Another Remembrance Day will soon be upon us. The commemorations help us to reflect on, and remember, all those who served, and all those who lost their lives, while serving our community and our country in a time of war and during peacekeeping missions.
We are also only a few months away from the centennial of the start of the First World War in the summer of 1914. It would be hard to overstate the enormous impact this terrible conflict had on Red Deer and the nation as a whole. The wonderful settlement boom from the turn of the last century came to a crashing end.
Before the war was over, Red Deer and district suffered great tragedies and economic hardships. A huge number of bright young citizens were either killed in the war, or else suffered life-long injuries to their bodies and their minds. The great sense of optimism and good times of the pre-war years was replaced by pessimism, suffering and prolonged economic depression.
Nevertheless, news of the outbreak of the war in August 1914 was greeted with great excitement. The Red Deer Citizens’ Band quickly led an impromptu parade to the Armouries on the City Square. The 35 Central Alberta Horse, the local militia unit, quickly joined in the parade.
For the next three hours, there were a great many lusty speeches, passionate choruses of songs, and general eruptions of patriotic excitement. All those present were certain that Britain, Canada, France and all of the allies would soon be victorious against Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Many young men worried that if they were not able to enlist right away, they might miss ‘the big show’ before it ended around Christmastime.
However, as the fall progressed, the Red Deer Advocate and the Red Deer News were full of the accounts of the terrible battles being waged in Belgium and France. The Gaetz Cornett Drugstore had a special telegraph wire installed and posted the latest war bulletins in its windows. The Lyric Theatre became the first movie house in Alberta to show film footage of the war. Gradually, people began to realize the extent of the terrible conflict into which the world had plunged.
In late April 1915, the First Canadian Division went into action as part of the Second Battle of Ypres. At St. Julien, the Canadians withstood the first use of poison gas as a weapon. The casualty rate was horrendous, including a number from Red Deer and area.
Nevertheless, the Canadians won high honours for their bravery and tenacity under extreme battle conditions. For several years after the war, the anniversary of the Battle of St. Julien was a special day of remembrance in Canada.
As the spring progressed, the Red Deer newspapers began to fill with the reports of all of the young local men who had been killed or wounded in the terrible fighting in Flanders. The horrors of war were beginning to hit home on a large scale.
The brutal and bloody war continued for three more years. Before the great conflict was over, 118 young men of Red Deer and district lost their lives. Many more suffered terrible injuries, often being wounded multiple times. The Alberta Ladies College building on the brow of the east hill was taken over by the Alberta government for use as a soldiers’ sanatorium, a special hospital for those who had severe injuries to their minds.
Finally, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November 1918, the great long tragedy came to an official end. A large celebration was organized on the same City Square where so many had optimistically gathered to celebrate the start of the war in August 1914.
However, despite the joy and relief that the war was finally over, there was a realization that a community and country had been shattered by the horrific conflict. Years of economic depression and the Second World War would pass before Red Deer was able to truly rebuild and start a new era of peace and prosperity.