In the tiny Nova Scotia town of Brooklyn, there stands an impres- sive stone memorial to the sons of that village who perished in the First World War. Similar monuments can be found across Canada, and they serve as a reminder of the enormous social consequences that the Great War visit- ed on this country (one is immediate- ly struck by the disproportionately long list of names for a town so small). Most families, most neighbourhoods, and all towns and cities knew people who were in uniform in Europe.
The story of those people left behind, especially the families of the soldiers, has been left in the shadows by historians who have focused on the bat- tles, the casualties and the mud of northern France. When noted Canadian military historian Desmond Morton, also a professor at McGill University, concluded his 1993 study on the life of Canada’s soldiers, entitled When Your Number’s Up ”” The Canadian Soldier in the First World War, he vowed to write the story of the families caught up in the war. With his new book, Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War, he delivers on his promise.
Professor Morton notes in the preface to the book that the first-hand sources from the home front were much more difficult to locate than for his previous book. Unlike soldiers’ let- ters, which were usually preserved with great reverence by the families at home, the written record and letters to the front are much harder to come by. Some letters written by the families of the men who served remain in the archives of the active politicians of the day, but another key source, those let- ters posted to the Canadian Patriotic Fund, were destroyed in the 1930s.
The result is that we are often afforded only mere glimpses of family life during the Great War. The focus of Morton’s book becomes the struggles for income support for the wives, chil- dren and aging parents of the soldiers sent to war. More specifically, Fight or Pay is the account of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, and the fundraising efforts deployed by that fund to sup- plement the allowances and pay given to Canadian soldiers serving overseas.
In the great enthusiasm to join up in August 1914, the Canadian army was no more ready to administer the payroll for the new recruits than it was to train and equip them. Morton’s account of the efforts of Lt. Col. W.R. Ward to organize and train unit pay- masters at the Valcartier camp reveals an overlooked side of that frenetic summer. The task of identifying all the soldiers to be paid, especially those who were married or had dependents, was a difficult one. This job was only completed by February 1915, and many mistakes were made.
These mistakes became significant because nearly a quarter of the men who served overseas were mar- ried. Ensuring that spouses were cor- rectly identified and part of their husband’s pay was directed to them was essential for recruitment efforts. Married soldiers were entitled to extra pay and allowances to reflect the needs of the homes they were leaving behind. To augment this income support, Canadians were called upon to con- tribute to the Canadian Patriotic Fund, whose slogan was ”œFight or Pay.” As its founder, Sir Herbert B. Ames often said, ”œIf you cannot put the ”˜I’ into fight, put the ”˜pay’ into patriotism!”
Herbert Ames was an MP, a wealthy Montrealer and a lead- ing light in the Canadian progres- sive movement. His interest in public health and the plight of the poor led him to publish The City Below the Hill in 1897. When the war came in 1914, he and others saw an opportunity to help the families of those who served and address social concerns that had existed prior to the war. The CPF was willing to pro- vide help for the wartime families, but the help came at a price. Every effort was made to weed out the fraudulent claims, the ”œundeserv- ing” and other complex considera- tions. This work was complicated by the fact that the CPF was never fully established on a national basis, and provinces and regions developed their own criteria and their own eli- gibility conditions.
To illustrate how the CPF operated, Morton effectively outlines the challenge for the Montreal branch. In order to administer the fund, and to ensure that the homes of recipients were visited by volunteers who could attest to the need and good character of the families, a McGill graduate and pioneer social worker, Helen Reid, was put in charge of the branch’s day-to-day operations. She was responsible for the 650 volunteers who dealt with over 15,000 families during the war. It was a stren- uous and often bureaucratic challenge for the volunteers, in an age far removed from our own, as Ames revealed when he noted that the work was so onerous that: ”œseveral times a week a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary brings her own maid and dis- penses tea at her own expense and a few moments of rest is provided at the end of a busy day.”
Morton balances the view of the CPF with the criticism, especially later in the war, levelled by veterans’ associations and the trade union movement. Particularly active in the western provinces, these critics assailed the discretionary powers of the fund inspectors, and they contra- dicted the claim that CPF grants were allotted in the same manner as sol- diers’ wages, noting that ”œneither the separation allowance nor the assigned pay is subject to the whim of nose-poking investigators, glori- fied private detectives, society-lady supervisors or the interpretations and decisions of a coterie of citizens, how- ever well-intentioned.”
After tracing the incredibly com- plicated story of how the CPF and the soldiers’ allowances and wid- ows’ pensions were administered, Morton ends with an appeal to mod- ern Canadians. Given that the Second World War was fought in the living memory of the First, Canadians did not need to be reminded nor convinced of the importance of caring for the families of the brave men and women who fought for Canada. But today,
in a modern age characterized by me-first selfishness, orches- trated contempt for democratic government and community, and deepening extremes of wealth and poverty, impotence and power, Canadians have les- sons to learn from their ances- tors in two world wars.
Fight or Pay reminds us of the enor- mous sacrifice made by these ancestors.
In my own family, during my child- hood, I was always somewhat intimi- dated, at the dinner table at Christmas, by my great-aunt, Constance Hall Scott, whose story is similar to some of those told in Morton’s book. A war bride, she was married to Henry Scott in 1915, shortly before he was shipped overseas. Widowed in 1916, she spent the next forty-seven years of her life mourning her lost husband. Thanks to the insight provided by Desmond Mor- ton’s book, I came away with a richer understanding of her life and world.