‘A Grand Day’: Dominion Day 1918

men climbing into hanging barrels
Featured Image: At the No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, near the town of Treport, Dominion Day was also raucously celebrated by those who could not make the trip to Tincques

Monday, July 1st, 1918 represented a major confluence of minor blessings for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Unable to predict that the war would be over before the closing of the year, military leaders were taking steps to ensure their forces were trained, equipped, and rested for the battles ahead. For the CEF, this meant a general retooling, replenishing of manpower, and resting throughout the summer of 1918. Dominion Day, renamed Canada Day in 1982, saw the Canadian Corps united behind the lines, relatively rested, and in good morale. This combined with high ranking officials’ recently developed appreciation for morale-boosting spectacle and games to create a massive celebration that rocked the small town of Tincques, France.

Contributing to the boisterous atmosphere of Dominion Day 1918 was a tension between relief and anxiety experienced by many Canadian Soldiers. Spring of 1918 had seen a massive German offensive that shocked and mauled British forces, including the Second Canadian Division. By July, the offensive had largely moved to French lines and was rapidly being exhausted, leaving many Canadian troops, who had fortunately avoided being sent into desperate battle, greatly relieved. However, as the Canadian Corps was trained in new, mixed-unit, fire-and-movement tactics, they understood it could only be in preparation for a new offensive. The Canadian soldiers understood that they had developed a fierce reputation for themselves and that this reputation came with responsibilities and increased risks. Thus, when Dominion Day came, with its sports competition in Tincques, many soldiers flocked to it as a last chance to celebrate with their “chums” before the hardships and inevitable mortality of campaigning resumed.

group of soldiers cheering
Figure 1: Dominion Day was a chance to rest and catch up with friends from across the Canadian Corps

As mentioned in our post on baseball at the front, getting politicians and high-ranking officers to grasp the benefits of providing leisure for soldiers at the front lines was not a simple process. By 1918, however, that lesson had been learned and internalised. As such, it was decided to mark Dominion Day of 1918 with massive festivities and sports championships. These celebrations were given further prestige with the arrival of the Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Robert Borden; Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught; General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force; and General Arthur Currie, newly promoted commander of the Canadian Corps and president of the festivities. Special air cover was provided to make sure that the Germans could not simply fly over the town and kill some of the highest-ranking individuals of the war. Alongside these VIP attendees, a further thirty to fifty thousand other people crowded into Tincques to enjoy the festivities.

two pictures of officers observing soldiers at play
Figure 2: Duke Connaught, former Governor General of Canada, and Grandson of Queen Victoria, taking a keen interest in the tug-of-war contest. Unfortunately, I could not find any photographs of the pillow fight. Here is a complete account of the activities and personnel involved in the 1918 Dominion Day Championships, including some fascinating pictures.

The Canadian Corps championships were a mammoth undertaking. The Canadian Military Engineers constructed a massive stadium to host the event. It was built to house 6000 individuals. Remarkably, most of the timber was successfully salvaged after the festivities and re-used at the front. Meanwhile, the YMCA stepped up to provide equipment, food, and drink for all the participants. They provided 50,000 cups of soft drinks for free and 5000 plates of eggs and chips at one franc apiece. In total, it is estimated that 44,563.65 francs were expended on the event.  Entertainment was also available in the form of the Dumbells, the Third Division’s famous concert party, who played all throughout the day. The day’s itinerary included the always popular baseball and European football, as well as track and field and other more seemingly silly events such as tug-of-war, and a pillow fight. In the air, some prominent Canadian pilots, including Billy Bishop, performed acrobatics for the attendees. Acting captain W. Rayner described the event as a “grand day” and went on to say, “Borden & the Duke of Connaught were there. […] I know that the little Lady [his fiancé] would have enjoyed it.  It is estimated that thee were 50000 troops there.  Saw a lot of my old pals.” The day was ended by a revue of the musical group, the Volatiles.

Aerial view of sports grounds
Figure 3: A view of the massive set-up for the sports championships at Tincques. Anywhere from thirty to fifty thousand people showed up to participate in the festivities.

While Dominion Day had been celebrated every year by Canadians at the Western Front, July 1st, 1918 was a particularly “grand day” for many Canadian soldiers. For one thing, growing awareness of Canadian identity and ideas of Canadian exceptionalism lent a patriotic fervor to the games that may have been less apparent earlier in the war when the CEF was more self-consciously British-born. It was also the mid-point of an extended retooling and training period for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, following the German spring offensive and prior to the fabled Hundred Days Campaign, which amplified the tension between high-morale and anxiety over future trials. These factors mixed to create an explosive bout of celebration in the small town of Tincques that made it unlike any other Dominion Day celebration during the First World War.

a crowd cheering an approaching horse drawn carriage
Figure 4: “A wagon load of Canadian beauties who took part in the circus” The Third Division’s “Dumbells” making a stunning entrance at Tincques. They would provide vaudeville style shows to entertain the troops all throughout the day.

By Cain Doerper

Photo Citations

Featured Image: Brooke, John Warwick (Lieutenant) “Games played during a Dominion Day sports event at No.2 Canadian General Hospital” Le Treport, France, 1 July 1918, © IWM Q 6810.

Figure 1: “Dominion Day celebration [no date], Smiths Park Lawn”, Collections CCGW/CCGG

Figure 2: Canadian Corps Championships: France Dominion Day 1918. London: Jordon-Gaskell, 1918, pg. 17.

Figure 3: “A view of the grounds from an aeroplane, Tinques. Canadian Corps Sports, France. July, 1918” Tinques, France, July 1918, Canada Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada: PA-003237, Online MIKAN no. 3385431.

Figure 4: “A wagon load of Canadian beauties who took part in the circus. Canadian Circus behind the Lines. Dominion Day, 1918. The 3rd Division concert party-the ‘Dumbells’ arriving at the Corps gathering at Tincques” Tinques, France, July 1918, Canada Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada: PA-002772, Online MIKAN no. 3522190.

Works Cited

Canadian Corps Championships : France, Dominion Day, 1918. London : Printed by Jordan-Gaskell, 1918. http://archive.org/details/canadiancorpscha00unse_0.

Cook, Tim. Shock Troops Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-18. First Printing edition. Toronto: Viking, 2008. Pg. 407.

“October 18 – Sports and the First World War – Vimy Foundation.” Vimy Foundation. Published October 18, 2018. Accessed June 22, 2020. https://www.vimyfoundation.ca/october-18-sports-and-the-first-world-war/.

Susan, “Dominion Day July 1, 1918.” The Land of Good Neighbours. Published 2012. Accessed June 21, 2020. http://www.canadaworldwarone.com/2012/07/dominion-day-july-1-1918.html.

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