different. Formally a dominion of the British Empire, Canada was obliged to participate in the conflict that Britain had entered and just days after the declaration of war set about mobilising soldiers, medical care and supplies for a war in Europe.

Like many of the Canadian population, Canadian businesses where anxious to contribute to the war effort. Some of this desire is certainly profit-driven; contracts to supply the fledgling CEF with the clothing, equipment, food and weapons needed were lucrative. The Ross Rifle Co. received an 18 million dollar subsidy to supply its rifles to the CEF. In total over a billion dollars in contracts were developed to companies to provide supplies by Sam Hughes and the Imperial Munitions Board of Canada. Companies that participated in the contract system made millions and as the war dragged on and scandals plagued the Munitions Board many were derided as war profiteers. Hughes himself was removed from his position in 1916 and replaced by Joseph Flavelle, who also came under fire for making millions from supplying pork to the British at hugely inflated prices. However, none of this changed the fact that Canada had a huge civilian army to feed and supply thousands of miles away, and the modern defense contract was born.

However, Canadian businesses did not just work with the Munitions Board of Canada, many took opportunities offered by other members of the Triple Alliance or sold directly to Britain. Europe quickly found that it needed thousands of tons of imported supplies, particularly in countries like France whose northern heartland was under occupation, and Britain, which simply could not supply both the home front and the war from its small land base. The Hudson’s Bay Company owned one of the largest private commercial fleets in the world at that time and was engaged by the French government as its chief shipping agent for the duration of the war. The HBC transported thousands of tons of Canadian grain and meat to France, as well as weapons to Russia and supplies to Belgium. Joseph Flavelle’s William Davis Company sold pork directly to the British government for the duration of the war, earning massive profits.

In addition to participating in wartime work, Canadian businesses also took part in the patriotic and recruitment movement. Companies encouraged their employees to raise money for the war effort, and some companies, like Eaton’s continued to support their enlisted employees overseas. The company director, Sir John Craig Eaton, also donated 100 000$ of his own money to equip a motor machine gun battery, later known as the Eaton Battery, with armoured motor trucks. After the war had finished, companies were also participants in the movement to memorialise Canada’s war dead; Ogilvy’s department store in Montreal commissioned a bronze plaque in the memory of its war dead, and the Ganong family, owners of Ganong Bros. Limited, donated land and money to build a war memorial in their home town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick.

Canadian companies fulfilled a variety of roles during Canada’s wartime. They participated in official government efforts to supply the CEF and later the Canadian Corps, often making a significant profit in the process, as well as in an international capacity providing supplies to other Allied nations. Aside from the obvious business aspect of the war, companies also played key roles in recruitment activities, providing money to outfit units or support for the members of their staff who enlisted to serve. They also participated in commemorative activities after the war, both for their own employees and for the communities where they were based. Though the vision of commercial involvement in the war is usually portrayed as corrupt and inefficient, Canadian commercial participation is actually much more diverse. Much like Canada’s population, Canada’s companies all have their own story to tell about their wartime experience.


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