This Week in Peterborough: 1915

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Recruitment cartoon by Jimmy Frise, Peterborough Examiner, July 26th, 1915.

As you might expect, this post will be mostly about the war.  Already by the summer of 1915, approximately 1000 men from Peterborough had enlisted and headed overseas (the city’s total population at the time was about 18,000), and they had suffered their first casualties earlier that year, at the dreadful Second Battle of Ypres.  However, mid-summer was a relatively, if only relatively, quiet time for the soldiers from the city who were serving in Europe.  And what were those on the home front doing?  Read on…

As far as the actual events of the war were concerned, most of the attention in late July was focused on the German advance through Poland, towards the Russian-held city of Warsaw.  The Russians had already recognized that they could not hold the line or the city, and the July 30th Peterborough Examiner reported that they were preparing for an orderly retreat, which was duly carried out.  Of course, events in Russia herself were building towards the revolution of 1917, but there was little mention of that in the newspapers just yet

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Kira Bashkirova, wearing the Cross of St. George in about 1915. Bashkirova was one of the Russian women soldiers specifically mentioned in the Examiner’s article. (Image Source)

There was a certain fascination with the Russian army at this time in Peterborough, for the simple reason that it included women in combat roles.  The July 29th Examiner ran a story about these women, noting that although most of them had enlisted as men, the authorities were generally willing to let them stay on even after they had been found out (Russia would shortly thereafter set up a number of women-only front-line battalions).  The article also described the respect for female soldiers evinced by their male colleagues:

“…the Russian soldier in the trenches does not joke about a woman fighter… He does not see in it a subject for jest.  It is for him quite a matter of course.

Still less is he inclined to offer her any indignity.  This woman who is exposing herself to shell and bullet and poison gas for the glory of the Russians he treats with the highest respect.  Indeed… [he] looks up to her and in an emergency follows her leadership unhesitatingly.”

Back in Peterborough, the big questions revolved around how Canadians at home could support the war effort.  The manufacturing of arms and munitions was a critical element in that; in a Toronto Globe editorial quoted by the Examiner on July 29th, writer and military Chaplain Ralph Connor stated succinctly: “Canadian shells and Canadian machine guns mean the saving of Canadian men.”

The machine guns were particularly important.  The Canadian government had provided funds to supply eight of the weapons per battalion, while allowing private donations to supply more.  Canadians had responded to this call enthusiastically, with the July 30th Examiner estimating that each battalion could now be outfitted with “40 to 50” machine guns.  The article, headlined “Time To Call Halt In Providing Machine Guns,” went on to note that other worthy war-related causes, such as the Patriotic Fund and the Red Cross, were in need of money as well, and to remind people not to neglect them.  There was also some thought being given to what would happen when the troops came home, with the newspaper remarking that “much good can be accomplished by assistance toward the equipping of convalescent homes.”

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Peterborough Examiner, July 29th, 1915.

Peterborians could also provide “care packages” directly to those serving in Europe.  Cigarettes (see picture above), candy, socks, and the like were much in demand, but people were also encouraged simply to write to soldiers overseas.  The Peterborough newspapers ran daily lists of addresses where those who wished to could send letters to local men who had been wounded, taken ill, or captured.  The July 29th Examiner contained nine such names, two of whom were prisoners of war recuperating from wounds in German hospitals.

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Sad local news, of an all-too-common sort at this time, from the July 29th Examiner.

Supplies, donations to worthy causes, and letters from home were all good, but the war effort’s main requirement at this time was men to serve overseas.  Peterborough at this time was embarking on a major recruitment drive, and an editorial in the Examiner on July 29th laid out in fiery terms exactly what was needed:

“Men, and ever more men!  Not the men only who can be spared!  Not the men without ties of love to hold their hearts!  Not the men whose going is easy!  No, no!  But the men whose going will imperil business interests, and will break hearts.  These men, men of sacrifice, whose wives and mothers will wave them away with mist-dimmed eyes, but with hearts that will not refuse to make complete the sacrifice.”

In case that sort of rhetoric was not enough, the city saw a visit on July 27th from T.W. Crothers, Minister of Labour in the government of Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden.  Crothers delivered a speech describing the existential threat that he claimed was posed to Canada by Germany, praising Peterborough for her contribution to the war effort, and urging the city’s men to enlist.  Citing the Peterborian soldiers already overseas, he said “[t]hey are calling to us from across the mighty deep, calling to you to come over and help them, beckoning you to join them in the mighty struggle” (quoted in the July 27th Peterborough Review).

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Peterborough Review, July 27th, 1915.

Crothers also spent about two-thirds of his speech berating the Liberal Party — an irony, given that he had begun with a call for an end to partisan bickering.  One particular focus of his ire was Canada’s decision, made by an earlier Liberal government, to form her own navy rather than contribute money to build up Britain’s.  “We have not a birch bark canoe to assist the British Navy,” thundered Crothers.  German submarines were wreaking almost daily havoc on shipping in the North Atlantic, so some concern about naval matters is understandable, but Crothers was being patently unfair with that comment.  The new Royal Canadian Navy, while indeed small at the time, was growing, and would take on a larger and larger role as the war went on.

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The SS Eastland on her side in the Chicago River, July 1915. (Image Source)

Those looking for some respite from the war talk in the pages of Peterborough’s newspapers would have been hard-pressed to find it.  And even the major non-military story this week in 1915 was fairly appalling.  On July 24th, while taking on passengers for an excursion, the steamer SS Eastland suddenly capsized at her berth in Chicago, trapping hundreds below-decks.  Reporting on the disaster, the Peterborough Examiner on June 26th set the death toll at around 1800 people.  This, at least, turned out to be an exaggeration, but the final count of 844 dead made the Eastland accident the worst-ever Great Lakes shipping disaster, and it retains that status to this day.

Around town, there were a few things going on that were not related to the war effort.  On July 30th, the Examiner reported on the grand opening of the Peterborough Shoe Company store on George Street.  “It presents a very attractive appearance,” wrote the newspaper, “and is well stocked with a fine display of up-to-date footwear which will be offered to the public at a price consistent with good quality.”

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Peterborough Review, July 31st, 1915.

There were, as always, sporting endeavours to take one’s mind off things.  While the 1914 season had turned out to be the last for the Peterborough Baseball Club of the Canadian League, baseball fans could still take in City League action at Riverside Park.  There was lacrosse being played, too — the July 31st Review described Peterborough’s 4-3 loss to Campbellford (see headline above0 as “one of the best games played this year in the locals’ district,” although the paper also criticized the referee for the being “very scrupulous over minor offences.”

And that was about it for this week in 1915 — next time out, we will consider early August of 1916.  However, in the meantime, I would like to remind you that I will be at the Peter Robinson Festival on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon, at Morrow Park!  I will be located in the Historical Exhibitions tent, along with a number of other excellent folk, so please do drop by and we’ll talk some Peterborough history!

One last note — the hockey star mentioned in yesterday’s brief post?  It was Harry “Punch” Broadbent, the Senators’ high-scoring right winger.  Broadbent would survive the war, and go on to play in the NHL until 1929.

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