The march to war (three-part series)

A three-part Waterloo Chronicle series marking the centenary of the First World War

Part One: The March to War

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Aug. 6, 2014

Soldiers march south along Albert Street and turn east onto Erb Street in this undated photo from 1914-1918, courtesy of the Waterloo Public Library. This photo illustration shows the former Dominion Life building at the corner of Albert and Erb Streets remains largely unchanged to this day. Photo illustration by James Jackson.

“His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany from 11 o’clock p.m., August 4.”

The Waterloo Chronicle, Aug. 6, 1914

A century ago Great Britain was at war, and that meant Canada was at war.

The First World War, or the Great War, changed everything. It shifted borders and redrew maps, slaughtered millions of men in the prime of their life and sowed the seeds for a century of conflict.

The human cost is difficult to comprehend: thirty countries sent soldiers to fight and to die. An estimated 10 million military personnel and seven million civilians were killed. More than 20 million more were wounded.

For Canada, the numbers are equally as numbing. About 620,000 enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the war, and approximately 420,000 served overseas.

More than 60,000 were killed and another 172,000 were wounded. Thousands more suffered from “shell shock” — now recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — if they did return home.

In the years leading up to war, Europe was a powder keg waiting to explode, and on June 28, 1914 Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip lit the fuse when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo.

Since Canada had no control over its own foreign policy in 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4 after the Germans invaded Belgium Canada was automatically drawn to war as well.

A nation of just under eight million at the time, Canada was ill equipped for war.

“We were not prepared to participate in a war in which you’d expect to mobilize tens of thousands of men fighting in divisions and in long lines in Europe,” said Mark Humphries, the Dunkley Chair in War and the Canadian Experience at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.

The bulk of Canada’s first wave of soldiers was made up of volunteers — many of whom were British-born or the sons of immigrants — and within a month about 32,000 arrived at Valcartier, just outside Quebec City. By October, the first contingent sailed for Britain.

While the controversy surrounding the anti-German sentiment facing Waterloo County and its large German population has been well documented — most notably in Berlin, now Kitchener — the situation in the Town of Waterloo is nearly equally as complex.

The figure of Joseph Seagram still looms large in Waterloo at this time, according to University of Waterloo historian Geoffrey Hayes.

Seagram, a prominent local businessman, distiller and politician, was the son of British immigrants and imparted, “a kind of ‘Britishness’ to the Town of Waterloo that may or may not have been there in Berlin,” said Hayes.

Yet the town was situated just south of the rural townships of Woolwich and Wellesley, and that has led to a lot of debate — now as well as a century ago — over what kind of war effort the town would produce, Hayes said.

“Instead of everybody just massing for the colours, there’s an awful lot of farmers who felt that their contribution to the war effort would be measured by their production in the field,” he said.

“My guess is there’s a lot of people who are somewhat divided about what role they’re going to play.”

Enlistment records of the era were lumped together for a countywide assessment, which may have helped hide areas with lower numbers of volunteers, Hayes said. Overall, according to contemporary historian William Henry Breithaupt, Waterloo County provided 3,768 enlistments — 486 of which were killed or died of disease.

Sixteen men from the Town of Waterloo died during the conflict. The first was Adam Henry Grosz on April 29, 1916. The last was Robert William Dyer, who died Oct. 16, 1920.

While the human toll of the war was immense, it also impacted the daily lives of nearly everyone in town. Items such as flour, sugar and basic pharmaceuticals jumped in price by as much as 20 per cent in a matter of days. By mid-August, a bushel of wheat was selling for a dollar, when just a week earlier it had sold for 85 cents.

On Aug. 13, 1914 the Chronicle wrote that the Ontario Seed Company was also nervous about the next growing season and “that the conflict would be a serious handicap to their business” since much of the seed came from Europe, specifically Germany. Expected shipments of German-made goods to local stores also never arrived.

The newspaper even hinted at worries about Christmas, since “a large number of the toys which are given at Christmas time are manufactured in Germany and Austria.”

Despite these concerns, Waterloo residents opened their pocketbooks to the war effort. More than $100,000 was collected for the Patriotic Fund and another $12,000 was given to the Red Cross by the end of the war. Millions more in the form of Victory Loan dollars flowed from Waterloo as well.

After the initial flood of support and volunteers across Canada and Europe, within months the idea of a quick war dissolved into a battle of attrition as a brutal stalemate emerged across Europe. Heavily entrenched armies sent their soldiers over the tops of the trenches and into the abyss.

As that wave of volunteers for war trickled, local governments fought to keep morale high on the home front and debated the best way to respond to the escalating violence.

From discussions of whether or not the town should raise funds to buy machine guns or give soldiers preferential employment after the war, to providing funds to the families of soldiers killed overseas, difficult decisions had to be made.

Those debates, their significance within the broader context of the war, and feedback from current councillors about some of those decisions will be the focus of part two of this series next week.


Part Two: On the Home Front

By James Jackson
Chronicle StaffWilliam Kutt served as a member of town council from 1910 to 1919, becoming deputy reeve in 1914-1915 and reeve in 1916-1917. He was elected mayor in 1918-1919.
Published Aug. 13, 2014

The First World War quickly made its way to the home front of Canada after Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914.

Life changed significantly for Canadians as the switch to a wartime economy took hold, and the Town of Waterloo was no different. With a population of less than 5,000 people at the time, the war touched almost every facet of life.

Food prices spiked and there were concerns about the delivery of European-made goods, all within a few weeks.

But while Canadian history is punctuated by sweeping generalizations about the war effort and how the national identity was forged on the battlefields of Europe, those broad stories tend to neglect the very real and very difficult decisions made in towns and villages across Canada.

The minutes of Waterloo town council throughout the war, 1914 to 1918, provide a rare insight into the minds of the politicians of that time as they struggled with not only the logistics of getting volunteers and supplies to war, but ensuring life carried on here at home.

On Sept. 7, 1914 council declared its resolve to “assist, care and support” the families that send men overseas for military service, including payouts for the relatives of those who died — $1,000 for married men and $500 for unmarried men.

By 1915, however, evidence of the divisiveness of their decisions begins to show throughout the council minutes. One of the best examples of this uncertainty was whether or not the town should help fund the purchase of machine guns.

On Aug. 12, 1915, council heard a resolution from the Board of Trade asking councillors to support the board’s efforts to raise $5,000 for the purchase of five machine guns on behalf of the town.

The move to approve the purchase was eventually defeated by a motion from Coun. Marvin H. Stroh, who argued “machine guns should be provided by private subscription,” not the town.

The next day, however, a special council meeting was held and the town solicitor was directed to draft a bylaw to raise $2,000 for the purchase of two guns.

That motion was again re-visited just three months later. Council opted to take no steps to purchase any machine guns, and instead decided to donate $50 per month for the next year to the local Red Cross to purchase clothing or medicine.

“Clearly, council’s divided over the issue,” said Geoffrey Hayes of the University of Waterloo, a local history expert.

“You get the sense there were two conflicting sides,” said current mayor Brenda Halloran. “To be thrust into this [war] must have been quite the challenge.”

There is other evidence throughout the council documents of decision-makers struggling against the backdrop of a global, all-consuming war, Hayes said.

The town offered financial aid to new recruits or nurses in 1914, offering to pay for uniforms and some equipment. Council upped the ante in 1916 when, on April 10, they issued a tender to supply specially engraved wrist watches to all new recruits — likely an attempt to boost recruitment numbers, Hayes said.

“One might argue these represent carrots for a situation that starts to unravel,” said Hayes. The watches came just a few months after Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden’s announcement in January 1916 that Canada would double its contribution of soldiers to the war effort to half a million men — an almost unfathomable number for a country with a population of barely eight million people. That promise came at a time when recruitment rates were falling across Canada, and public support for war was waning.

The influence of Waterloo’s incentives on recruitment levels is difficult to decifer, and records show only about 75 men from the Town of Waterloo went overseas to fight during the war.

Not all of the wartime decisions of council must have been difficult to make — the motion to send $1,000 in aid to Halifax following the devastating explosion of Dec. 6, 1917 was likely an easy one to support — nevertheless, the issues debated a century ago are incomparable to today.

“You think about the hot-button issues we’ve dealt with and I don’t have a comparator to what the council of that day was debating,” said Coun. Scott Witmer.

“It’s something, thankfully, that councils for many, many years have not had to discuss,” he added.

“It’s a testament to how our society has changed,” said Coun. Mark Whaley.

Coun. Karen Scian sees some parallels in the role of council then and now. Many of their wartime decisions dealt with “safe and healthy communities, and ensuring people are looked after,” she said — a role that hasn’t changed to this day.

For Coun. Jeff Henry, the most interesting element is how council continued administering to the needs of its residents even as war raged overseas.

“As a councillor, your job is to make sure your community is prosperous and thriving and this would have been a huge jolt to that on the home front,” he said.

Part three of this series will examine the personal toll of the First World War after it ended in 1918.

Notable town council decisions of the First World War (1914-1918)

1914 — Promised payment to the families of servicemen killed overseas ($1,000 if married; $500 if unmarried). Rescinded a year later in favour of insurance payouts.
1915 — Strongly encouraged preferential hiring of ex-service men upon their return.
1916 — Approved a tender supplying engraved wrist watches to new recruits.
1917 — Allowed recruits and the 118th Battalion to use the basement of the market building for rifle practice on Saturdays.
1917 — Approved $1,000 for the City of Halifax after an explosion destroyed much of the harbour.
1918 — Declaration that Nov. 8 and Nov. 11 will be public holidays in the Town of Waterloo.


Part Three: The Aftermath of War

By James Jackson
Chronicle Staff
Published Aug. 20, 2014 

War has shaped Donald Bonfonte’s entire

Pte. George Bonfonti survived the First World War but died in Kitchener on Aug. 1, 1927 at the age of 32 from lung damage he suffered during a gas attack in 1918. He left behind a widow and three young children.

From losing his father and his uncle to injuries suffered during the First World War, to nearly dying himself on the battlefields of France during the Second World War, armed conflict forged Bonfonte into the man he is today.

Now 91 and living in Waterloo, Donald was only four years old when his father died at the Freeport sanatorium in Kitchener in 1927.

“I don’t remember him at all,” said Donald of his father, George, who died of lung damage after he survived a gas attack in 1918. The family is still waiting for records detailing where George served during the war.

“All I remember was we had to move all the time after he died.”

Donald’s uncle, Andrew, was also claimed by the war when he died in 1919 of shrapnel wounds. He is now buried in England.

When George returned home he married Lucinda Ringel and they had three children — Dorothy, Elaine and Donald. The family lived in Kitchener at the time but struggled to make ends meet after George died.

Donald can still rattle off most of the names of the streets he lived on before his 10th birthday.

“Glasgow, Park Street, Woodland Avenue, Stirling, King Street, Lancaster… mother had to live on about $10 per week and she had three kids. If they raised the rent we had to move,” Donald said.

He got his first job when he was 14 years old working at the Forsyth Shirt Factory for 15 cents an hour, and didn't attend school past the eighth grade. His mother qualified for what was then called “relief” during the Great Depression — an early form of welfare — but it was never enough.

Diane Bonfonte, Donald’s daughter, wonders how her father’s life might have turned out if the men in his life had never gone to war. “If he had a father who could have worked, things might have been different,” she said.

The sons of Italian immigrants, they likely had no desire to go to war for Britain. The family believes the brothers were grabbed off the street in late 1917 by a group of army recruits and taken to be drafted into the Canadian army.

Andrew had his medical examination in March 1918 when he was 26 years old. George’s exam was in November 1917 at the age of 22.

Donald’s mother, Lucinda, had no family to go to after her husband died because George’s family was Roman Catholic and hers was Protestant. She even had to change the spelling of her last name from Bonfonti to Bonfonte.

This lack of family help meant she had no one to take care of her children so she could find a job.

The First World War created hundreds of thousands of veterans for the first time in Canada’s history. Dealing with injured and broken soldiers, not to mention the countless families who lost husbands, fathers and sons overseas, was unfamiliar territory for the nation’s policy makers.

Initially, only those who suffered injuries during the war were given government pensions, said Mark Humphries, the Dunkley Chair in War and the Canadian Experience at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.

That payment wasn’t for service to their country, however, but because they had lost their ability to be re-integrated as productive members of society. In 1918, a veteran completely disabled by war received a pension of up to $720 per year — the equivalent income of an unskilled labourer, Humphries said.

The Bonfonti family may have qualified for pension payments while George was in hospital, Humphries said, but those payments ceased once the children turned 18 or got a job.

In many cases it fell on municipalities to care for the wounded or the families of dead soldiers. In Waterloo, there was considerable debate over the town’s liability to provide payment for men killed during the war.

In September 1914, council promised every family of a married man $1,000 ($500 for unmarried men) should he die in the war. By 1915, however, that promise was rescinded and the town opted to provide insurance instead, but not before 12 men had volunteered for war — including Adam Henry Grosz and Bernard Woodward, the first two soldiers from Waterloo who were killed in the war.

When Grosz died on April 29, 1916 his mother requested council make good on its original promise to pay $500 to the families of unmarried men. It took six months to approve payment as staff tried to determine if the town was liable, but eventually the family was paid.

When Woodward was killed just three months after Grosz on Sept. 15 1916, his widow asked the city to pay the $1,000 it had promised. That payment took four months to process.

Fortunately for the city, none of the other early recruits were killed, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that soldiers of the First World War won suitable pension and healthcare concessions from the federal government.

Their struggle helped lay the groundwork for the social safety net Canadians enjoy today, including universal healthcare, Humphries said.

Donald was a beneficiary of that change in attitudes when, after he was nearly fatally injured during the Second World War by an exploding tank shell, he returned to Canada, was retrained for factory work and received a pension for his service.

“Veterans of the First World War changed our conception of what it meant to be a citizen and the programs that we should be eligible for as citizens,” Humphries said.

“That’s the most important lasting legacy. It’s that Canadians began to think that maybe there are obligations that we have to each other that we didn’t have before.”