When the First World War broke out in August 1914, men kissed their sweethearts goodbye and promised to be home by Christmas.
There were heartfelt goodbyes and reassurances among sweethearts that in six months they would continue their relationship where it had left off as if nothing had happened when they returned. Some couples immediately married before the men headed off to Europe, but most couples felt this to be unnecessary. One former student wrote to his girlfriend,
“I was surprised to hear of the many weddings among M.A.C. [Manitoba Agricultural College] people, I did not know that Salkeld & Miss Park were even thinking of such a step.”1
They believed their partners would return soon. As the war extended into 1915, and then 1916, for many Canadians, these pre-war romantic relationships began to falter.
Trench romance was extremely difficult for Canadians. Canadians were lucky if their letters reached Montreal or Toronto 14 days after they were sent, and from there it might be another two weeks before the letters reached anywhere else in Canada.2 As the war went on, Canadian’s letters often failed to reach their partners at all, since the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare affected Entente shipping crossing the ocean. Additionally, soldier’s letters were carefully censored to ensure no secret information was being given away. This meant that soldiers often felt they could not be very romantic in a letter because they were embarrassed about who might read it. George Timmins wrote to his wife apologizing for his letters that he feared were
“as unemotional as a schoolboys essay on horticulture,” explaining “that its not the lack of love on my part, but fear of the eye of the — censor.” 3
The other major difficulty was that while 89% of Canadians were literate when the war broke out, there was a specific etiquette to letter writing that working class Canadians had not been trained in. 4 They could write, but not well, and they often struggled to express their feelings to partners. Due to these three factors, trench letters seriously strained relationships, as partners back home were often upset by the frequency of letters and how unemotional they were. David Mclean wrote to his wife in early 1917, noting
“Well I haven’t got any letters from you tonight yet Mr. Grant gets his all right but none for me so after this I will just write to you when you write to me. I suppose you people over in Canada have such a ﬁne time you never think of those that are out here putting up with all those hardships for them but never mind after the war things will be different. We will look after ourselves ﬁrst so goodbye.”5
For Canadian soldiers, there were also opportunities for relationships while in Europe. Lonely Canadian men often tried to spend time with local French or Belgian girls on their days out of the trench. Ultimately though, only a few hundred marriages resulted from these relationships, partially due to the language barrier, and partially due to the fact that superior officers had the right to deny a couple the right to marry if they wished. Additionally, while soldiers did spend about 30% of their time billeted in villages behind the trenches, they rarely found themselves in the same village twice, meaning they lacked the time to sufficiently build up a relationship. 6
There were however several thousand marriages between Canadians and British women throughout the war. There was no language barrier, a similar culture, and Canadian soldiers usually spent their longer leaves in London. One soldier, Lieutenant Bert Drader told his aunt that
“it would take about three months to see all through the place, and it don’t make any difference which way you turn, the girls are as thick as mosquitoes and quite as affectionate.” 7
Even for soldiers who safely survived the war, got married, and returned to live in Canada, life after the war was hard, and their relationships often suffered as a result. Many soldiers returned from the war with heavy drinking problems, smoking problems, and it is estimated that at least 15,000 Canadian soldiers returned to Canada with serious shell shock. 8 This group’s nerves were so frayed that they were lucky if they were able to hold down a job. One example is Bert Mason, a veteran who was addicted to alcohol, and went from farm job to farm job until his wife grew tired of him and returned with their daughter to her family in Britain. 9 Veteran’s inability to recover fully from the war was hard as their wives never truly understood the horror they had lived through.
Finally, a significant number of soldiers simply deserted their wives or girlfriends after the war, leaving them to fend for themselves. While before 1914, divorce was almost unheard of in Canada, with only 11 divorces having been approved in 1900, in 1919 the Senate approved 55 divorces, and another 98 in 1920. Prairie Provinces also won the right to hear divorce petitions in provincial courts, and there were 112 Albertan divorces in 1920, and 42 in Manitoba. It also should be noted that in 1920, 1,100 divorces had been filed in Manitoba, the provincial court simply rejected most of them.10 Ultimately, though the First World War created the opportunities for some British and Canadian couples to form who would not have met otherwise, the war resulted in a decrease of happy relationships.
- Dan Azoulay, Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930. (University of Calgary Press, 2011), 168.
- Martha Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights : Canadian war wives during the Great War. (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020), 6.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 67.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 235.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 62.
- Tim Cook, At The Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916. (Viking Canada, 2007), 382.
- Azoulay, Canadian Romance, 189.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 157.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 154.
- Hanna, Anxious days and tearful nights, 181.
Written by: Catherine Rudnicki