This Week in Peterborough: 1917


Passchendaele. (Image Source)

By mid-August of 1917, the First World War was into its fourth year, and there had been some major developments in the preceding 12 months.  For one thing, the United States had committed to joining the allies, although it would be some time before American troops arrived at the front.  On the other hand, Russia was in turmoil, Tsar Nicholas II having abdicated in favour of the Provisional Government of Prince Georgy Lvov and later Alexander Kerensky.  The October Revolution was at this point only a couple of months away.

But what of Peterborough, and Canada?  Read on, for casualties, conscription, and food controls (and a couple of non-war items).

August of 1917 marked the early phases of what is now known as the Battle of Passchendaele in Flanders — one of the more awful battles of a war renowned for them.  As had been the case with the Battle of the Somme a year previously, the headlines in the Peterborough newspapers concerning Passchendaele were generally positive — many reports of significant allied advances, prisoners taken, and enemy attacks repulsed.  However, again as with the Somme, Passchendaele would turn into a long, extraordinarily costly struggle.  While the allies technically won it (the village of Passchendaele was captured by the Canadian Corps in November of 1917), British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George later described the battle as “one of the greatest disasters of the war” and a “senseless campaign.”


Peterborough Review, August 17th, 1917

Canadians, and Peterborians, were in the thick of the fighting at Passchendaele, as well as around the fairly-nearby French city of Lens, and the newspapers for this week in 1917 are full of reports of local casualties.  The August 17th Review, as just one example, lists one man killed, three missing and presumed dead, and two wounded (these are from both Peterborough and the surrounding area, just to be clear).  Among the injured this week in 1917 was Lt. J.R. Stratton, whom we met in last week’s post in the process of earning the Military Cross.  Lt. Stratton is described in the August 14th Review as “seriously wounded,” with “gunshot wounds in the face, right hand, and right thigh.”*


As if the casualties were not bad enough, Canada itself was in the midst of a serious, and eventually violent, national disagreement over the issue of conscription.  To make a long story short, the country was struggling to achieve the (somewhat ambitious) number of troops that Prime Minister Robert Borden had promised the allies, which meant that conscription was now on the political agenda.  English Canada generally supported the idea, while French-Canadians almost unanimously opposed it.  On the political scene, the governing Conservative Party was obviously in favour of conscription, while the Liberals were divided on the matter, with former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier leading those opposed.  The debate over the issue was ferocious, and there was in fact real doubt that Canadian Confederation could survive it.


An anti-conscription rally in Montreal, May 1917. (Image Source)

The conscription debate came home to Peterborough in early August of 1917, when the Member of Parliament for the county’s West riding, Conservative John H. Burnham, temporarily quit the government ranks over the issue.  Burnham’s specific complaint was that the proposed legislation provided for the consciption only of manpower, and not of wealth.  Burnham was quickly placated and returned to the fold, and the August 10th Peterborough Examiner (the city’s Liberal-supporting newspaper) scornfully described his brief defection as a “‘grand-stand play’ to solidify himself with certain interests at home.” The pro-Conservative Review, meanwhile, barely mentioned the incident, but did quote one veterans’ organization denouncing the anti-conscription Liberal faction as “traitors to the country.”


Robert Borden. (Image Source)

The climax of the Conscription Crisis was the savagely bitter federal election of 1917, which took place in December of that year.  An alliance of Conservatives and pro-conscription Liberals, running as the Union Party, defeated the anti-conscription faction led by Laurier.  As a side note, it was the first Canadian federal election win which women were allowed to vote (suffrage was still restricted, however, to women serving abroad in the Nursing Corps, and to those at home who were relatives of men on active service).

Conscription was indeed enacted, first with exemptions and then without, a move that provoked rioting and martial law in Quebec in early 1918.  The war, however, ended before very many conscriptees had been sent overseas, and the country managed to come through the crisis still intact.

Back to August of 1917 in Peterborough.  Amidst the news from the front, and the conscription debate, the city was dealing the nationally-imposed food controls, designed to free up supplies for overseas forces.  These measures were relatively mild at the time; wheat was not to be used for making alcohol, and public eateries were prohibited from serving bacon or beef on Tuesdays and Fridays.

There does not seem to have been a great deal of significant local news, apart from that related to the war, this week in 1917.  Whether it was the overseas bulletins pushing other things out of paper, or simply a case of the dog days of August, Peterborough looks to have been a quiet place.  Even the sports news was lacking, although in a pleasant parallel with current events, Toronto’s baseball team had just taken over first place in the standings (in 1917’s case, the team was the Maple Leafs of the International League).


Peterborough Review, August 15, 1917.

One amusing tidbit, however: there was a little bit of a scandal going on involving the local garbage pickup.  It seems that the city’s refuse collector, a certain Contractor Graham, had decided to make his job easier and quicker by running his daily route very early in the morning, before most folks had put their garbage out.  Unsurprisingly, this bit of enterprising thinking impressed neither local residents nor Peterborough’s Sanitary Inspector.  Wrote the Review on August 15th:

“It seemed to be the general opinion that Contractor Graham was just doing as he liked and was not giving the slightest consideration to the Council or the citizens.”

The solution proposed was that the Sanitary Inspector hire a truck and pick up any extra garbage himself, with the bills for that to be paid out the money intended for Contractor Graham.  It was also noted that Contractor Graham would not be earning the “$500 bonus promised for satisfactory work.”


The CPR footbridge, just prior to its removal in 2012. (Image Source)

On a happier note, the city did have a new footbridge, alongside the CPR rail bridge where it crosses the Otonabee just south of what is now Millenium Park.  There were concerns over people riding, rather than walking, their bicycles across the new bridge, but the August 18th Review promised that “police will keep an eye open for the offenders now.”  That footbridge, as you may recall, has now been replaced, with the new structure opening in 2013.

And that should about do it for this week in 1917!  Next week, we’ll take a look at mid-August of 1918, but in the meantime you can read up on this time of year back in 1865.

*I noted in last week’s post that Lt. J.R. Stratton survived the war, but I am now not so sure.  While Stratton’s name is absent from Peterborough’s list of war dead (perusable in the lobby of City Hall), he is also not listed on the monument in Confederation Square honouring those who served and returned (the Stratton listed there is his brother Wilfred).  A puzzle, and anyone who can shed any light on it is invited to do so in the comments!

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