Education during the First World War

Canada’s participation in the First World War has often been described as a coming-of-age – a trial by fire that transformed an immature colonial polity into an independent adult nation. Yet despite the ubiquity of these references to youthfulness and national maturation in Canadian narratives of the war, most histories of the conflict have ignored its effects on actual young people. Drawing on the primary sources found on this website and the small but growing body of scholarship on Canadian children, education, and war, this essay will ask how children and adolescents from across the country learned about the conflict between 1914 and 1918.

On the one hand, the war years were a time of unity and patriotism which many understood as proof of Canada’s importance to the British Empire and the world. But in a population characterized more by diversity than uniformity, these feelings of hope and national unity were often paralleled by contestation, prejudice and fear. The meanings and experiences of wartime therefore differed considerably for the children of enlisted men, German immigrants, interned Ukrainians, conscientious objectors, and the many French Canadians who opposed conscription. Aboriginal youngsters, meanwhile, had to contend with assimilatory education policies and the often divisive effects of the war in their own communities. While this paper will reflect the existing scholarship’s focus on English-Canadian children and education, it will also remain attentive to the ways in which young people’s experiences of wartime were determined by issues of gender, class, ethnicity, and community.

The fact that Canada, as part of the British Empire, was automatically at war following Britain’s declaration of war in August 1914 confounds many twenty-first century students. It would have made perfect sense, however, to early twentieth-century Canadian youths, most of whose educational experiences were profoundly shaped by their nation’s imperial ties. Before the war, most schoolchildren across the country were taught lessons that focused on patriotism, obedience, and loyalty to the British Empire. Formal education, which was compulsory in every province but Quebec, taught young Canadians to read, write, and calculate, but was also an attempt to teach a growing nation’s diverse young population about the ideals and practices of Anglo-Protestant citizenship. For many Canadian teachers and politicians, formal education was the perfect way to assimilate students whose origins weren’t British (a group that included included both Aboriginal youngsters and the children of immigrants from Asia, the United States, and central and eastern Europe). 1 As one English-Canadian Manitoba school inspector wrote, “these incongruous elements have to be assimilated, have to be welded into one harmonious whole if Canada is to attain the position that we, who belong here by right of birth and blood, claim for her.  The chief instrument in this process of assimilation is the public school.” 2

While the demands of work and family meant that not all Canadian youngsters attended school all of the time, by 1914 over 80% of Canadian five to fourteen-year-olds (that’s 1.4 million young people) were attending public day schools. Even before the war, much of what they learned in History, Geography, and English classes focused on the British Empire and its military triumphs. Students read literary and historical accounts of brave warriors and epic battles, and they also learned about such Canadian chapters in the imperial story as Loyalism and Dominion participation in the recent South African War. Like the adventure novels and magazines that were popular with many children, Canadian textbooks often portrayed warfare (particularly when it supported the British Empire) as a glamorous and exciting pursuit. But not everyone approved: before the war, as Susan Fisher has shown, some Canadian pacifists – especially the Quakers – were critical of what they saw as the “militarist tendencies in Canadian education.” 3

In wartime, Canadian schools continued to emphasize imperial nationalism, military glory, loyalty, and obedience. Yet these values came to assume a new importance as teachers explained the conflict as a holy war – a fight for democracy, morality, the rights of small nations, and the very future of Britain’s empire. Service and sacrifice, demanded of soldiers and civilians alike, moved to the centre of the Canadian educational experience. The sacrifices made by teachers and former students who had enlisted – some of whom were killed in action – were frequently held up as examples of patriotism and selflessness that young people had a duty to emulate.

Patriotism – defined as enthusiastic support for the Allied war effort – occupied a central place in Canadian schools throughout the conflict, though Francophone schools in Quebec generally did not incorporate the war into lesson plans or activities. 4 The patriotic imperative applied to adults as well as children, and in several places, teachers were even required to swear oaths of loyalty to Britain. Teachers who refused to conform could face harsh punishments: at Toronto’s Annette Street Public School, for example, one teacher was fired in 1915 after several parents complained that he had expressed pro-German sentiments in class discussions of the war. 5

As the conflict continued, provincial Departments of Education and individual teachers developed new war-related teaching materials for students from elementary through to high school. In mathematics classes across the country, for instance, youngsters were regularly asked to calculate interest rates of Victory Bonds and to solve problems featuring Allied soldiers and German prisoners of war. In wartime, the clear division between right and wrong answers that characterized the teaching of arithmetic was also applied to humanities subjects, in an effort to convince young Canadians of the righteousness of the Allied cause. The Manitoba Department of Education’s 1917 Grade XI English Composition Exam, for example, included a compulsory question on “Canada and the War.” The sample answer supplied by the Department was as follows: “The Great War is being fought in the cause of liberty. On the one side the War may be called a war for conquest or plunder and on the other a war for freedom or liberty. It is not the safety of one state or nation that is at stake, it is the freedom of the world.” 6 The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, a women’s patriotic organization founded in the wake of the Boer War, also sponsored war-related essay contests (and expected similarly clear-cut answers) on topics including “Why the Empire is at War,” “Soldiers at the Front,” and “Canada in the Present War.” 7

In classrooms across the country, girls and boys also memorized details about European geography and military technology. Students at Havergal College, a private girls’ school in Toronto, made scrapbooks about the war as a way to stay on top of current events. Several of these scrapbooks survive in the school’s archives, and are a valuable record of what a few upper-middle-class Anglo-Canadian girls knew and thought about Canada’s Great War. In the pages of their scrapbooks, Havergal students drew and pasted images of airplanes, zeppelins, tanks, and trenches, and described various technical and tactical systems in detail. They also described significant battles and the causes of the war, in language that echoed the words used in school texts and Allied propaganda. One student, for example, explained that England entered the war because she “would not see other countries bullied, as Belgium was.” 8

Havergal students also documented the war’s effects on the city of Toronto, by photographing soldiers on parade and pasting these images into their scrapbooks. The war enthusiasm and excitement caused by sightings of men in uniform was also evident in the school’s 1916 yearbook. Describing a typical reaction to a group of soldiers marching past the school, one Havergal girl wrote: “The door bursts widely open, precipitating a score of loyal and enthusiastic patriots into the room, bearing all before them in their headlong haste to secure the best places at the window … ‘They’re going down Carlton,’ cries one; ‘No they aren’t, they’re coming down from Wellesley,’ cries another, while a third shouts, ‘They’re coming up Jarvis, here they come!  Here they come!” 9

Students in public and private schools also learned about the conflict from The Children’s Story of the War, an ambitious set of books that has been called “the most important and most ambitious” of the numerous war-related textbooks that were produced during the conflict. Written by the well-known textbook writer and (from 1917) British MP Sir Edward Parrott, The Children’s Story of the War was published in fifty-six installments between 1915 and 1918. 10 A detailed and enormous series running to nearly 3000 pages, the complete Children’s Story was read in classrooms and homes across Canada, and was officially recommended by the Ontario Department of Education. Each volume featured detailed descriptions of battles and an unambiguous moral message. According to Anne Millar and Jeff Keshen, “it presented the war as an adventure, as a clash between good and evil, and as a succession of Allied triumphs typified by numerous acts of individual heroism.” The Children’s Story described countless acts of heroism by individual Allied soldiers, but it also sought to inspire students with tales of child heroes like twelve-year-old Louise Haumont, a girl who risked death to warn the commander of a French fort of an impending German attack. 11

Stories of young heroes and brave soldiers clearly appealed to young Canadians, but some adults struggled to find a balance between protecting children and promoting war. In 1916, for instance, a Hamilton teacher named Helena Booker raised this question in a letter to The School, a magazine for teachers published by the Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto. What should teachers, Booker wondered, “say about the present war to our primary classes? We feel a great reluctance to bring so unhappy a subject before such young minds. But what do they hear at home? Many times only words of hatred, ignorant tirades, useless bragging, equally vain of purpose and harmful in their imprint on young minds. So if we speak of war let it be with the sole purpose of teaching patriotism, a love of our own country, not a hatred of our enemies – a positive, not a negative, thing.”

The minority of citizens who opposed the war also expressed concern about the effects of war pedagogy on young Canadians. Pacifist and suffragist Gertrude Richardson used her writing in the socialist periodical Canadian Forward, for example, to warn readers about the dangers of a militarized curriculum. She urged Canadian mothers to monitor what their children were learning at school in order to keep “the bayonet and the rifle … [from] the hands of children to whom we try to teach the ideals of humanity and brotherhood.” Richardson was not alone in her concern, and after the war several pacifist groups including the Quaker Society of Friends and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom campaigned for the revision of all textbooks that depicted or glorified the war. 12

Textbooks weren’t the only things to be ‘militarized’ in Canadian schools during the war; young people also learned about the conflict through the activities they took part in, both inside and outside the classroom. Singing songs and acting in plays were no longer confined to Christmas concerts and special events; they too assumed new importance in wartime and were often explained as ways to both inspire and demonstrate young people’s patriotism and support for the Allies. This shift is especially evident in the twenty playlets (patriotic entertainments to be performed by children) written by Toronto educator Edith Groves between 1916 and 1918. Recommended to teachers in The School magazine, the Book Selection Guide, and the Ontario Library Review, Groves’s plays treated wartime themes with a combination of music, dialogue, and marching or drill. Like school textbooks, they celebrated heroism and sacrifice; they also featured anti-German content, as in one episode where the character of a young girl had to tell the audience not to buy dolls made in Germany because they were “Alien Enemies.” Patriotic plays and recitals were performed at at schools and community halls across the country, and proved to be an effective way to raise money for war charities.

Edith Groves’ wartime playlets were also likely performed on Empire Day, an annual celebration, established at the turn of the twentieth century, of the British Empire and Canada’s place in it. In school gymnasia and at larger events like the Toronto School Board’s annual Empire Day concert at Massey Hall, young people from across the country sang songs like “Rule Britannia,” acted out imperial battle scenes and the poems of Kipling, and waved thousands of small Union Jacks. During the first several decades of the twentieth century, Canadian students also celebrated Empire Day by marching in and watching military parades. In Ontario, for example, the Toronto Board of Education based its Empire Day festivities (which also featured a concert at Massey Hall where children from across the city sang patriotic songs) a parade of thousands of high school cadets from the University Avenue armouries to the provincial parliament buildings in Queen’s Park – an event that grew in size and symbolism from 1914 on. In an eerily prescient statement about Toronto’s 1907 Empire Day parade, Premier James Whitney told a reporter for The Globe that “in the children before him he saw the future soldiers of the Crown, who would defend all that the British Empire stood for throughout the world.” 13

Uniforms and marching were part of many schoolboys’ lives throughout the year, and had been since the late nineteenth century, when they were introduced as a way to strengthen their bodies and prepare for armed conflict. (While the outbreak of war surprised many Canadians in 1914, fears of a war with Germany had been building for some time, as shown for instance by the numerous early twentieth-century boys’ stories that dealt with German spies and invasion plots). Marching and military drill were taught in schools across Canada by the early twentieth century, and were often explained as effective ways to teach obedience, discipline, and respect for law and order. This emphasis on drill and martial training increased in 1909-10 with the foundation of the Strathcona Trust, a fund established by Canada’s then High Commissioner to Britain to promote physical training and create military cadet corps in schools across the country. 14

In addition to promoting obedience and strengthening bodies, cadet training in schools was also an effort to teach masculine behavior and ideals while assimilating boys from non-British backgrounds. As Ontario Minister of Education George Ross explained in 1909, cadet training was an ideal activity for male high school students; “no other form of drill,” he insisted, “so effectively develops a manliness of form and bearing, as well as physical force and independence.” Cadet training for boys and physical education for students of both sexes was also promoted as a way to improve the health of Canadians in general and the Anglo-Celtic “race” in particular. As Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Frederick Borden insisted in his annual report for 1908, “the instruction in proper breathing and bearing, as well as the healthful exercise imparted to boys and girls alike, cannot fail to … be of inestimable value to the welfare of our race in its effect upon future generations.” 15 The next year James Hughes, chief inspector of Toronto’s public schools, also explained military training as a good way to teach non-British immigrant youths about discipline and imperial loyalty. “Where we have so many foreign lads,” he opined, “I am sure the quickest and best way we can make them respect the British flag is to march them through the streets in uniform behind that flag.” 16 The meanings of “race” and military training, meanwhile, were different for Aboriginal youngsters: whereas Native adults were initially barred from enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, military-style training played an important part in many schools for Indigenous children both before and during the Great War. At the Mohawk Institute residential school in Brantford, Ontario, for example, teachers and school inspectors praised cadet training, drill, and rifle shooting as effective ways to assimilate Native youths to “Canadian” cultural norms while teaching them to follow tight schedules and obey orders. 17

By 1914, there were more than three times as many cadets as there were Boy Scouts in Canada. 18 The size and scope of the movement increased still more during the war years, and it began to focus on more explicitly military pursuits like rifle training. Cadets received praise from parents and teachers, were lauded in school newspapers and yearbooks, and their activities were proudly described in the annual reports of school boards and provincial Departments of Education.

Canadian children also learned about the war through consumer goods and popular culture. Like schoolbooks and patriotic drills, wartime consumer goods praised the Canadian contribution to the war, celebrated imperial unity, and demonized Austria-Hungary and particularly Germany. Many youngsters enjoyed collecting special wartime cigarette cards, colourful novelties that included images and detailed information about technology, weapons, battles, and Allied and enemy leaders. Manufacturers of other goods, such as the Cowan’s Royal Milk Chocolate Company, also produced collectible cards featuring games, trivia, and images of men in uniform.

Retailers across the country similarly recognized and sought to profit from young people’s enthusiasm for the conflict, and the wartime catalogues and shop windows of the T. Eaton Company featured a number of war-related goods aimed at children. These included tin soldiers, toy weapons, and child-sized military uniforms. The many surviving family photographs and postcards featuring children dressed in small army uniforms are a testament to the popularity of these consumer goods. But while most Canadians seem to have approved of war games and child-sized soldier suits, some others disapproved. One farm wife, writing to the Saturday Press and Prairie Farmer in 1916, expressed this opposition especially clearly: in a letter decrying the popularity of child-sized army uniforms, she stated that “it seems inconceivable that women should go on making soldiers of their children, instead of teaching them to hate war.” 19

While young people’s impressions of the war were shaped by school, consumer goods, and play, they also learned about the conflict on their own – by reading and listening to discussions among family members. Young people were avid and sometimes fearful consumers of propaganda tracts and published news reports about events in Western Europe, Russia, Africa, the Middle East, the Dardanelles, and the Balkans. Not surprisingly, atrocity propaganda (as disseminated in sermons, political speeches, newspaper articles, and dinner table conversations) seems to have made a particularly strong impression. In 1915, twelve-year-old Mary Chalmers, for example, asked members of the Young Canada Club (a children’s correspondence scheme run by The Grain Growers’ Guide) if they too “fe[lt] sorry for the children with their hands cut off?” 20

Other books, aimed more specifically at children, sought to explain atrocity stories and other aspects of the war in ways that reassured children while downplaying violence and death. Stories about animals, with titles like The Tale of a Belgian Hare and Me’ow Jones: Belgian Refugee Cat, sought to explain the German invasion in ways that would both comfort children and inspire them to donate to Belgian war charities. Other books that sought to reassure North American readers include Lucy Fitch Perkins’ The Belgian Twins (1917) and The French Twins (1918), books that follow two sets of twins from their lives in the Belgian and French war zones to safety and love in the United States. Stories about young people foiling German spies were also abundant, though only one was published in Canada: Harold C. Lowrey’s Young Canada Boys with the S.O.S. on the Frontier (1918), a novel depicting a group of Boy Scouts who foil a German plot to blow up the Welland Canal. Books like this, which children would likely have read outside of school, shaped their understanding of the war; they also shaped the kinds of stories they wrote in the classroom. Twelve-year-old Fred Hunt of Victoria, for example, wrote a short story entitled “A Spy Hunt,” an account of a group of boys who catch a German spy ring in Canada. Hunt’s tale won first prize in a local contest, and was published in Victoria, the Victoria School District’s magazine for children. 21

Young people on the Canadian home front learned about the Great War in all aspects of their lives: at home, at school, and through propaganda and popular culture. Their understandings of the conflict, as shown in school yearbooks and their own letters and stories, were greatly influenced by the hopes, fears, and expectations of the adults in their lives. These hopes and fears continued to shape children’s formal and informal educational experiences after the war, as well, though in slightly different ways.

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, much remained the same, as school cadet companies continued to march and parade, and teachers and textbooks continued to praise the British Empire and extol the virtues of martial sacrifice. Across the country, schools used a variety of means to commemorate the war and to honour former students who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Victoria High School in British Columbia, for example, planted an avenue of memorial trees and installed a war memorial in its main hallway. 22 At Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto, four students posed in their cadet uniforms for murals entitled “Patriotism” and “Sacrifice.” Student newspapers and documents in the school’s archives provide compelling evidence of what this mural meant to students: one student called Jarvis Collegiate’s memorial efforts a source of pride to “both staff and students,” and another stated that the unveiling service was “the most interesting and impressive ceremony in the history of our school.” Education and commemoration were also central to the IODE’s postwar work, which included the distribution of sets of War Memorial Pictures to schools (prints of paintings with titles like “The Surrender of the German Fleet”) and the establishment of the IODE War Memorial Scholarship Program, a scheme initially devised to assist the children of Canadian soldiers who had been killed or disabled in the Great War. 23 Young people whose relatives had been killed or injured during the war also learned about its aftereffects in private and more traumatic ways, which would shape many of their lives for decades to come.

Kristine Alexander, Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Studies, University of Lethbridge

Suggested Reading

Alexander, Kristine. “An Honour and a Burden: Canadian Girls and the Great War,” in A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War, ed. Sarah Glassford and Amy J. Shaw. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 173-94.

Fisher, Susan R. Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Helyar, Frances. “‘Gladly given for the cause’: New Brunswick Teacher and Student Support for the War Effort, 1914-1918.” Journal of New Brunswick Studies 3 (2012): 75-92.

Lewis, Norah. “‘Isn’t this a terrible war?’ The Attitudes of Children in Two World Wars.” HSE/RHE 7/2 (1995): 193-215.

Millar, Anne and Jeff Keshen. “Rallying Young Canada to the Cause: Anglophone Schoolchildren in Montreal and Toronto during the Two World Wars.” History of Intellectual Culture 9/1 (2010-11).

Morton, Desmond. “The Cadet Movement in the Moment of Canadian Militarism.” Journal of Canadian Studies 13 (summer 1978): 56-68.

Moss, Mark. Manliness and Militarism: Educating Young Boys in Ontario for War. Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sheehan, Nancy M. “Philosophy, Pedagogy, and Practice: The IODE and the Schools in Canada, 1900-1945.” HSE/RHE 2/2 (1990): 307-15.

Stamp, Robert. “Empire Day in the Schools of Ontario: The Training of Young Imperialists.” Journal of Canadian Studies 8/3 (1973): 32-42.

Thompson, John Herd. The Harvests of War: The Prairie West, 1914-1918. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1978.

Wilton, Shauna. “Manitoba Women Nurturing the Nation: The Manitoba IODE and Maternal Nationalism, 1913-1920.” Journal of Canadian Studies 35/2 (summer 2000): 149-65.

  • 1 See for example Paul Axelrod, The Promise of Schooling: Education in Canada, 1800-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); J.R. Miller, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997); Raymond Huel, “The Public School as a Guardian of Anglo-Saxon Traditions: The Saskatchewan Experience, 1913-1918,” in Ethnic Canadians: Culture and Education, ed. M.L. Kovacs (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1978), 295-304.
  • 2 Marilyn Barber, “Canadianization through the Schools of the Prairie Provinces before World War I: The Attitudes and Aims of the English-Speaking Majority,” in Ethnic Canadians: Culture and Education, ed. M.L. Kovacs (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1978), 282.
  • 3 Susan R. Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 51, 54.
  • 4 Anne Millar and Jeff Keshen, “Rallying Young Canada to the Cause: Anglophone Schoolchildren in Montreal and Toronto during the Two World Wars,” History of Intellectual Culture 9/1 (2010-11), 2.
  • 5 Robert M. Stamp, The Schools of Ontario, 1876-1976 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 60.
  • 6 John Herd Thompson, The Harvests of War: The Prairie West, 1914-1918 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1978), 39-41.
  • 7 Nancy M. Sheehan, “Women and Imperialism: The IODE, Propaganda and Patriotism in Canadian Schools, 1900-1940,” Aspects of Education 40 (1989), 21.
  • 8 “Girls on the Homefront: A Girls’ School 1895-1945,” accessed 25 March 2013.…
  • 9 Ibid.
  • 10 Millar and Keshen, “Rallying Young Canada to the Cause,” 7. The text is available online at ; Accessed 20 March 2013.
  • 11 Millar and Keshen, 7-8.
  • 12 Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, 58, 62, 53.
  • 13 Quoted in Stamp, “Empire Day,” 39.
  • 14 Mark Moss, Manliness and Militarism: Educating Young Boys in Ontario for War (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001), 96-102; Desmond Morton, “The Cadet Movement in the Moment of Canadian Militarism,” Journal of Canadian Studies 13 (summer 1978): 56-68; Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, 89-92.
  • 15 Morton, “The Cadet Movement,” 59, 62.
  • 16 Stamp, “Empire Day,” 39; see also Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, 83.
  • 17 Alison Norman, “Race, Gender, and Colonialism: Public Life among the Six Nations of the Grand River, 1899-1939” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2010), 174-7.
  • 18 Morton, “The Cadet Movement in the Moment of Canadian Militarism,” 56.
  • 19 Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, 108-10.
  • 20 The Grain Growers’ Guide, 20 January 1915, 26.
  • 21 Fisher, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, 164-75.
  • 22 The memorial trees were cut down in the late twentieth century, but a campaign is currently underway to re-plant them. “The Great War Project, Victoria High School Alumni Association,” accessed 15 March 2013.
  • 23 Millar and Keshen, “Rallying Young Canada to the Cause,” 8; Sheehan, “Women and Patriotism,” 22.