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The First World War was an watershed moment not only in world history, but the history of Canada as well. Entering the war as part of the British forces, by the end of the war Canada would be recognized as a country in its own right. The work of Canadian soldiers on the battlefield was recognized so highly by other countries that Canada was given a founding spot in the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.
The soldiers who fought in that war gave their lives and limbs for their country, but there were other soldiers at home who did their part to.
I am not talking about the reserves here, but the Soldiers of the Soil.
They may not have fought overseas, or saw any battles, but they served an incredibly important purpose not only for Canada but the entire Allied war effort.
When the First World War erupted in 1914, Canada was ready to join Britain and quickly began sending troops overseas. Through the course of the entire war, 650,000 men and women from Canada and Newfoundland served in the armed forces, helping out in any way they could. Many would sacrifice their bodies, with 172,000 wounded, and 65,000 gave their lives.
First, we are going to talk about the importance of agriculture in Canada at the start of the First World War.
With so many men and women leaving their properties and traveling to other parts of the country, and into Europe, this presented a very serious problem. Canada was an agricultural nation at the time, providing food for not only the country but much of the world. Saskatchewan alone accounted for half of all the wheat consumed by Canadians in 1925. Those farms throughout the country employed tens of thousands of people, and with those citizens gone, there was a need for workers to keep the food moving throughout the country and beyond. In all, it was estimated that 30 per cent of the Canadian workforce was employed in agriculture.
At the beginning of the war, Canada sent one million sacks of flour, while Ontario sent 500,000 sacks, along with four million pounds of cheese from Quebec. These initial gifts to the Mother Country at the start of the war exemplified the importance of the agricultural link between Canada and Britain.
With the war going on longer than anyone expected as 1914 turned into 1915, Britain began to rely more and more on its colonies to provide food and other supplies. This would result in Canada implementing policies for higher-than-usual food production from 1915 to 1918. Farmers were encouraged to supply the domestic market, while also producing more food that could be sent overseas. The British government was thankful for the troops that Canada was sending over, but they especially wanted the food supplies. In October 1914, the Westminster Gazette would print the expectations of London by saying “We are proud of the troops Canada is sending us, but we also expect wheat, which next year will be even more necessary for our national security.”
For the young men who worked farms, this created a situation of internal conflict as they juggled serving their country overseas, but also serving their country on the farm.
There was also a division in what to do between those who lived in cities and those who lived in rural areas. Rural newspapers would tout the importance of farmers and their duty to support and nourish soldiers. The urban press would push for the importance of men heading overseas to the Western Front.
In 1915, the Minister of Agriculture launched the first Canada-wide food production campaign called Patriotism and Production. This campaign urged farmers to increase their wheat production to feed Britain. The military leaders disagreed with leaving farmers on the farm, and military recruiters would go throughout the Canadian countryside finding new soldiers.
The need for soldiers would increase heavily throughout the war years. In the summer of 1914, 30,000 men volunteered. By the end of October, Prime Minister Robert Borden put down the objective of recruiting 250,000 men. By January 1916, that number was up to 500,000 men. This would lead us into the conscription crisis.
Farmers were not that interested in joining up in the war, because of the work they did to feed the troops. In 1916, only 8.5 per cent of volunteers were farmers. For the entire First World War, of the 600,000 men who enlisted, only 100,000 were farmers. In a country that was based heavily in agriculture, that was a comparatively small number.
It wasn’t just that they didn’t want to enlist, but that leaving the farm had severe consequences. If a young farmer enlisted, they had to rent out their property or entrust it to someone. This had its own problems. One Saskatchewan farmer stated in a letter in 1918 the following:
“This place has been uncultivated since 1914. On joining the army in August 1914, I obtained a promise from a neighbour to rent it during my absence, on the usual terms. He, however, failed to do so, without notifying me, then overseas, of this failure on his part. On my return, I find the place considerably overgrown with weeds.”
Another farmer in the Brantford area named John Lee related his story by saying that he was desperate to keep hired hands on his farm and that he even assaulted army recruitment officer QMS Taylor when he approached a worker on his farm. In Lee’s mind, the recruitment officer was a poacher of good farm labour.
The need for farm labour was also causing absences in school. The Six Nations School Board Truant Officer, Harry Martin, noticed in November of 1916 that many of the absences of students were caused by staying home to work on the family farm.
In 1917, school board members in that district passed a motion that allowed all students aged 12 and up to be exempt from school during seeding season.
The lack of help on the farm also drove up the wages of those who worked farms. In Brant County in Ontario, farmers were forced to pay as much as $60 per month, plus board, for labourers. That equals about $1,299 per month today.
Farmers also had expenses related to their farms, which were paid by growing crops. In order to grow crops to pay the bills, farmers needed to stay home. This is why the first Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 was made up of a lot of unemployed men from the cities.
Recruiters who would visit rural areas did not get a lot of volunteers and they would voice their concerns over the lack of enthusiasm of farmers to join the war effort, at least as soldiers.
Recruiters were hard pressed to find volunteers in general though. In March of 1916, there were 32,705 volunteers. By July of that year, the number of volunteers had fallen to only 8,675.
This would bring us up to the conscription crisis.
By 1917, the conscription debate in the country was raging and farmers urged the federal government of Robert Borden to acknowledge the important wartime role their sons were playing, and therefore that they should be exempt from conscription.
Borden would agree to this, desperate for the votes of farmers. This debate was the biggest issue of the federal election between Sir Robert Borden and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The debate raged through 1917 and into 1918 when the Military Service Act was passed in late August. The reason I bring this up is because Borden went back on his decision to make young farmers except. The exemption would end in April of 1918 due to the rising casualties and the need for more troops overseas.
The Act would require all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 45 to be subject to military service if called upon.
The breaking of the promise after the election by Borden would have long lasting impacts in the Canadian West. The bitterness over that broken promise would lead to the creation of several new federal and provincial parties.
There was an effort to not totally disregard the importance of food production. The Canadian government didn’t exempt farmers from conscription but they did decide to look at individual cases that would be reviewed by tribunals. The tribunals would then decide who would get an exemption. In 1917, 1,387 tribunals were established, each with two members. One member was designated by a Parliamentary committee, while the other was the judge from the area. If an exemption was not made, it could be appealed to one of 195 appellate tribunals, which consisted of a judge that had been appointed by the Chief Justice of the province. If that decision was not an exemption, it could then be appealed to the Central Appeal Tribunal, but no further than that. The decisions also had to be made based on the local conditions and the local economy.
The system wasn’t perfect though. Many farmers complained that the tribunals were refusing exemptions, regardless of the fact that people couldn’t be spared from the farm. If a farmer did not receive an exemption, they were forced to leave everything behind. Many had to auction off their livestock and equipment. Anytime someone criticized the fact that farmers were not getting exemptions, the government just told them that it was up to the tribunal itself.
As of Oct. 13, 1917, Class 1 conscripts, which was childless single men and widowers between the age of 20 and 34, were ordered to report to the military authorities by Nov. 10. A total of 25,000 conscripts were requested by the Minister of Militia, but that was raised another 10,000 within a month. On Jan. 3, 1918, the first 20,000 conscripts were ordered to the armouries, and many refused to report.
The conscription debate, the loss of many young men overseas and the need to feed the country and the world all would lead to the creation of the program by the Canadian Food Board, which recruited 22,285 young men from around the country. Many of those recruited were attending urban high schools, but pledged to live on rural farms for three months or more. In exchange for their service to the program, the young men received exemption from classes and final exams, free room and board, spending money and an honorable discharge upon completion of the program. They also received an SOS badge that acknowledged their service. This was often done at a community ceremony. The boys were paid as well, earning between $30 and $50 per month.
It wasn’t just young men who were helping out on the farm. The Farm Service Corps, also known as Farmerettes, was an initiative by the Ontario government to recruit young women to assist in all aspects of farm work. This program was highly successful. In the Niagara region alone, 2,400 women picked fruit.
With the Soldiers of the Soil, it was believed that the average boy, working on the farm, was enough to produce enough food to feed eight men, at least according to some of the articles issued for the initiative. There was even a uniform issued to the Soldiers of the Soil, which consisted of a shirt and pants made of military khaki, with SOS buttons on them, as well as a straw harvester hat.
Many young men were very excited about the program. In March of 1918, a representative from the program spoke at a high school in Listowel to get support and 50 youngsters signed up.
Business helped out in any way they could. In Manitoba for example, many businesses in rural towns closed early so employees could go out and work the fields. It was estimated that in Manitoba alone, 10,000 men were needed to work the fields. In the Oakville Standard, a weekly newspaper in that province, a piece was published on June 27, 1918 stating the following:
“The shortage of labour accounts for another procession seen the same day. A team was drawing a set of discs, attached to which was a light wagon. Tied to the rear of the wagon was another team drawing an engine gang plot, all in charge of one man”
Throughout the prairie provinces, people and organizations were on board with the program.
In Mannville, Saskatchewan, Arthur Pheasey related that going back to 1916, there was a shortage of grain in the area. He says, “I was 11 at that time. The Canada Food Board had a plan which was handled through the church whereby you could use the family horses and machinery to cultivate and look after 10 acres of crop. There were two or three of us who did this. I still have my Soldiers of the Soil badge.”
In Nelson, British Columbia, 60 boys left the community in July of 1917 when they were hired to work the strawberry fields near Creston. They had responded to the call for Soldiers of the Soil and passed the standard efficiency test movement of the YMCA.
In Mountain View County, the Olds Horticultural Society reorganized itself for Soldiers of the Soil and spent the entire spring of 1918 planting every square inch of soil in Olds. In addition, a Red Cross garden plot was laid down in Carstairs and the town boys began to work the summer months for the Soldiers of the Soil.
One of our best accounts of the Soldiers of the Soil comes from Gerry Andrews in a story published in Manitoba History in the spring of 1989.
Andrews was born in Winnipeg in December 1903 and was attending high school in 1917 at the Kelvin Technical High School. The family had recently gone bankrupt because his father had refused to handle liquor under wartime prohibition. Many of his competitors did handle liquor and made fortunes because of it.
In early 1918, officials came to his school to recruit Soldiers of the Soil. In early April, he received approval from his parents and the school to begin working as a wheat farmer at Purves, southwest of Winnipeg. This was Andrews first time away from home and among strangers. He was told about his work clothes, that he would have to dress for travel and Sundays, and given the schedule for the CPR line.
Working for Frank and Elizabeth Grain, both in their early-30s, and with three children all under the age of nine, they were deeply in need of help. Upon arrival, he was given a room upstairs, and he would eat meals with the family. For a boy from the city, the adventure of Soldiers of the Soil would be an eye-opener. As he says:
“My introduction to work began at 6 a.m. the day after arrival. Briefly the routine was: out to the barn sharp at 6; feed and water the animals, clean out the stalls, moving the manure to a pile outside the far end of the barn, harness the work horses, milk one or two cows, then go back to the house for breakfast at 7.”
Breakfast would end for him at 8, followed by hitching up horses and working in the field. At noon, work ended for lunch and then it was right back to work. At 5 p.m., the horses were put back into the barn and the family would have supper at 6 p.m. This was followed by evening chores, described by Andrews in the following:
“Evening chores included watering the stock, currying the work horses, bedding them down with clean straw and filling their mangers with hay plus a ration of oats.”
By 9 p.m, the workday was done, 15 hours after it started. Andrews would then clean up, have tea and a biscuit and then it was off to bed.
On Saturday afternoons and Sundays, only chores were done.
It was hard work and like he says, “insomnia was never a problem.”
The adjustment was not an easy one initially for Andrews.
“The first day or two I was nauseated by the odour of manure tracked into the house but like the family I soon got used to it…The novelty and fatigue were such that I did not even think of a bath for myself and must have begun to smell too. So on a Saturday, after supper, I was given the kitchen alone with a tub near the stove for a quick both. This became routine.”
In April, the ground was frozen so it was the job of Andrews to haul lignite coal from an open pit to the farm with a team and wagon.
“It was filthy, dusty and had a repulsive stench like uric acid,” he said.
The ignite was used to fuel a steam tractor at harvest time and Andrews was taught to harness, hitch and drive the team.
He would receive much from his experience, including a love for one certain type of farm animal.
“A lifetime benefit of my SOS experience has been an understanding and love of horses.”
In all, he would serve as a Soldier of the Soil for five and a half months, double what his contract required. After his honorable discharge, he was allowed to enter into Grade 10 in Calgary. He also received a bronze Soldier of the Soil badge.
“My experiences at Purves as outlined surely contributed to any success in later life and to my enjoyment of it.”
The Soldiers of the Soil were a vital part of the war effort in the First World War for Canada, but too often are forgotten about. Thousands of young men learned the agricultural trade and helped feed a nation and the world during one of the worst periods of human history.
It was no small feat, and one that would help define and shape Canada for years to come.
Information from veterans.gc.ca, Wikipedia, warmuseum.ca, Canadian Forces Journal, Southwestern Ontario.ca, Manitoba Cooperator, Manitoba History, Doing Our Bit, The Nelson Star