While I did all of the initial research for my Beneath the Alders series and for the first book in the series, The Innocent, I was greatly assisted in completing The Beleaguered and The Mending by the research skills of my good friend Colleen Mahoney, a pre-maturely retired librarian. In this article, Colleen answered specific questions I recently posed about dependents in the demobilization process.
Lynne: Who were the 37,000 dependents of the Canadian troops overseas at the end of World War I?
Colleen: By the end of World War I, thousands of dependents of the Canadian troops were living in Britain and Europe. In fact, the total number of those dependents during the war was 54,000. Seventeen thousand had returned to Canada before the armistice.
Many of them were wives and children who had travelled to Britain to be near their husbands. Some went to be closer to their husbands after they had been wounded.
In addition, thousands of soldiers married women whom they met during overseas service. One report estimated that 25,000 Canadian service men married foreign women. By the end of the war, Canadian men were marrying British and European women at the rate of 1,000 per month.
Lynne: How did the governments feel about that?
Colleen: I don’t think the Canadian government was very happy about this. In fact, the Canadian government actively discouraged the discharge of its soldiers in England—in part by offering free transportation home to Canada for the soldiers and their dependents. Nonetheless, 15,182 Canadian soldiers sought discharge in the UK at the end of the war, signing away their right to free transportation home. They remained in England.
This total, added to the 7,136 who had already been discharged before the armistice, meant that in all 22,000 Canadians entered civil life in the United Kingdom. Given the 60,000 Canadian men killed in the war and the 180,000 injured, the loss of another 22,000 young men must have been a real blow to the Canadian workforce and to a generation of women seeking husbands.
On the other hand, the British government was not in the least opposed to seeing their young women off. Apparently, there was a persistent gender gap in Britain from at least the mid-1800’s. The government had dealt with it by establishing the British Women’s Emigration Association in 1884. The Association helped to settle women in countries where there were more men than women to try to reduce the surplus of women in Britain. In response to worries about the imbalance becoming even greater following the end of the war (700,000 British men lost their lives), the British government established the Society for Overseas Settlement of British Women in 1918. These women were predominately sent to commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Lynne: Well it seems like a lot of dependents came home to Canada. What arrangements were made for them?
Colleen: It is estimated that about 37,000 dependents arrived with the troop ships. (Approximately 17,000 had already traveled to Canada between July 1917 and November 1918.) In January 1919, the Canadian government offered to transport all dependents to Canada free of charge on third class ship and rail passage. It was reported that this type of travel was much less comfortable than second or cabin class but that women could upgrade to a better class if they chose. Seasickness was common among the women and children. The Spanish flu was the greatest risk to those travelling. While health checks were done at embarkation, many boarded without symptoms but succumbed to the disease once at sea.
Fortunately for the women and children aboard the troop ships, a “conductress” was part of each ship’s crew. Typically, a nurse by training, she would see to the needs of dependents travelling to Canada.
Lynne: Did the men and women travel together?
Colleen: Dependents could be assigned to any available ship to carry them to Canada but the government made an effort to bring families to Canada together. These ships were deemed dependent ships meaning that both husbands and wives were aboard but couples were berthed in separate locations. They would meet on deck in the morning, attend activities and if possible, take meals together. Dances held on the deck were said to be great fun and thoroughly enjoyed by the couples.
Dependent ships were typically of the smaller variety like the SS Melita, SS Grampian and SS Megantic that could carry about 2,000 passengers. The voyage would take seven to ten days.
Lynne: How were the women treated when they arrived in Canada?
Colleen: On disembarking at a Canadian port, the women and children would be greeted by members of a women’s welcome committee. They would provide help with babies and children while mothers navigated the immigration process, collected luggage, found their way to the train station and a myriad of other things overwhelmed mothers might need assistance with when arriving in a new country. They even provided a safe comfortable place to rest/sleep until the family’s train was ready for departure to their next stop.
Also, the women were assisted by the aid given to their husbands. On debarkation in Canada, a soldier turned in his equipment and arms (he had previously been relieved of the bullets). He kept his clothing and steel helmet. He had his medical history sheet signed, and received his war badge, his cheque and his discharge certificate. Every soldier who had been overseas for six months or more and everyone who had served in the forces in Canada for at least one year received a gratuity based on his length of service and his rate of pay and rank. For example, a single private’s gratuity varied from $420 for three years or more to $210 for less than a year.
Veterans who wanted to buy land were assisted with long-term loans. The Soldier Settlement Board withdrew more than 30,000 men from the general labour market and directed them into agriculture. For the disabled, there were pensions, medical treatment and opportunities for vocational training. Up to the end of 1919, a total of 91,521 pensions had been granted.
While many dependents quickly settled into life in Canada, others were not so lucky. Some arrived to find jilted Canadian sweethearts awaiting the arrival of their beaus. Others found that their mothers-in-law were being supported by their husband’s war pay that now had to be stretched to accommodate a larger family. Some Canadians expressed the belief that the newcomers were an "encumbrance, or burden to their soldier husbands”. And one must keep in mind that England and Canada were very different places both culturally and physically. A woman used to a close knit village life might find herself on an isolated farm in the middle of nowhere. The resulting loneliness and despair led to a tougher adjustment period.