Waiting behind: Canadian mothers, wives and families during World War I

[Canadian Service Flag], 1917. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2014.01.24.01
[Canadian Service Flag], 1917. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2014.01.24.01
The First World War produced an enormous amount of documentary evidence of the typical soldier’s experience at the front, in the form of letters, diaries, and after the war, the many memoirs that were published. An experience that is harder to pin down was that of the family members left behind, who had to continue their day to day lives with the knowledge that one of their own was in danger far away. Vera Brittain describes the agony of waiting for news and “the long, long weary months ahead, & wonder[ing] how I shall ever bear them…” (Berry and Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A life,74). For those waiting at home, the war would be many long, weary months. 

Before women were actively drawn into the labour force during the war (and those mostly working class), they were encouraged to contribute to the war effort through volunteering (see this Wartime Canada essay for a more detailed analysis of volunteerism during the war). Groups like the IODE (the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire) and the Women’s Canadian Club organized Belgian relief funds, knitted socks, and packed Red Cross parcels for prisoners of war. For a middle class woman, who was relatively well-off and not expected to work, volunteering was a way to participate in the mobilisation of Canadian society towards the war.

Like the Service on the Front pins, which identified those who had served in the CEF while in plainclothes, the women of Canada also devised their own ways to recognize their service and those of their families. The flag shown above, a Canadian Service Flag, was modelled on the American “service at the front” flag, which was made available for the first time in 1917 when the United States entered the war.

The responsibility of the Women’s War Committee in Ottawa, the Canadian version first appeared in 1917, and was to be hung in the front window of any family that had members serving on the front. The green maple leaves shown here mean that this household had three family members serving, all of whom were still alive. A red maple leaf meant that a member of the family had died in service.

An editorial in the Toronto Star dated April 17, 1918 notes that “these little flags will be mute, but eloquent evidence of the fact that we are one people, and that far more home in Toronto are sharing the hopes and anxieties of the war than anyone had supposed” (full article here).

As we can see, the flag was seen as a way to bind people together, and to draw attention to the contribution of specific families to the war effort. However, it also speaks of the community left behind by those who went to Europe to serve, who had no other way to acknowledge their own contribution (because surely sending your family members to war is also a contribution) other than this little flag.



5 thoughts on “Waiting behind: Canadian mothers, wives and families during World War I

  1. The volunteer contribution to the war effort was nothing short of astounding. Editors Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw touch on some aspects in A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War. But I had never heard of the Canadian Service Flags. Thanks for another informative post.


    1. Thank you for your comment! There is a study being done by someone at the Canadian War Museum regarding the use of these flags, we’re really looking forward to seeing the results.


  2. What a great article. The Canadian Service flags are quite rare, our museum has only two replicas. Settlers, Rails & Trails Inc. (museum in Argyle, Manitoba) is home to the 2nd largest flag collection in the nation. The famous Canadian Flag Collection contains over 1,300 flags of our national historic, corporate, regional, sport and special events. http://www.settlersrailsandtrails.com


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