Women in the War: The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS)

We often receive reference requests for photographs of loved ones serving with the Canadian Forces. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds a vast photographic collection, over 30 million images, a substantial portion of which is found within the Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112). A project to survey accession 1967-052 “Canada. Dept. of National Defence collection” 1939–1953 and to index all photographs of servicewomen began in April 2018 and is well under way. I hope to see the work completed for all three arms of the service, Navy, Army and Air Force, by 2022. Representing all three branches of the armed forces and comprising over 500,000 photographs, this collection is one of my favourites and at the top of my list for review when a researcher requests photographs from the Second World War or the Korean War. It includes photographs from the home front and theatre of war, making it a rich, well-described collection.

My colleague’s post “75th Anniversary of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service ” published in 2017 serves as a perfect complement to this work and features many photographs, both colour and black and white, of servicewomen at work and play. To quote from the post, I want to highlight here that: “Those serving with the WRCNS were commonly called ‘Wrens,’ the nickname used by their British counterparts, who were members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).” Throughout the captions, I found both terms “Wren” and “WRCNS” used to identify servicewomen.

A black-and-white photograph of two members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service washing the front of a bus while their colleague sprays the side of the bus with a hose.

Personnel of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) washing a bus at H.M.C.S. CONESTOGA, Galt, Ontario, Canada, July 1943. (a108171)

The accession is broken down into prefixes, most often by location (such as base or city) or by ship. For example, the MAG prefix is comprised of photographs documenting “the HMCS Magnificent between 1948 and 1957.”

The finding aids for each prefix, also referred to as caption lists, are available for consultation in the second-floor reference room at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. They are also part of LAC’s initiative to digitize the majority of existing finding aids, ongoing until 2024.

A survey of the caption lists for each of the prefixes specific to naval photographs has been completed, and all those captions that mention servicewomen have been noted. The result is 2,652 photographs, or 1.3 percent.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a military uniform leaning across a counter to interview three women beside a sign that reads “Canadian Wives’ Bureau.”

Leading Wren Evelyn Kerr (right) of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) interviewing British wives of Canadian sailors, Canadian Wives’ Bureau, London, England, 30 November 1944. (a128179)

One of the pleasures of the project has been the exposure to the various trades and functions that the Wrens performed. From photographers and dieticians, to motor transport drivers and librarians, the servicewomen performed all sorts of valuable work at home and abroad to support the war effort. I also came across and included numerous images of Nursing Sisters.

A black-and-white photograph of a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service handing a man a tall stack of books beside a ship.

Leading Wren Ruth Church, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), delivering a supply of library books to Able Seaman Bill Swetman of the HMCS Petrolia, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, November 1944. (a189717)

How to Search for “Your” Servicewoman

You can write to us with information about “your” Wren or Nursing Sister to see if there are any indexed photographs that identify her by name. It would be helpful to know her maiden name, where and when she served, as this will help us narrow the search. Similarly, once you identify relevant records within a series, a review of those photographs by yourself or a freelance researcher may reveal additional photographs that did not identify her by name OR that did not indicate that any servicewomen were in the image. For example, many captions simply describe the photograph as “Christmas Dance” or “Holiday Party” and were not included.

To know more about “your” servicewoman’s time with the Canadian Forces, request a copy of her Military Service file.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service carrying a large bag on her shoulder.

Leading Wren June Whiting of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) disembarking at Liverpool, England, April 1945 (a142415)

Please feel free to visit us at one of our public service points in Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg or Vancouver or write to us with questions about LAC’s holdings, both archival and published.

Rebecca Murray is an Archivist in the Reference Services Division.

Hockey and the First World War

By Ellen Bond

In the early 1900s, playing hockey could lead to fighting for your country. The skills that made you a good hockey player—strength, endurance, patience, toughness—were desirable to the army. In its rough-and-tumble way, hockey was seen as a way to prepare yourself for war. The best soldiers were often hockey players and many players volunteered to fight in the First World War.

Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson was one of those volunteers. Born on March 6, 1891, in Kingston, Ontario, Davidson began playing hockey with the Kingston Junior Frontenacs. As their captain, he helped the team win the Ontario Hockey Association Junior Championship in 1910 and 1911. The next year, Davidson moved to Calgary to play for the Calgary Athletics’ senior team. They won the Alberta Cup in 1911–1912 but lost their challenge to the Winnipeg Victorias for the Allan Cup (Canadian Senior Championship).

In 1912, Davidson started playing professionally for the Toronto Blueshirts (now Toronto Maple Leafs) in the National Hockey Association. Davidson was the team’s captain and leading goal scorer the next year and helped win Toronto’s first Stanley Cup in 1914. In his two seasons with the Blueshirts, Davidson scored 46 goals in 44 games. He could skate backwards faster than most players could skate forwards, according to Edward Allan, a hockey writer for the Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper.

Black-and-white photo of the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914.

Toronto Blueshirts, Stanley Cup Champions of 1914. Scotty Davidson is in the centre of the front row. Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum.

As a star hockey player, Davidson had all the skills the army was looking for. He may have been the first professional hockey player to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), joining in September 1914. Scotty volunteered to be a “bomb thrower”, lobbing grenades at enemy troops. Some newspapers carried stories about Davidson in the army and described his bravery in the face of danger.

Scotty Davidson died in the field on June 16, 1915. His CEF service file states that Davidson “was killed instantly by a shell falling in the trench. He was practically blown to pieces.” A newspaper account of his death claimed that Davidson would have earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Victoria Cross if he had survived the battle. Fellow soldier and Kingston resident, Captain George Richardson said Davidson was one of the bravest men in his company. He was fearless, willing and ready to save his comrades at every opportunity. Davidson’s name is memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

A page from the service file of Scotty Davidson describing how he was killed in action.

A page from Davidson’s digitized service file describes how he was killed in action (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 280738)

Scotty Davidson sounds like the type of athlete I would have loved to watch play hockey. He was a smooth skater, a goal scorer and a leader. In 1925, Maclean’s magazine named Scotty the top right-winger in its all-star team of the best hockey players. An opposing coach, Ernie Hamilton, said about Scotty’s shot, “I never saw such hard shooting.” The roots of our freedom are founded on the lives of people such as Scotty. He was a glorious athlete whose life was cut far too short.

Scotty Davidson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950. Scotty’s sacrifice is honoured by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

Ellen Bond is a project assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.

New podcast! Check out our latest episode, “The Battlefield Art of Mary Riter Hamilton”

Our latest podcast episode is now available. Check out “The Battlefield Art of Mary Riter Hamilton.”

Colour image of a painting depicting two gun emplacements at the edge of a burnt out forest. In the foreground, there are two graves with white crosses. At the bottom-left of the painting is a signature and year: Mary Riter Hamilton 1919.

Gun Emplacements, Farbus Wood, Vimy Ridge [e000000656]

What drove a successful artist from a comfortable life in Canada to one of hardship in the battlefields of France and Belgium after the First World War? From 1919 to 1922, Mary Riter Hamilton undertook a “special mission” for The War Amps to document the scarred landscape where Canadian soldiers had fought and died.

Her canvases capture the devastation of war but also signs of hope and renewal. At great cost to her health, this artist created one of the few authentic collections of paintings of war-torn Europe. She considered her work to be a gift to Canada. She donated the majority of the collection of paintings to the Public Archives of Canada, now Library and Archives Canada, in 1926.

We sit down with retired assistant professor of history at the University of Manitoba, Kathryn Young, and Dr. Sarah McKinnon, former vice-president at the Ontario College of Art and Design, and former curator at the University of Manitoba.

To view images associated with this podcast, here’s a direct link to our Flickr album

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS, iTunes or Google Play, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at bac.balados-podcasts.lac@canada.ca.

Images of Pigeons now on Flickr

The pigeon family is large and consists of approximately 300 species. Only three species now breed in Canada.

A black-and-white photograph of a little girl (Ann MacDonald) standing next to a door looking at a pigeon on the sidewalk.

Ann MacDonald with a pigeon in front of a building [e010966947]

The bird commonly referred to as a “pigeon” is the rock dove, or rock pigeon. It lives in cities and towns and on farmland. The mourning dove lives in open groves and woods. The band-tailed pigeon also inhabits open woods. A fourth species, the passenger pigeon, was hunted into extinction at the end of the 19th century.

A watercolour painting of large nets set up in the woods to catch passenger pigeons.

Passenger Pigeon Net, St. Anne’s, Lower Canada [C-012539k]

Love them or hate them, pigeons were considered companions in ancient times, and they were the first birds to be domesticated. During the First World War and the Second World War, pigeons were used to carry messages for the military.

A black-and-white photograph of a carrier pigeon held in a bush pilot’s hands.

Carrier pigeon used for emergency communication by bush pilots [e006079072]

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers in a trench watering their carrier pigeons in a portable carrier with a canteen.

Canadian pigeon carriers watering the birds in captured German trenches on Hill 70, Lens, France [PA-001686]

Visit the Flickr album now!

1918 Spanish flu epidemic

By Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Toward the end of the First World War, as Canadian troops were involved in Canada’s Hundred Days, a new enemy—even tougher than the Kaiser’s Germany—attacked soldiers and civilians alike, ignoring borders.

In just a few months, the 1918 influenza epidemic spread around most of the world, reaching pandemic proportions. It became known as the “Spanish flu” because Spanish journalists, not subject to wartime censorship, were the first to report publicly on the epidemic in Europe.

Historians are divided on the precise origin of the 1918 influenza outbreak. However, they do agree that the rapid spread of the disease was hastened by the presence of large numbers of soldiers in military camps, which became excellent incubators for the virus. Soldiers returning to their home countries intensified the spread of the disease.

The first serious flu cases in Canada occurred toward the end of summer 1918, while the First World War was still raging. Port authorities in Halifax and Québec, where ships docked bringing home the wounded and the ill, noted the first cases and warned federal health officials about the situation.

Federal authorities quickly carried out medical examinations of passengers on ships travelling from Europe. They quarantined people who showed signs of influenza. Essentially, the officials tried the same measures that were used in the 19th century to deal with cholera epidemics. However, sailing ships had given way to ocean liners carrying thousands of soldiers to the war and back. Canada’s four quarantine stations could not halt the progress of the epidemic, despite the best efforts of the doctors trying to contain it.

By autumn 1918, influenza was racing through the population like wildfire. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded and were hard pressed to receive more patients. Many people were therefore cared for at home or in temporary facilities, such as mobile military field hospitals. Overworked medical personnel were also hit by the flu themselves. This meant that relatives or friends were often called on to care for the sick, which contributed to the spread of the disease.

Sketch showing the various components of a mobile hospital.

Plan of a mobile hospital proposed by the firm I.H. Bogart & Son of Boston in the United States, RG29 vol. 300 (e011165378-045)

However, the number of deaths was soon growing so rapidly that there was even a waiting list for… cemetery burials. Across the country, health officials put regulations in place to try to stop the spread of the devastating outbreak. Schools, theatres, libraries and, in short, almost all public places—sometimes even churches—closed their doors. Many people wore masks to try to protect themselves, and anyone who dared to spit was strongly reprimanded. This was because, despite the fact that the epidemic could not be stopped, people knew it was influenza and the virus spread from person to person through the air.

Black-and-white photo of three men wearing hygienic masks.

Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic (a025025)

Soldiers returning to Canada at the end of the war found their families decimated. This was the case for soldier Arthur-Joseph Lapointe, father of Jean Lapointe, a retired senator. In his memoirs, Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat, 1916-1919, he recounts that on his return home, his father, looking deeply sombre, delivered very sad news:

“We did not want to tell you the extent of the misfortune that has befallen us, because we did not know when you might be coming back, and it would have made your life unbearable. A terrible flu epidemic took three of your brothers and two sisters in the space of nine days.” [translation]

Over several tragic months, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 20 million people around the world, including some 50,000 in Canada—almost as many as died in the four years of fighting during the First World War.

Federal health officials were heavily criticized for implementing outdated and inadequate quarantine measures, and for their lack of vision and leadership. After taking stock of its ineffectual actions during the influenza pandemic, the federal government created the Department of Health in 1919.

Records related to this tragedy can be found at Library and Archives Canada. More information is available in our thematic guide on the Spanish flu epidemic.

Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior archivist in Military Affairs, Government Archives Division, at Library and Archives Canada.

Soldiers at the Front, Workers in Factories

By Lucie Paquet

In August 1914, countries in Europe started a war that was expected to be over quickly. Like many Western countries, Canada mobilized and sent troops to fight on the Allied side during the First World War. The French army, largely deprived of heavy industry and mining resources, soon ran out of military materiel, which led to a marked increase in demand for all kinds of products. So from 1914 to 1918, Canada took action to address this situation by requisitioning nearly 540 industrial facilities across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver. Steel factories deemed essential by the government were converted to manufacture war materiel. To support the army, their activities were closely supervised by the Imperial Munitions Board, which appointed and sent more than 2,300 government inspectors to factories to supervise, test and evaluate the production of military goods. It was under these circumstances that The Steel Company of Canada (now Stelco) converted a large part of its operations to produce materiel for war.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board, in black text with some red underlining, listing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board detailing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada. (e011198346)

However, this change led to problems. Since the factories were not prepared to manufacture weapons quickly and to ensure consistent high quality, orders were delivered late and, very often, the equipment was defective. Stelco faced this reality and experienced these difficulties.

First page (pink) of a letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells.

Letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells. (e011198359-001)

Stelco’s biggest challenge involved the supply of raw materials. First, these had to be found and extracted; then the raw ore had to be transported from the mines to the plants; the necessary machinery and equipment had to be acquired and the new blast furnaces put into operation; and, finally, workers had to be trained for each stage of the manufacturing process. With its newly electric-powered mill for making steel bars, Stelco was able to start production quickly. It hired women to replace the hundred workers sent to the front, and it bought mining properties in Pennsylvania and Minnesota to supply coal and iron to its factories. Stelco also renovated and modernized its plants.

Table listing, in blue and red text, Stelco’s capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment.

Statement prepared by Stelco outlining capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment (e011198354)

Transportation systems were built to carry raw metals to Stelco’s processing plants in Montréal, Brantford, Gananoque and Hamilton. At the time, most major Canadian cities were linked by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway lines, to transport soldiers and military goods.

Fall 1916 was a turning point in the steel industry, after two years of experimentation and production. As war continued to rage in Europe, metallurgists and industrialists decided to hold strategic meetings. The first meeting of the Metallurgical Association was held in Montréal on October 25, 1916, to discuss scientific advances in manufacturing military equipment. On that occasion, Stelco held an exhibition to showcase its products.


Two printed pages from the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin with black-and-white photographs of shells produced by Stelco.

Photos in the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin showing shells produced by Stelco. (e011198345)

In 1917, Stelco built two new plants in Hamilton. In addition to artillery pieces, steel panels were also manufactured for the construction of ships, rail cars, vehicles and aircraft parts.

As the war intensified, the demand for munitions increased dramatically. Production levels rose, prompting a reorganization of the world of work. To speed up production, workers were now paid wages based on the time allocated to manufacture each part. Bonuses were also awarded to the fastest workers.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task. (e011198358)

Black-and-white photograph showing the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916.

View of the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916. (e011198375)

The war effort created a strong sense of brotherhood and patriotism, and workers put their demands on hold. A message from the superintendent of the shell department, delivered on January 4, 1917, clearly shows the pressure in the factories and the crucial role of the workers.

Handwritten letter written by superintendent E. Frankland to employees of Stelco’s shell department. (e011198367; a French version of this letter is also available: e011198368)

More than a hundred workers from the steel mills would fight in the trenches; most of them were sent to France. This list, dated November 16, 1918, shows the name and rank of each worker who went to fight, the name of his battalion or regiment, and his last known home base.

Four typewritten pages listing Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918).

List of Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918). (e011198365)

Fundraising campaigns were organized during the war to help soldiers and their families. Workers contributed a portion of their wages to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page, in black and white, and pages 23 and 24, in black and red, of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page and pages 23 and 24 of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund. (e0111983867 and e011198385)

The work of factory workers was very demanding. Although the tasks required a high degree of precision, they were repetitive and had to be performed swiftly on the production line.

Left, a black-and-white photograph of workers on a production line for shells. Right, a blue Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week.

Left, Stelco workers on a production line for 9.2-inch shells. Right, an Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week. (e011198374 and e011198362)

The products were heavy and dangerous to handle. The workers melted the steel in the blast furnaces and then poured it into rectangular moulds. With tongs, they removed the glowing hot steel ingots and placed them on wagons. The ingots were then transported to the forge, where they were rolled into round bars according to the dimensions required to form the various shell tubes.

Black-and-white photograph of a worker using long tongs on a glowing hot steel ingot.

Reproduction of a photograph of a worker using long tongs to remove a glowing hot 80-pound steel ingot from a 500-tonne press. (e01118391)

Black-and-white photograph of workers posing beside hundreds of shell cylinders.

Stelco workers pose proudly beside hundreds of shell cylinders made from molten steel. (e01118373)

A large quantity of steel bars was produced to manufacture 9.2-inch, 8-inch, 6.45-inch and 4.5-inch shells.

Black-and-white photograph of the interior of a shell factory in Montréal on May 12, 1916.

View of the inside of Stelco’s shell factory on Notre-Dame Street, Montréal, May 12, 1916. (e01118377)

In 1915, Stelco’s plants in Brantford, Ontario, and on Notre-Dame Street in Montréal forged some 119,000 shells. The combined production of the two plants increased to 537,555 shells in 1917, then reached 1,312,616 shells in 1918. Under great pressure, Canadian factories continued to process millions of tonnes of steel into military materiel until the Armistice ending the First World War was signed in November 1918.

Lucie Paquet is a senior archivist in the Science, Governance and Political Division at Library and Archives Canada

Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember the last Canadian soldier of the First World War to receive the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Hugh Cairns, for his bravery at Valenciennes, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier in uniform.

Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC, undated (a006735)

Born in Ashington, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on December 4, 1896, Hugh Cairns and his family immigrated to Canada and settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cairns was a plumber before the war. Hugh and his older brother Albert Cairns both enlisted on August 2, 1915 and August 11, 1915, respectively, in Saskatoon. They both joined the 65th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which was absorbed into the 46th Battalion on June 30, 1916 On September 10, 1918, Albert died of head wounds caused by a shell.

Hugh Cairns served in France, proving his determination and resilience as a soldier on several occasions. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal on August 25, 1917 as a private. He was promoted to corporal in the summer of 1918, then to sergeant three months later.

A black-and-white photograph of a uniformed soldier, facing away from the camera and standing in the middle of the bricks and rubble of a destroyed building. A cart with a large wheel is on the left.

A Canadian post in Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003355)

Through October and into November 1918, the Canadians continued their assault on the German lines. Despite German efforts to stubbornly defend their retreating lines, the Allies’ persistent offensives resulted in heavy German losses, the capture of thousands of prisoners, as well as dozens of kilometres in ground gained. By November 1, 1918, the Germans were clinging to the city of Valenciennes and maintaining their stronghold near Marly.

The push into Valenciennes from the 46th Battalion’s “A” Company included an assault on a two-platoon frontage with one support platoon. Cairns was leading the support wave platoon. The Canadian barrage opened at 5:15 a.m. and the platoons began to move toward their objectives. After advancing about 500 yards, they were met with heavy machine gun fire from their left. The platoons pushed on, squashing the resistance from the German machine guns, capturing prisoners and weapons along the way.

A black-and-white photograph of abandoned buildings, crumbling and filled with holes. The ground is covered in debris, mud, and rocks. Four soldiers are walking away from the camera, having crossed an expanse on a bridge made of debris.

Canadians entering Valenciennes over an improvised bridge, November, 1918 (a003376)

As the advance inched along, the Company was held up by very heavy machine gun fire. Under a spray of bullets, Cairns and other soldiers moved to outflank the gun. Crawling on their hands and knees, under cover from friendly rapid machine gun fire, the party succeeded in closing in on the battery. They seized 3 field guns, a trench mortar, 7 machine guns, and over 50 prisoners. Cairns went on to lead his men to capture the railway and establish a post.

As Cairns was heading off to examine a nearby factory, a German soldier opened direct fire on him with an automatic rifle from a nearby post. Cairns, wielding a Lewis gun, made a run for the post of German soldiers, and fired. He killed and wounded many German soldiers in his assault as they ran for a nearby courtyard.

A black-and-white photograph of an ornate railway station in the background, crumpled and heaving, with broken windows and missing walls. The ground is cut diagonally with railway tracks, flooded with water, and littered with debris, planks of wood, and assorted rubble.

The flooded railway station at Valenciennes, November, 1918 (a003452)

Later, Cairns and another soldier were patrolling the city when they entered a courtyard and found 50 German soldiers. While in the process of taking them prisoner and confiscating their weapons, a German officer grabbed for his pistol and shot Cairns through the stomach. In retaliation, Cairns opened fire, killing or wounding about 30 German soldiers. The would-be German prisoners, realizing they needed to fight for their lives, descended upon Cairns and opened fire. Cairns was shot through the wrist, but continued to fire his Lewis gun at the enemy. He was again shot through the hand, nearly taking it off, and breaking his Lewis gun. Cairns threw the useless gun in the face of a German soldier who was firing at him, knocking him over. With his remaining strength, Cairns staggered to a gateway and collapsed, where he was carried off by his comrades.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people standing in front of a building with an open door. Women wearing wide white hats are shaking the hands of soldiers in uniforms. On both ends of the photograph, groups of civilian men and women are smiling into the camera. Someone in the back of the group is holding the French flag.

French nuns and civilians in Valenciennes greet the first Canadians entering the town, November, 1918 (a003578)

Cairns’ heroic maneuvers and self-sacrifice are detailed in the 46th Battalion’s war diaries for November 1918 (pp. 21, 22, 23), where he is mentioned by name throughout the whole account. He is one of several names given special recognition for his actions in Valenciennes. His efforts and bravery helped his company achieve their objectives. By the end of the day, the Canadian Corps captured approximately 1,800 German soldiers and killed more than 800 men. The Canadian losses including Cairns were 80 killed, and approximately 300 wounded.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a white blouse with her arms around a soldier in uniform, kissing his cheek.

French civilian woman kissing a Canadian soldier after the Canadians cleared the Germans out of Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003451)

Cairns died of his wounds on November 2, 1918 and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

Cairns is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery in Nord, France.

Several dedications have been made in his memory, honouring his gallantry. The town of Valenciennes renamed one of its main streets to Avenue du Sergent Cairns. His parents travelled to France to attend the civic ceremony held on July 25, 1936. Back in Canada, an elementary school is named after him, Hugh Cairns V. C. School, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The 38 Combat Engineer Regiment armoury in Saskatoon bears his name, Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC Armoury.

His Victoria Cross is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Sergeant Hugh Cairns.

Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Canada’s zombie army

By Andrew Horrall

In the early morning of October 24, 1944, one week before Halloween, Prime Minister Mackenzie King dreamed about close friends. King—who was fascinated by spiritualism—felt that his dream signified “the presence of relations interested in matters pertaining to myself, and wishing to let their presence be known” (WLMK diary, October 24, 1944, p. 1). During that day, King noticed further signs of otherworldly guidance, as he tried to resolve an issue that was splitting his government and the country.

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, King had promised not to introduce conscription, but now Canada’s army in Europe desperately needed reinforcements. King spent the afternoon chairing a heated discussion in Cabinet about whether to force young men into the military. He was especially annoyed when Thomas Crerar, the Minister of Mines and Resources, insisted that “Zombies ought to be sent overseas” to help end the war (WLMK diary, October 24, 1944, p. 8).

A colour poster of a smiling soldier with the caption: Come On, pal ... ENLIST!

“Come On, pal … ENLIST!” recruiting poster, ca. 1942 (c087427k)

Modern readers might ask themselves, did the government debate sending one-time humans, transformed by infection into cannibalistic undead monsters, into battle? The answer is no. The Cabinet discussion reflected how wartime tensions had transformed the relatively uncommon term “zombie” into a popular Canadian colloquial expression.

Zombies appear in many contemporary movies, comics, books and television programs; however, in the 1940s, zombies were much more obscure and still firmly rooted in Haitian folklore as mindless, mute automatons raised from the dead to perform manual tasks. Most North Americans first heard about zombies in a bestselling 1929 book, The Magic Island, whose author claimed to have met actual zombies in Haiti. Hollywood adapted the book three years later into the first zombie movie: White Zombie. Bartenders also began mixing the “zombie,” a potent rum cocktail whose stupefying effects put people in mind of the addled creature.

The story of zombies in the Canadian army is more complicated. At the start of the war in September 1939, King pledged that he would not introduce conscription for overseas military service. The issue had split the country in 1917, and it threatened to do so once again. Volunteers were instead asked whether they agreed to fight overseas. In 1940, the National Resources Mobilization Act gave the government the power to conscript men, but only for service within Canada. Individuals still had to declare their willingness to become General Service, or “GS” men. Tensions between the two groups—the GS men and those who refused to serve overseas—soon became apparent at basic training stations throughout Canada. GS men derided those who had elected to serve in Canada as “Maple Leaf Wonders” for not accepting dangerous front-line posts. After completing their training, many GS men proceeded overseas, while those who remained at home undertook administrative
tasks and guarded Canada’s coasts.

A colour photograph of three men climbing over a wooden fence clad in helmets, short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and socks and boots, and carrying rifles.

Troops in basic training, Lansdowne Park, Ottawa (e010778708)

Ongoing political, social and military tensions about conscription resulted in a national plebiscite in April 1942, in which English Canadians voted to give the government the power to force men to fight, while French Canadians opposed the idea in equal numbers. The deep divisions were apparent to King, who tried to chart a middle ground under the slogan “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

A black-and-white photograph of a man standing at a lectern that is wrapped in the Union Jack, in front of a large audience of workers. Policemen are in the first row.

James S. Duncan, President and General Manager of the Massey-Harris Company, urging workers to vote in favour of conscription in the forthcoming national plebiscite, 1942 (a164429)

By early 1943, men who refused to fight overseas were being ridiculed as “zombies” by GS men, women in uniform and the public at large. It is not clear when the insult was first used to depict these men as cowardly, passive and unable to think for themselves. The image was reinforced by English-Canadian newspapers and magazines, which reported on how zombies were the target of jokes and were linked to supposedly subversive elements in Canadian society, and how women refused to date zombies. A photograph in the Toronto Star in January 1943, showing a group of shipyard workers who had painted zombie faces on their welding masks, suggests that some men were proud of their decision not to fight and embraced the supposedly degrading term (“Shots behind scenes in Canada’s war factories,” Toronto Star [January 13, 1943], p. 17).

The idea of zombies was seared into the Canadian imagination in July 1943 by reports about a riot at a Calgary military base. Fighting broke out there after GS men taunted those who refused to serve overseas with “Salute to a Zombie,” a song that appears to have been commonly heard across Canada. The copy sent to Colonel J.L. Ralston, the Minister of National Defence, who strongly advocated sending zombies overseas, is preserved at Library and Archives Canada.

A typed poem with a rubber stamp marking on the side and some handwritten text on the bottom.

“Salute to a Zombie,” RG24, vol. 2197, file HQ 54-27-63-38

By the time King chaired the Cabinet meeting a week before Halloween in 1944, he faced intense pressure from ministers, military commanders and large sections of the public to send zombies into combat, because Canadian army casualties could no longer be replaced by volunteers alone. King resisted until November, when he decided to compel some 17,000 zombies to go overseas, causing a wave of desertions and a short-lived mutiny in British Columbia. In the end, about 2,500 zombies fought in Europe, where 69 of these soldiers died.

A generation of Canadians, mostly in English Canada, associated zombies with bitter social divisions caused by the Second World War. The term’s modern meaning and the creature’s prominent status in popular culture dates to the release of the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead.

Andrew Horrall is a senior archivist in the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Newfoundland’s Private Thomas Ricketts and his selfless bravery demonstrated at Ledeghem, Belgium.

A black-and-white copy of a newspaper clipping. “Proclamation!” is written in large, capital letters at the top of the clipping.

Seeking recruits to the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, The Daily News, August 22, 1914 (Source: The Rooms)

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire. In order to support the British Army and war effort, Newfoundland recruited a volunteer army, garnering enough men to outfit and sustain a battalion throughout the entirety of the war. Two additional battalions were later added: the 2nd Reserve Battalion, mostly stationed at Ayr, Scotland, and the 3rd Battalion, responsible for recruiting and training in St. John’s. In 1917, in recognition of their courageous actions and heroic participation during the battles of Ypres and Cambrai in France, King George V bestowed the regiment with the prefix “Royal”.

A sepia photograph of a soldier in uniform with a Victoria Cross and a Croix de Guerre pinned to his chest.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC, undated (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)


Born in Middle Arm, White Bay, Newfoundland, on April 15, 1901, to John and Amelia (Cassels) Ricketts, Thomas Ricketts enlisted with the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, on September 2, 1916. He was underage—only 15 years old—when he volunteered, but claimed to be 18 on his attestation papers. His deception went unnoticed and he was accepted. He embarked for England with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and during his service was shot in the leg in November 1917. Ricketts returned to his regiment in the spring of 1918, after recovering.

On October 14, 1918, the 1st Battalion was participating in the advance from Ledeghem, east of Ypres, in Belgium. The regiment had been fighting through rolling smoke and mist to push back the Germans and capture enemy pillboxes and weapons. By mid-morning, the mist had burned off, revealing a stream, the Wulfdambeek. Forced to cross it, the regiment was exposed to enemy fire. They suffered heavy casualties and soon after were pinned down by enemy shelling. Unable to call on their own artillery fire to combat the German shelling, the only solution was to disable the enemy battery and weapons and to kill the enemy soldiers.

Ricketts volunteered to run forward with his section commander, toting a Lewis machine gun in an effort to outflank the battery. They rushed forward in short advances under heavy machine gun fire, and soon ran out of ammunition, still 300 yards away from the battery. The Germans saw an opportunity to move up their gun teams to take out the advancing pair while they were vulnerable. Ricketts realized the situation and retreated 100 yards under debilitating machine gun fire to retrieve more ammunition. Upon his return with additional resources, he adeptly handled the Lewis gun, driving the enemy and gun teams back to a nearby farm. With the threats removed, the platoon advanced without casualties and captured four field guns, four machine guns, and eight prisoners. Later, a fifth gun was intercepted and captured.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform, angled away from the camera.

Private Thomas Ricketts, undated (Source: National Defence)

As recounted in the London Gazette:

By his presence of mind in anticipating the enemy intention and his utter disregard for personal safety, Pte. Ricketts secured the further supply of ammunition which directly resulted in these important captures and undoubtedly saved many lives.

London Gazette, no. 31108, p. 309, January 6, 1919

Ricketts survived the remainder of the war and was discharged on June 17, 1919, for demobilization. He was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George V on January 19, 1919, at Sandringham, England, when he was only 17 years old, the youngest Victoria Cross army combatant recipient. He returned to Newfoundland a war hero. Upon his return home, he returned to school and later became a pharmacist. In addition to his Victoria Cross, Ricketts was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Golden Star for his gallantry.

He died in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on March 21, 1967.

Rickett’s Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file for Private Thomas Ricketts.

Tag pictures and give history a hand

You can tag the images in this blog! Immerse yourself in the CEF digitized files and transcribe, tag, translate and describe their content. Every addition to a record becomes new metadata, searchable within 24 hours, helping LAC’s records become more “discoverable” day after day. Visit the blog article explaining how you can give a hand to history!

Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

On this day in 1918, Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie was killed in action northeast of Cambrai, France. His actions on that day would lead to his posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.

Wallace Lloyd Algie was born on June 10, 1891, in Alton, Ontario, the son of James and Rachel Algie of Toronto. He graduated from the Royal Military College of Canada and volunteered in the active militia with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the 40th Regiment, serving as a lieutenant.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer wearing a peak cap.

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie, undated. Source: Directorate of History and Heritage (National Defence and the Canadian Forces)

Algie was a bank clerk in Toronto before enlisting as an officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) on April 19, 1916. He sailed on the SS Laconia on September 25, 1916, and was attached to the 95th Battalion upon arrival at Seaford, England. He proceeded to the European theatre with the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion on May 26, 1917. He completed various officer training courses, including one on the Lewis Gun.

On October 11, 1918, the 27-year-old lieutenant was leading his troops in the 20th Battalion of the CEF near the village of Cambrai, France, when they came under intense machine-gun fire from a nearby village. His citation in the London Gazette, January 28, 1919, tells the story of the actions that led to his death and the awarding of the Victoria Cross:

“For most conspicuous bravery and self-sacrifice on the 11th October, 1918, north-east of Cambrai, when the attaching troops which came under heavy enfilade machine-gun fire from a neighbouring village. Rushing forward with nine volunteers, he shot the crew of an enemy machine gun, and, turning it on the enemy, enabled his party to reach the village. He then rushed another machine gun, killed the crew, captured an officer and 10 enemy, and thereby cleared the end of the village. Lt. Algie, having established his party, went back for reinforcements, but was killed when leading them forward. His valour and personal initiative in the face of intense fire saved many lives and enabled the position to be held.”

Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie is buried in Niagara Cemetery, Iwuy, France.

A typed page detailing the events of October 10 to 11, 1918.

War diary page of the 20th Canadian Infantry Battalion explaining Lieutenant Algie’s actions for the day (e000960948)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in the Digital Operations and Preservation Branch at Library and Archives Canada.