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

Step back in time: Library and Archives Canada helps the National Gallery of Canada recreate a First World War exhibition experience

When Canadian troops joined the action on the western front, there were no official military photographers. The front line was unsafe for commercial photographers, and officers and men were not allowed to use personal cameras. As a result, there are no official photographic records of Canadian participation in early battles, such as the Second Battle of Ypres, in April 1915.

The Canadian War Records Office, established in January 1916, immediately recognized the importance of photography, both for keeping a lasting documentary record of the war and for boosting morale. The first official Canadian war photographer was appointed in April 1916. That same year, the first of several immensely popular exhibitions of official Canadian war photographs was unveiled at the Grafton Galleries, in central London.

Princess Christian among others viewing images at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, Grafton Galleries, London, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394829)

Princess Christian among others viewing images at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, Grafton Galleries, London, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394829)

Today, Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) holdings include most of the negatives created by Canada’s official war photographers, preserved in their original glass plate format. These are some of the most poignant, horrifying, and yet compelling images in LAC’s photography collection.

The Great War, the Persuasive Power of Photography, a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, curated by Ann Thomas, incorporates many of these negatives in the near-exact recreation of one entire room from the second Grafton Galleries exhibition, held in 1917. The room, which is designed to put the modern viewer in the shoes of a viewer from 1917, features a dramatic to-scale reproduction of a photograph of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, called the largest photograph ever made during its time. It also includes a cropped version of this photograph of Canadian troops after the battle.

Canadian troops en route to destination for a rest period after taking part in the capture of Vimy Ridge (MIKAN 3521924)

Canadian troops en route to destination for a rest period after taking part in the capture of Vimy Ridge (MIKAN 3521924)

View from inside the Grafton Galleries, London, at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394834)

View from inside the Grafton Galleries, London, at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394834)

Canada’s official war photographers:

  • Captain Henry Edward Knobel (April 1916 to August 1916)
  • William Ivor Castle (August 1916 to June 1917)
  • William Rider-Rider (June 1917 to December 1918)

See other images reproduced for the room or visit the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from June 27 to November 16, 2014.

Hidden Treasures – Winnie the bear

Discovering hidden treasures in our institution’s vast collection of archival material is one of the exciting benefits of researching at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Recently, two previously undescribed photographs of the bear mascot Winnie, the famous Canadian inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, were found and made available online.

A reference technician from LAC was searching for First World War photographs taken in March 1915 of the 15th Canadian Battalion in the trenches of Neuve-Chapelle, France. The technician consulted the usual sources (online database, onsite Finding Aids, and contact cards from the Department of National Defence photographic collection) and found a description of a possible and unexpected item in the personal collection of Horace Brown.

The photographs from this collection were retrieved from storage; some of them were very small and difficult to view. One seemed to be of a soldier wearing a very odd hat. Further investigation with the aid of a lighted magnifying glass revealed the “soldier” was actually a bear cub and the curious headgear was its ears! A second image of the bear cub was also identified in the collection. A bit of sleuth work revealed that Horace Brown, a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, had been stationed at Salisbury Plain, England during October and November 1914, at the same time as Lieutenant Harry Colebourn with his mascot, Winnie.

Although many photographs exist of the famous bear in the Manitoba Archives and private collections, these were the first ones to be identified in LAC’s holdings. The images may now be viewed by all Winnie the bear (and Winnie-the-Pooh) fans here and here on our website.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Animals in War (1914–1918)

Colour poster depicting countryside combat, with a horse-drawn tank and soldiers fleeing from the cannonade.

During the First World War, the terrain on the front lines was often muddy and without paved roads, which made it difficult to use motor vehicles. This is why armies relied on a wide array of beasts of burden, including horses. These animals were used primarily by cavalry troops, but they also served to haul cannons, ammunition and food, as well as to pull non-motorized ambulances. Horses were ever-present in the theatre of operations.In September 1914, the first contingent of troops to leave Canada for England loaded up 7,636 horses! Although they belonged to the cavalry units, most of the horses were purchased by the Canadian government from private owners to meet army needs. Hundreds of thousands of additional horses were subsequently sent to the front lines. By the end of the war, the army had lost eight million horses in combat.

Other animals were also used by the army during the First World War. Mules, donkeys and cattle primarily transported materials, ammunition and food. In eastern regions, such as Egypt, camels were also used.

The terrain—continually bombarded in some areas or very mountainous in others—made it difficult to communicate, so winged or furry messengers were called
in. There were even special units responsible for maintaining a flock of carrier pigeons, ready to be sent with messages tied to their legs. Dogs were also used as messengers.

Colour sketch of a brown dog sitting.

Colour sketch of a brown dog sitting. Source

The Canadian Army had a Veterinary Corps at the time, with blacksmith and farrier units who all saw to the care of work animals. During the conflict, veterinary hospitals and mobile veterinary units were created behind the front lines to treat animals and make sure they were well fed.
At all times, animals were alongside soldiers on the front as companions in misfortune. From the very beginning, military mascots have served to represent the group who adopted them. Even members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had mascots during the First World War, as shown in the following image.

Group of soldiers around a goat wearing a cape with insignia.

Mascot of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, August 1916. Source

Visit our Flickr album for more photographs.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!