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Belligerents and Participants
In 1914 Canada had the status of a British Dominion that deferred its foreign policy to the English Crown. When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, Canada was also at war. Canada did however have the right to respond to this declaration as they saw fit. Instead of utilizing the large number of reservists they had in their home militia, they decided to raise a separate all volunteer Canadian Expeditionary Force for service in Europe.
When Canadian units first arrive in Europe, they were used to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force already fighting in Flanders and France. By September of 1915 their numbers had grown large enough to form an entire Canadian Corps but they still remained under British control. As the War dragged on, Canadians casualties rose dramatically from their attempts to take German trenches. This caused enlistments to drop off dramatically, and so national conscription was enacted in August 1917 to fill the growing need for more troops. Canadians in general were loyal to the British Crown and felt it their duty to help, but there was much descent among French speaking Canadians and the conscription act only enraged them further. The political difficulties caused by instituting conscription would outlast the War.
Canadian troops first saw action at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, and fought at the Second Battle of Ypres and the Somme. They are especially noted for the rare act of capturing German fortified positions at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. Most postcards that depict Canadian troops in action are from these two battles where they distinguished themselves. Germans dreaded being positioned opposite Canadians for they became well known for their constant trench raids. Even though this activity would rise to the status of myth, little of this type of action appears on postcards.
Halifax in Nova Scotia is one of North America’s greatest natural ports. Its deep waters and ice free conditions have made it an important base for British naval operations ever since the city was founded in 1749. The Canadians took over the vast naval facilities after the British left in 1905, but little was done to improve them until the eve of the Great War. During the War the city became an important transit point for Canadian troops and equipment headed for Europe; and as such the harbor was put under the control of the Royal Canadian Navy and many new fortifications were built. There are many postcards of the harbor dating from the War years that picture warships.
In December 1917 the French Cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian, SS Imo in Halifax Harbor. The fire than ensued aboard the French ship ignited its cargo of high explosives, and the ensuing blast killed thousands in Halifax and the tsunami that followed wiped out entire coastal communities. This was the largest man-made explosion before the invention of the atomic bomb. Numerous postcards were published depicting the devastation this accident caused to the city.
Despite its Dominion status, Canada eventually received seats at the Paris Peace Talks. While she made no claims against Germany, her position here helped obtain representation in the League of Nations. Some claim that Canada’s unhappy experience in the Great War was instrumental in consolidating its national identity, which would eventually lead to independence from Great Britain. There is however no consensus to this argument.
The Pictorial Newspaper Company in London published many photo-based cards for The Daily Mirror’s Canadian Official Series. Their quality varies greatly from a poorly tinted halftone Coloured Series, to a fine monotone series in rotogravure. While the images on these cards were strictly censored, they still manage to capture a sense of place. The battlefront retains its forbidding atmosphere but not to the extent that it would frighten postcard customers.
The Heliotype Company of Ottawa was noted for their photo-based cards of views across Canada. During the Great War they continued to produce photo-based cards from official photographs of the Canadian army in the field as well as artist drawn patriotic cards. Publication of War related images continued in postwar years.
After returning to Canada from his studies in Paris, Alexander Young Jackson tried to make a career from his Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist paintings, but he was still struggling when the Great War broke out. He enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1915 and was shipped off to Flanders. There he was wounded at Sanctuary Wood during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1916. His artistic talents were discovered while in the hospital, and he was transferred to the Canadian War Records Office upon his recovery to work as a war artist. In 1917 he became an official artist for the Canadian War Memorials. He would later become part of the Group of Seven. His military themed paintings were only put on postcards after the War.
Augustus Edwin John was a Welsh symbolist painter and etcher. While attached to Canadian forces as a war artist he concentrated on creating portraits of ordinary soldiers. He apparently intended to use these works as reference for a monumental painting commissioned by Canadian War Memorials but it was never completed. His painting, Fraternity might be his only war related piece ever reproduced on a postcard.
James Wilson Morrice was a Canadian Impressionist painter who worked in Montreal until he moved to Paris in 1890. He fled to London at the outbreak of the Great War but his failing health prevented him from remaining in this damp climate and he returned to Paris for the duration of the conflict. He became an official war artist in 1918 and painted Canadian troops in Picardy. His work only came to be widely appreciated after his death in 1924, so his military images only appear on postcards produced in postwar years.
Although Alfred Munnings was English equestrian painter, he was attached as an official war artist to a Canadian cavalry unit fighting on the Western Front. He created a number of painted sketches right on the front lines and sometimes came under fire. While he captured everyday life to the heroic, most of his larger scale work commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund was finished as the War was ending. Munnings work was only placed on postcards in postwar years.
The Novelty Mfg. & Art Company of Montreal was best know for producing Canadian view-cards, but during the Great War they published a highly patriotic set depicting the fighting on the Western Front.
The integration of Canadians into the British Expeditionary Force reduced their visual presence, and they are not well represented on postcards. They also lacked the exotic flare found on troops from more far flung parts of the United Kingdom, which also diminished interest for them on postcards. Raphael Tuck & Sons was one of the few publishers who made reference to Canadian soldiers on their postcard sets.
Valentine’s Co. (Valentine & Sons), a major lithographic printing firm from Dundee, Scotland primality concentrated on producing propaganda and military themed cards depicting British participation on the Western Front. They did however have offices throughout the world that provided more local subjects for a local audience throughout the British Empire. Many of these cards focused on the training of troops that were destined for the Western Front. These cards matter of fact scenes seem to have been primarily made for the use of recruits in Canadian camps rather than as propaganda to show those in Great Britain that they were supported by their dominions.
An anonymous Canadian publisher issued a large set of artist drawn cards reproduced on AZO photo paper. They depict dramatic scenes of combat on the Western Front from early in the war but they feature troops of all nations.