Remembering the ‘subdued’ Christmas of 1917

Canada was now in the third year of the brutal First World War

Christmas will soon be upon us. It is a time of goodwill, generosity to others, and pleasant gatherings with family and close friends. While people love to dwell on the happy memories of Christmases past, it would be hard to find a Christmas more dismal than the one experienced 100 years ago in 1917.

Canada was now in the third year of the brutal First World War. The Canadians had won some important victories in 1917 at such places as Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 on the outskirts of Lens, France.

However, while these victories had earned Canadians the reputation as some of the best assault troops on the Western Front, there had been a terrible cost. There were 10,600 casualties at Vimy Ridge and another 9,200 at Hill 70.

There was a third Canadian victory in the fall of 1917 at Passchendaele in Belgium.

However, the conditions in that battle had been so bad and the losses so high (15,654 casualties), the fact that the Canadians had eventually succeeded in capturing the village of Passchendaele in mid-November seemed insignificant when one remembered the immense suffering and loss that came with that ‘victory’.

A country as small as Canada simply could not absorb the battlefield losses experienced in 1917. There were no longer enough potential recruits left to replace the killed and wounded.

Hence, the Federal Government turned to a compulsory military draft or conscription as a means of finding more soldiers for the War. There was a strong public feeling that the War must be won, if for no other reason than to justify the enormous losses and sacrifices already made. Nevertheless, conscription became an explosive political issue.

The Government decided to hold a federal election on Dec. 17th, 1917 to confirm public support. Extraordinary measures were taken ensure an electoral victory.

Many opposition MPs, including Dr. Michael Clark of Red Deer, were convinced to join a pro-conscription Unionist coalition. The franchise was extended to women, but initially only to those who had family already overseas and were therefore more likely to back conscription. Finally, farmers were promised that all those actively involved in food production would not be conscripted.

The election was still one of the most bitter and divisive in Canadian history.

The Unionist government was able to win a sizable electoral victory. However, conscription failed to provide enough new troops to fill the escalating shortages of front-line soldiers overseas.

The promised exemption to farmers was soon broken. A harsh backlash quickly ensued.

Just before the bitter election came to a conclusion, there was an immense tragedy on Dec. 6th in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the hometown of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. The munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, blew up after a collision with the freighter S.S. Imo. It was the greatest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in history.

More than 1,600 people were killed instantly by the explosion. Another 300 of the estimated 9,000 injured later passed away. There was a major blizzard the day after the explosion, thereby greatly increasing the suffering in the shattered city.

People across Canada rallied to help out the victims in Halifax.

A special committee was established in Red Deer to help coordinate the sending of relief. A special Mayor’s Relief Fund was set up at all the local banks for people to make cash donations.

While special fundraising commenced for Halifax victims, the various charitable initiatives to support the war effort continued. That reduced the amount of money available for Christmas gifts and celebrations.

With all the news of tragedy and a bitter election, there was a lack of the usual Christmas sales notices in the local newspapers. Some Christmas socials were still organized, particularly those for the children.

Local churches had special Christmas services on Sunday, Dec. 23rd, Christmas Eve on the Monday and Christmas Day on Tuesday.

Overall, Christmas 1917 was a very subdued affair as people struggled to find the traditional “Peace on Earth, Good Will to All Men” that accompanies the Christmas season.

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