After the War

Coming Home and Fitting in at the End of the Great War

After the Armistice in 1918, the journey home for Canadian war veterans was far from over. They now faced returning to their country, their society, and their families after up to 5 years spent in unimaginably violent and harsh conditions. The challenge of successfully reintegrating, caring for, and supporting these veterans would change Canadian society forever.

It was a daunting task; more than 170,000 soldiers were injured during the course of the war, many with injuries that prevented their return to regular work; an estimated 60,000 suffering or having suffered from venereal disease; and 12% of the force reporting some kind of war related mental illness or strain[1]. Their successful reintegration required significant investment, not only from private beneficent societies, but from the federal government, which did so on an unprecedented scale.

The exhibition After the War: Coming Home and Fitting in at the End of the Great War looks at the efforts made by Canadian society to provide support to the over 600,000 members of their population, and their families, who had fought, and in some cases died for their country in the largest military engagement Canada had experienced. By considering reintegration through several lenses, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue will provide insight into the task facing Canadians.

Coming Home

The first task facing the Canadian Corps on November 12, 1918 was successfully demobilising their force of soldiers and non-permanent army personnel. There were approximately 275,000 active soldiers abroad in January 1919, and after 5 years of war they wanted to get home as quickly as possible. However, their desires clashed with the reality of the situation; firstly, Canada and the Allies remained officially at war with Germany, the Armistice was temporary and not a signed peace agreement. Secondly, Canada had enough shipping to transport only 5,000 people a week[2].

Demobilisation was performed in stages, with soldiers waiting in camps in England until they could sail. By the summer of 1919, most had returned to Canada, and to the expectation that they would be able to re-start their civilian lives. During the period of waiting they needed to be kept busy and out of trouble. One of the civilian organisations that provided significant support for the waiting troops was the Canadian YMCA.

Fifth and Seventh Batteries, CFA, arriving in Montreal PQ for demobilization, 1919. Dept. Of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-022997

The YMCA had been actively serving the Canadian army population since 1914, providing lodging, entertainment, and comforts like hot coffee and tea to soldiers on the front lines in France. In 1919, to combat the problems posed by low morale amongst the waiting soldiers, the YMCA worked to provide even more opportunities for them to be active, with sports tournaments, library services, movie screenings, and educational programming. In fact, 1919 was the YMCA’s busiest year during the war[4].

Another organisation tailored to the needs of soldiers was the Khaki University, begun as the University of Vimy Ridge in 1917 by an army chaplain, Edmund Henry Oliver. With support from Colonel Gerald Birks, Henry Marshall Tory, and Arthur Currie, the program became the Department of Education Services in the Overseas Forces of Canada, the Khaki University of Canada, and provided soldiers with an opportunity to start or even finish an education that had been halted by the war.

With funding raised by the YMCA for books and materials, the university provided “instruction of Canadian soldiers in all subjects other than those which form part of their actual military training.[5]” In January 1919, close to 15,000 students were enrolled in programs, ranging from elementary to university level, and placed in classrooms throughout England[6]. The success of the Khaki University inspired several other Allied forces to form their own educational initiatives. Many graduates of the program went on to have distinguished post-war careers, and for those whose access to education as children was limited, the Khaki University’s mandate to include all levels of education meant that they returned to Canada with the skills to improve their conditions, namely reading and writing.

Despite these programs and initiatives, the responsibility of the Canadian Corps towards their soldiers ended at demobilisation; when a soldier had officially handed in their uniform and equipment, they ceased to be the direct concern of the army. At this point, with the now veteran soldier at home in Canada, their success in civilian life depended on a much wider range of disparate groups and services, all of whom hoped to help smooth the transition.

Community Organisation and Activism

When it formed in 1917, one of the tasks of the Great War Veterans’ Association was “To perpetuate the close and kindly ties of mutual service in the Great War, the recollections and associations of that experience and to maintain proper standards of honor and dignity between all returned soldiers.[7]” Veterans’ organisations not only brought together groups of like minded individuals, they also provided a critical voice in raising veterans’ issues with their respective local governments.

When Eric Hollis, a disabled veteran and former private with the 7th Battalion, committed suicide after being sentenced to prison for vagrancy, it was the Great War Veterans’ Association that delivered a public statement asking “why this man was not properly cared for” and calling for improved long term care for disabled servicemen[8]. Hollis had been seriously wounded in the shoulder in 1916, which left him unable to perform manual labour. A fisherman before the war, Hollis was arrested for vagrancy and, as noted above, committed suicide after the verdict was given.

[Membership card] Great War Veterans’ Association of Canada  [no date], Canadian Centre for the Great War

Hollis was not an isolated case. For many, particularly those in the working classes whose war injuries prevented their return to manual labour, the years after the war were difficult ones. Soldiers’ organisations, like the battalion associations, the GWVA, and various other groups, provided a space for veterans to be with other veterans, help finding work, and a voice. The GWVA in particular was very active politically, advocating for lump sum payments for returning soldiers, and pensions for life.

In 1925, fifteen veterans’ groups joined together to form the Canadian Legion of the British Empire Service League, with the hope that having a single veterans’ organisation would make their voice stronger. The Royal Canadian Legion, as it is known today, continues to be a voice for veterans, and still follows a mandate that would be recognisable to the veterans who founded it.

Other groups like the Salvation Army, provincial Soldiers’ Aid Commissions worked to provide vocational training, medical aid, and shelter to veterans who needed it. Job training and employment services were particularly important, since veterans who were not disabled did not receive a pension. There was little time given to make the transition, and the goal of most was to find work as soon as possible, which was not easy in the post-war Canadian economy.

Injuries and Disability

Of the returning soldiers, the 170,000 wounded posed a particular problem for the army and the Canadian government. The question of what exactly these soldiers were owed, and how it should be delivered was debated many times in the years after the war. “Invalided” soldiers, those who could not be rehabilitated for return to active service, had been shipped to Canada since 1915, and had already been receiving pensions upon their release from the army[9].

Created alongside the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment in 1917, the Board of Pensions Commissioners for Canada was responsible for the assignment and paying out of pensions to the disabled. Pensions were based on a degree of disability, and not based on pre-war earnings or “variation of rank”.[10] The goal of the Board was to provide support until a veteran could return to work and earn for themselves, hence pensions were reviewed regularly.

For veterans in need of long-term institutional care, there was still a large burden placed on families to take care of their own. According to a National Committee for Mental Hygiene report written during the period after the war, the Canadian government was not adequately prepared for the number of veterans needing care, and “As a result, these facilities were inadequate to meet the needs of disabled men returning home from overseas. And it took the National Committee, along with other agencies, a ten-year period to re-establish desirable standards.”[11] Many families took care of the most severely disabled; it was not uncommon for households to include an uncle or brother who was unable to live on their own.

Several charities were established during the war, and shortly after, that served the needs of the physically disabled, like the National Institute for the Blind and the War Amputations Club, later the War Amps. These groups provided training, and in the case of the War Amps, access to prosthetic limbs and devices. However, for veterans suffering from the after effects of the war, what we would now call PTSD, there was little public acknowledgement, let alone support available.

“Making artificial limbs for crippled soldiers of our allies”, Hangar Artificial Limb Company, 1917, Canadian Centre for the Great War, 2017.06.01

Statistics vary, but an estimated 10-12% of Canadian soldiers suffered from “shell shock” or neurasthenia as a result of their service[12]. Treatment during wartime usually involved rest cures, or in extreme cases electric shock therapy or hypnotism. These treatments were designed to return as soldier to fighting fitness as soon as possible; if this was not feasible, longer rest periods or even discharge were also options[13]. For those suffering in the years after the war from issues like nightmares, depression, alcoholism or other PTSD related symptoms, there was little that could be done.

The Board of Pensions Commissioners would not issue a pension based on mental health reasons unless the applicant had first undergone treatment, if “as the result of treatment the functional or hysterical disability has not disappeared a pension shall be awarded in accordance with the extent of the disability, provided the applicant or pensioner has not unreasonably refused to accept or continue treatment.[14]” Social mores also made seeking treatment difficult, for those who were not completely incapacitated, the thought of admitting publicly that they were “hysterical” or “unmanly” was unthinkable. Most veterans suffered in silence and spent the rest of their lives trying to forget what they had experienced.

Soldiers’ Land Settlement Scheme, 1919. [pamphlet],
Canadian War Museum, Hartland Molson Library Collection
REF PAM UB 359 C2 S61 1919.

Government Support

In addition to the Board of Pensions Commissioners described above, the federal government established several other bodies to help deal with the task of re-integrating returned soldiers. The Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment (DSCR), established in 1917, was responsible “for giving sympathetic, skilled assistance to the needs of each returned man, and as far as possible, adjusting his problems.[15]” The DSCR provided vocational training, job pairing and placement opportunities, and many other forms of service to the returned army personnel.

Like the Board of Pensions Commissioners, the goal of the DSCR was to “help those who help themselves” in a sense; it was not expected to provide long-term monetary support to those veterans who could not find employment. Returned soldiers were given a handbook release by the department for informational purposes, and the front inside cover stated very clearly, “Canada will help in every way possible to re-establish yourself in civil life BUT the measure of what Canada can do for you is governed by the measure of your own efforts in this direction.[16]

Another federal initiative to provide meaningful employment was the Soldiers Settlement Board, also established in 1917 with the goal “to assist Returned Soldiers in Settling upon the Land” in accordance with the Soldier Settlement Act[17]. The Act gave the Board the ability to buy Crown lands, with the purpose of settling it and creating valuable farm land. Recipients of the land were expected to work it for a term before they could buy it outright, the Settlement Board also provide loans for equipment, livestock, and buildings.

By 1924, over 30,000 former soldiers had been settled on former Crown lands in the prairie provinces, with 79% receiving financial assistance from the Settlement Board.[18] However, the initiative was not entirely successful; most of the land had never been farmed and required years of work to make it profitable, additionally, many of the settlers had never actually farmed before and found the work and the isolation extremely difficult.

Crown lands also came at a cost to others; much of the property offered to settlers was actually land held in reserve by the indigenous bands of the prairies as per their treaties with the Crown. The act made specific provision for the purchase of “any Indian lands which, under the Indian Act, have been validly released or surrendered[19]”. A 1918 amendment to the Indian Act allowed for the seizure of indigenous land without the consent of the majority of the band to which it belonged, and previous amendments allowed for its sale to the government for cash. In all, 85,000 acres of indigenous land was distributed to veterans; of 4,000 indigenous veteran applicants, only 224 received loans from the Settlement Board[20].


The Cost of War

The Great War cost Canadians millions of dollars in the 5 years that it was fought; wartime debt reached $ 2 billion dollars, much of it financed by domestic bonds purchased by citizens to help finance the war effort. What is calculated less frequently is the cost of the war in the post-war years. The re-integration measures described above were expensive, and the recognition that the government needed to care for its most vulnerable veterans added another financial burden.

Much of the expansion of the role of government was covered by the Income War Tax, which had been introduced in 1917 to help pay for the war and was retained at its end to help offset the costs of veterans’ services, among other purposes[21]. Charitable beneficent societies like the War Amps and the National Institute for the Blind provided additional services, as did veterans’ groups like the Legion and the Great War Veterans’ Association. All these pieces formed a network of care and support for war veterans and tried to ensure that they received the support they needed.

However, it was inevitable that some would fall through the cracks. The post-war period has many stories of veterans “falling on hard times”. Victoria Cross recipient Filip Konowal was institutionalised as criminally insane after killing a man in a bar in Hull; an act that was tied by doctors to his war service and the wounds he received[22]. It was not uncommon to see unemployed veterans selling cards or pencils on street corners. Eric Hillis, whose suicide resulted in the statement by the GWVA referred to earlier, was one such veteran.

The life-long strain of having lived through the war also took its toll. Pte Thomas Austin Bradford and his brother William Colborne enlisted with the Canadian Corps in 1916 and 1915 respectively. Both survived the war, but at a cost. Colborne struggled with alcohol for the rest of his life, and Austin was found dead in September 1929, while working as a bush firefighter in northern Manitoba. His family maintains that he killed himself, though an official investigation could not determine cause of death.

The services offered to returning veterans were also not offered equally to all; over 4,000 indigenous soldiers fought in the Canadian Corps, some of whom, like Frances Pegahmagahbow were decorated multiple times. Angus Goodleaf, a Mohawk from Kahnawake Reserve in Quebec and a soldier with the 107th Battalion, was seriously wounded in August 1917 at the Battle of Hill 70. When he applied to the Allowance Committee, Board of Pension Commissioners for an additional aid pension in 1933 his pension was rejected on the basis of his residence on the reserve.

Pte William Colborne Bradford, c1915. Gift of B. Bradford, Canadian Centre for the Great War, 2017.03.01

Pte Angus Goodleaf, c1914-1918. Loan of M. Goodleaf

A decision in 1931 removed administration of indigenous veterans living on reserves to the Department of Indian Affairs, and upon appealing to the Deputy Superintendant General, Goodleaf as informed that “we are not in a position to treat returned soldiers as generously as the whites are treated by the Allowance Committee of the Pensions Board[23] .” Despite having fought in the Canadian Corps, and wounded in its service, Goodleaf was not allowed the same level of assistance as non-indigenous veterans.

The Canadian Government and Canadian society struggled to deal with the changes wrought by the war, and the needs of those who returned from it. For the most part, veterans were able to readapt to civilian life relatively well, re-enter the work force, and live largely uneventful lives Some, like Austin Bradford and Eric Hillis were not able to be helped. Others, like Angus Goodleaf, did not fall into the groups that were eligible for help.

Ultimately, the Great War caused Canadian society to re-examine not only what was owed to those who had served their country, but the role of the government in providing support. The investment by the government was unprecedented in Canadian history to that point, creating the framework for the social net we have today, and the acknowledgement that society owes the possibility of a civilian life to those who have served their country.