In the early 20th century, a series of events transpired, the consequences of which would influence the paths of nations for decades afterwards. Tensions that had been smoldering on the international stage for years finally came to a head in 1914, leading to the outbreak of the First World War, the first truly industrial war. Massive changes took place at international and national levels, but also in the hearts and homes of every community in Canada. The world would never been the same again.
Tensions in Europe
Years before the events of 1914, national hostilities ran high in Europe. Britain, France and Russia were aligned on one side, and while Germany and the Austrian Empire, and later the Ottoman Empire, formed the opposing alliance. Some of the key sources of contention were arms races, particularly German challenges to British naval superiority; continuing disputes over trade and land; restlessness over the European balance of power; and unresolved past grievances. Due to the alliance systems in place, one country from either side declaring war on the other side was likely to result in all major European powers joining the conflict. Click here for an interactive map that explains the key alliances and events that contributed to the start of the First World War.
Furthermore, dominions and colonies were also brought into the war when the colonial powers joined the fray. For example, while the war in Africa was comparatively unimportant from a European perspective, it was at times extremely significant and even devastating for the African populations. Other European nations chose their sides, while other non-European nations, such as Japan and the United States, later joined the Allied cause.
The Match that Lit the Conflagration
When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian group seeking to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 28, June, 1914, the simmering tension finally boiled. In retribution, the Austro-Hungarian Empire demanded that Serbia submit to unreasonable terms and searches, which Serbia refused. Germany offered full support to the Austro-Hungarian Empire while Russia supported Serbia, a traditional ally.
With Russia mobilizing its military at the end of July, Germany set its plans in motion to take out France quickly and avoid a two-front war with both Russia and France. Know as the Schlieffen Plan, Germany sought to quickly sweep through Belgium, utterly defeat France, and then turn around to fight Russia. This plan depended on little resistance from Belgium or France and Russia mobilizing slowly due to a lack of infrastructure and technology.
However, the rapid victory that Germany had expected did not materialize and stiff fighting ensued while Britain, honouring its treaties with Belgium, declared that war would exist between them and Germany on August 4th.
When Britain goes to War, Canada goes to War
As a part of the British Empire, Canada was also automatically at war on August 4, 1914. Many people enthusiastically welcomed the war, believing, based on previous European conflicts, that it would be a quick and over by Christmas. However, that was not be as the war quickly bogged down into trench warfare. By 1918, it had killed twenty million soldiers and civilians worldwide and destroyed $400 billion in property and war materials. Those who enlisted could not have imagined the horrors they would face when they so eagerly volunteered to fight for King and Country. The allied and central powers pushed back and forth on what became known as the Western Front, in a battle that moved by yards, not miles. It was a long war of attrition and exhaustion, mired deep in the horrors of trench warfare.
Lacombe and District
As the news of the declaration of war by Britain on August 4th, 1914 rolled like wildfire across the country, the first few days produced a rush of eager volunteers. Railway platforms across Alberta became were scenes of many patriotic displays, and the province seemed dominated by an infectious blend of enthusiasm and militant idealism.
At the beginning, young men from Lacombe and the district answered the call, forever changing the development of the area. The pre-war years seemed a golden, pioneering age. Many of the homesteads and businesses were less than 10 years old when the war began, and the loss of so many men halted plans. Some of these plans were only paused for a few years, and some never came to be, as many of the the dreamers and the doers never returned.
The First World War signaled a dramatic change is the prospects of the town of Lacombe. Though other factor such as railway infrastructure, a decline in land value, and the lack of a ready supply of water were also significant factors, Lacombe: The First Century links the “shuddering halt” in “progress” in part to the First World War. Population growth declined dramatically between 1911 and 1921. According to the Western Globe, approximately 350 men from the area served in the First World War, and 72 of them–roughly 21%–died while in military service and are listed on the Cenotaph. This is a very high casualty rate, and was no doubt devastating to the people of the Lacombe area.
Excited to be of service, our provincial government pledged a half a million bushels of wheat immediately, which left Ottawa officials scratching their heads about what to do with all this wheat. However, these donations came to be greatly appreciated and needed as time wore on. A car load of flour was donated to Belgium by the people of the Lacombe district: local farmers supplied the wheat, and local miller, Duncan Reeves, ground it into flour free of charge.
By 1915, the growing casualties and bereavements afflicting Albertans seemed not to deter them from seeing the war through. On the farms, however, the land was generous. While the troops overseas felt the iron hand of battle, 1916 was a year those in central Alberta found it easier to pay the bills, put food on the table, and plan for a prosperous future.
As the true nature of the war made itself known, the arrival of a telegram, a clergyman or the Red Cross, raised dread in the community. As the number of volunteer soldiers dried up, the government turned their eye to conscription in 1917 and in May of that year the Military Service Act legalized conscription. Conscription became a major divisive issue in the upcoming federal elections, especially for those in the farming community as the lack of labour was seriously affecting production.
Caring for those Left Behind and Funding the War
To support families left behind by servicemen, bonuses were provided from the Patriotic Fund, an organization commissioned by the Canadian Government under Sir Herbert Ames. At least 55,000 families across Canada depended on the Patriotic Fund, but each province was responsible for raising its own support.
At the beginning of the war, patriotic funds were a great example of volunteer donations, and the fund seemed to have the capacity to care for soldiers’ dependents while casualties were low. However, financial strain was showing by the beginning of 1916 and the push for victory bonds became stronger than ever.
Victory bonds were certificates encouraged for purchase amongst civilians in order to lend money to the government for the war effort. They were purchased with circulating money in the general public with the understanding that they would be cashed, with interest, after the end of the war.
The Soldier Settlement Act, created August 29th, 1917, was intended to provide Great War veterans with free land and individual $2,500 interest-free loans. A large portion of land in Central Alberta (Lacombe and District) was reserved for this purpose. Though well intentioned, the logistics of the program were not well thought out and, after three or four years of hard work, many soldiers abandoned their farms without looking back.
Soldiers of the Soil (S.O.S)
Because of heavy enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WWI, there was a shortage of laborer’s for farm work. There was a national initiative introduced in 1918, known as Soldiers of the Soil. This was a program that actively sought out volunteer youth for work on Canadian farms to assist farmers in achieving greater wartime production of food. Participants received room and board and, if high school aged, exemption from classes and exams.
Canadians at War
There were at least four Battalions from Alberta that saw the worst battles the Great War had to offer: The Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and the Hundred Days Campaign.
The First major Canadian battle was the Second Battle of Ypres, April 22nd, 1915. In this battle, a third of the force, or 6,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured after facing the first use of chlorine gas as a war agent. Despite the heavy losses, the Canadians kept the Germans from breaking through.
The Somme was the first battle where every infantry battalion recruited from Alberta played a part, and one they would never forget. Successive engagements at the Somme made every second man a casualty (casualty counts include both those wounded seriously enough to require recovery time and those killed in action).
Between April 9th-12th, 1917, Canadians successfully attacked the German-held strongpoint of Vimy Ridge. Vimy was a hard fought battle where victory was delivered through careful planning, new fighting tactics, skillfully used artillery, and hard fighting. The battle became a prominent symbol of Canadian identity and independence.
Between October 26th and November 10th, 1917, the battle of Passchendaele raged on. It was a battle remembered for brutal fighting and terrible weather conditions. Canadian forces, serving under a Canadian commander, captured their objective, but suffered 16,000 killed or wounded.
A series of battles that took place between August 8th and November 11th, 1918, became known as The Hundred Days Campaign. With infantry and artillery working combined with tactical air-power, machine guns, mortars, chemical weapons and armoured vehicles, the German armies were driven back and defeated.
The Soldiers Return
With the end of the war, the men slowly trickled back from Europe. Unlike their deployment, there was little fanfare, and even less organization. An agreed upon silence at the front, which muted so much anguish in letters home, left these men with an often painful adjustment back into civilian life. The Armistice, declared at 11 am on November 11th, 1918, became the day that people remembered the sacrifices and bloodshed.
In Lacombe, the Empress Hotel was one of the first businesses to observe November 11 after 1918, offering a free buffet lunch or supper to veterans every year on that date. The comradeship between these soldiers naturally found its way into organizations such as the Great War Veterans Association, which later became the Royal Canadian Legion and its auxiliaries.
Local Women’s Effort: Giving their Hearts for Patriotism
In a time when many men were going off to war, first by choice, and then by conscription, many women felt equally strongly about the need to support the war effort. Mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and nieces banded together to demonstrate patriotism in other forms. Women organized local Red Cross Societies to send funds to the parent organization. They were also the primary donors and supporters of the Patriot’s Fund, Salvation Army and other community initiatives to raise funds to support the war effort. They knit socks, sent food and sundry, ran the farms and the businesses usually run by the young men, and made quilts for the men braving this new type of war abroad. Many also joined the war effort as nurses.
In most of rural Alberta, men and women contributed equally to the patriotic funds. The war occurred at a time when local Albertan politics were a hive of activity: women’s suffrage; prohibition; and the development of the United Farmers Association and its auxiliary, the United Women’s Farmers Association took place.
Women in these communities, fired up with patriotic spirit, as well as a deep desire for the progress of their initiatives in Alberta politics, became a force to be reckoned with on the home front and in politics.
Author Grant MacEwan said of women’s organizations at the time, “Of all the organizations in the community since the beginning settlement of Lacombe, the Lest-We-Forget club accomplished the most.” The work that these women did, establishing Lacombe’s Cenotaph, now stands as a tribute to these dedicated women and the men that they sought to remember for generations to come.
The Lest-We-Forget Club was formed on February 22, 1922, by a group of dedicated women as an auxiliary to the Great War Veterans Association (later to become the Royal Canadian Legion). The group had 28 charter members, and received received a parcel of land 137 feet by 240 feet from the Lacombe school board to create a memorial park. The trees and shrubs for the park were planted by McDonald Nurseries and memorial trees were donated by local residents. Funds came from the local community, but most of the funds were raised from within the group. As an example, on one Halloween, dressing as fortune tellers and reading tea leaves, the group raised $300.00 in one night (roughly $4,000.00 dollars today).
Ultimately, the cenotaph that is Lacombe’s legacy, cost $3,500.00 for the marble statue. These women were so confident in their directive that they invited the Prince of Wales to unveil the statue at the parks opening, but were declined by the Prince’s royal secretary.
The Cenotaph and Park were unveiled on October 31, 1924 by R.G. Brett, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. The park was turned back to the town in April 1955 with the condition that it remained named Lest-We-Forget Park in perpetuity.
Through the years following its creation, Lest-We-Forget Park has had many improvements such as an iron fence, gates, concrete walks and flower beds. It is now proudly the front of the grounds for the Lacombe Memorial Centre, and is enjoyed by residents year round.
Passion and the Principles
One woman in the Lacombe and District stood out considerably during this time: Irene Parlby. Irene became the first president of the United Farm Women of Alberta in 1916. Believing that her contributions were important in the wake of social reform, Mrs. Parlby advocated relentlessly for farmer’s rights, war widows and orphans, and The Red Cross during the Great War. She was a leader in many rights (becoming the first woman cabinet minister elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1921), and a poet. In January 1918, she roused weary U.F.A. convention goers with an impassioned speech about the war. The heart of her message was:
“Today the world is bleeding to death in its efforts to conquer a false ideal of nationalism, but the only true nationalism, the only true internationalism, is a spirit of mutual sympathy and understanding among all the people—in other words, the spirit of unselfishness which is the essence of this thing called cooperation”. (Irene Parlby, January, 1918).
The fund-raising quilt project was started in 1915 by the Iowalta (a conglomeration of U.S. Iowa and Alberta Patriots) Needlecraft for the war effort. Each person paid ten cents to have their name put on the quilt. These names were from all over, and in 1918, the quilt was finished and raffled off. It was won by John Taylor who lived in the Iowalta district. The quilt was lovingly used, but years later, Mr. Taylor kindly sent it back to the Iowalta ladies, who did their best to restore it and it is now part of the Lacombe Museum Collection. It is a tribute to the work of women’s auxiliary fundraising, and their determination in fulfilling what they viewed as their patriotic duties. Many soldiers and their families were comforted by these quilt projects.
Cenotaphs and Monuments
Each community in Lacombe and District suffered many losses during the course of the Great War. Leaving holes in the hearts and minds of our communities, these losses were never forgotten. Many memorials and cenotaphs exist across the region, dedicated to the memories of these individuals. Some were built soon after the First World War, and some were built many years later. They included dedications to the Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, and more recent conflicts such as Afghanistan. Some monuments attempt to list everyone from the area who served in the Canadian Armed Forces, while others, like the Lacombe Cenotaph, focus solely on those who died during military service. These memorials celebrate the lives of those who served, and acknowledge their sacrifice for their countries and their communities.
The bronze Honour Roll Plaque was originally in the Anglican Church. On June 23, 1919 the Great War Veterans Association was formed with U. G. Marryat as president. In 1928 they joined the Royal Canadian Legion. A memorial fund was started in 1933 and in 1935 Bob Wollgar built a cenotaph next to the community hall, which was unveiled on Remembrance Day of that year. In 1953 a bronze plaque with the honour rolls of the First and Second World Wars was placed on the cenotaph. The cenotaph was moved from main street in 1980 and is now located down by the lake in Centennial Park. The Legion purchased the UFA hall in 1967 for $500.00. The Alix Legion building is now the Library.
The Village of Bentley does not have a monument as such. The Legion bought land that was designated for a sports area. It then was turned over to the Village of Bentley. A car was raffled off on December 10, 1947, and the money from the project went into the Legion Memorial Fund. With this money, a commemorative memorial gate to the sports grounds in honor of the deceased veterans was built. In the centre was a cairn on which was inscribed the roll of honour. After an addition to the curling rink, it was necessary to remove the cairn. The plaque was removed and put into the arena. The arch was mounted on the front of the arena, which is where it stands today.
The town of Blackfalds is now home to a rare example of a newly built war memorial. Until 2014, the town lacked a memorial dedicated to the soldiers from Blackfalds who have served in the Canadian Armed Forces. On My 23rd, 2014, this new memorial was dedicated. 77 names are inscribed on this monument, of which 22 are from the First World War. Substantial research was put into this project, and a companion publication presented the stories of all the individuals listed on the memorial.
Clive also boasts a newer War Memorial, this one dedicated in 2012. On it are listed those who died while in service, veterans from the area, and Charter Members of the Clive Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
This memorial commemorates the residents of Mirror who were killed or missing in the First and Second World Wars and is located at the Mirror branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.