August 4th, 1916, marked the second anniversary of the beginning of the Great War for Canadians. The occasion was observed, in Peterborough, by a gathering in Victoria Park, which the next day’s Peterborough Review described as “both enthusiastic and patriotic.” “Every utterance of the speakers, every selection of the band,” wrote the newspaper, ” found a responsive chord in the hearts of the vast crowd.” But how were things going, overseas? And what else, if anything, was attracting the attention of Peterborians?
Read on, for news from the front, fires in Canada, and an aquatic controversy in Peterborough!
The news from the War in early August of 1916 was generally of the optimistic variety. The headlines in the August 7th Examiner bear this out: “Enemy Attack Was Checked By The French,” “British Troops Execute A Successful Raid,” “The Allies Are Winning in German East Africa,” and “Russians Outwit German Strategy” are just a few examples from that day alone.
It was all, in fact, something of a false dawn (not to mention that one suspects the hand of the propaganda department at work). The reported British gains were part of the Battle of the Somme, which would end inclusively in November of 1916 after inflicting roughly a million casualties. The French, meanwhile, were engaged in the defense of Verdun, and although they held the city in the end, the losses sustained were enough to bring France’s army to the point of mutiny. And Russia, of course, would shortly be engulfed by her own internal problems — Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March of 1917.
But all that was for the future, and at this point Peterborians were in a good mood about overseas affairs. This cheerfulness was increased by the news that one local soldier had received official kudos for bravery at the Somme. Lt. J. Reginald Stratton, son of city councillor and prominent local businessman A.H. Stratton, was commended by his superiors for “gallantry in returning under shell fire, to find two missing men” (Peterborough Examiner, August 7th, 1916). In a letter home published in the August 7th Examiner, Lt. Stratton described the incident:
“We ran back [after discovering that the two men men were missing] and had just got into the square when a 5.9 inch shell blew away a sandbag breastwork we were behind. It blew my sergeant off his feet and I thought it was all over for both of us. But he was all right, and we rushed into the dugout and found that the two men had just managed to get out. About four more shells dropped in the meantime. We ran back to the trench, making a record for the two hundred yards. That is how it happened, and I really don’t think it is worth all this fuss, but I hope something comes of it for the sake of my sergeant, because I had to go back and he didn’t.”
Lt. Stratton also noted that he had a week’s leave coming up, and that he was “not sorry because I have had a very trying three weeks.” An understandable sentiment indeed! Stratton, who was serving with the Royal Engineers, would survive the war.
The news in Canada was not nearly as encouraging as that from overseas. On July 29th, forest fires burning in northern Ontario had merged into a massive firestorm, more than 60 kilometres across its front, which destroyed a number of communities in the area of Matheson and Iroquois Falls. One survivor, quoted in the Review on August 5th, described his escape from the fire:
“It is an experience I don’t want to come through again. It was awful. The smoke was so dense that it was almost impossible to breathe, and for a time we thought that we would die of suffocation.”
The Matheson Fire, as it is now known, killed more than 200 people, and inspired a certain amount of anger among the people of Ontario. An August 3rd editorial in the Examiner pointed the finger of blame directly at the Conservative-led provincial government of Premier William Howard Hearst, who had done nothing to restrict the slash-and-burn land-clearing that had exacerbated the fire:
“At first thought one is inclined to view such a disaster as that of the North Country as something inevitable, unavoidable, something to be expected in a new country. But this is not true. Measures could have been taken which would have reduced the possibility of that horrible fire… As it is, practically nothing has been done in Ontario to lessen the danger of forest fires, and this in the face of our many and disastrous experiences.”
Provincial legislation concerning the matter, in the form of the Forest Fires Prevention Act, was passed shortly thereafter.
Back in Peterborough, apart from the war news, the summer was heading towards its conclusion. It was a hot one, too, and the main issue concerning residents involved the city’s lack of proper swimming facilities. City Council apparently did not wish, for reasons of liability, to take responsibility for providing supervised swimming areas in the river or elsewhere. This reluctance provoked a scathing response from the Examiner on August 3rd:
“We elect aldermen for the express purpose of placing upon them the responsibility of looking after the interests of the city, of the people of the city… It is the duty of the City Council to act in the matter of providing supervised swimming-places, whose utility, necessity and comfort need no urging.”
The Examiner also seized upon the photograph of two small children playing in a mud-puddle on George Street (see left) to illustrate the need for a civic waterhole of some sort. The incident, said the newspaper, illustrated “the inclination of people, young and old, to take to water, naturally as a duck, when the temperature rages and when both the passion of cleanliness and of coolness invite to its refreshing depths.”
We do not see any great signs of sporting activity in Peterborough at this precise moment in the summer of 1916, with the city’s pool of amateur athletes severely depleted by the war. Most of the attention in the sports pages was on a young pitching prospect with the Toronto Maple Leafs of baseball’s International League. His name was Urban Shocker, and he would go on to pitch in the major leagues for the New York Yankees and St. Louis Browns (he was part of the 1927 Yankees squad that is reckoned by some to be the best team in baseball’s history). In the 1916 season, he posted an ERA of 1.16 for Toronto, setting a team record that would never be broken (the Maple Leafs folded in 1967).
Those were the big stories, then, from Peterborough in early of August of 1916. Next time, we’ll find out what was happening, and whether the optimistic mood vis-a-vis the war was still present, in early mid-August of 1917! In the meantime, you can also read about this time of year back in 1864.