Volunteering in the First and Second World War

Volunteering was an integral part of the “total war” Canadians experienced during the First and Second World Wars, offering civilians a meaningful and practical way to contribute to the national war effort. This essay provides a context for understanding and using the most common types of artifacts that have survived from Canada’s wars of the early twentieth century, by examining Canadians’ attitudes towards volunteering, the types of volunteering in which they engaged, and the kinds of information that can be gleaned from the artifacts they left behind. Whether they gave time, expertise, labour, money, or goods – or simply voluntarily adhered to officially-encouraged behaviours – Canadians used voluntary work to make a patriotic contribution to the war, find a sense of comfort and/or accomplishment, fulfill social expectations, and assert their place in Canadian society. The artifacts they left behind provide fascinating glimpses into the work they did and why they did it. 

 When war broke out in August 1914, the Canadian Red Cross national headquarters office in Toronto found itself deluged by items ranging from raincoats and baseball uniforms to worn-out phonograph records and broken furniture, sent in by Canadians hoping the items could be put to use in aid of the sick and wounded soldiers the war must soon produce. Several months after the outbreak of a different war, in November 1939, Toronto millionaire E.H. Watt donated his boat – a 78-foot motor cruiser – to assist the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve with training. The following year the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) raised $100,000 to purchase a Bolingbroke bomber for the war effort. 1  As these examples suggest, when Canada went to war in the first half of the twentieth century, the majority of Canadians responded “ready, aye, ready!” and voluntarily gave generously of themselves and their resources.

There was a natural fit between the concept of volunteering and the ways in which the First and Second World Wars were conducted in Canada. Twentieth-century “total war” was a form of warfare that engaged entire societies, and to some extent removed the traditional distinctions between soldier and civilian. Both groups were expected to direct their energies and resources toward the national war effort – essentially to get involved in whatever ways they could. Getting involved is what volunteering is all about, and when we examine the years 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 we find they are full of people volunteering their time, money, talents, possessions, knowledge – even their lives – and encouraging others to do the same. For Canadians who could not or would not participate in the fighting, volunteering offered an alternative means of contributing to the war effort.

“Volunteering” is a broad term when applied to wartime Canada, encompassing a wide range of activities. Canadians voluntarily donated money to war charities and invested their money in Victory Bonds to help the government pay for the war; they provided voluntary labour to war-related charities, willingly enlisted in the military, and freely decided to apply for jobs in war-related industry or on farms. In a thousand ways Canadians chose to share with their country the resources of their families and businesses, in what they perceived as Canada’s hour of need. These were not trivial acts. Canadians valued, applauded, and valourized the spirit of voluntary service during both world wars, regardless of whether it was expressed through knitting socks for soldiers, growing a Victory Garden, or being the first in one’s neighbourhood to enlist in the army. Early twentieth-century Canadians (especially middle-class Canadians) believed that doing or giving something without being coerced spoke volumes about a person’s character:  it demonstrated a strong sense of duty, patriotism, civic-mindedness, and charity. Good citizens offered themselves and their resources freely and generously, and took part in voluntary efforts for the benefit of their community. 2 For this reason, although the results were the same (enlistment in the military), joining the armed forces voluntarily was viewed as admirable and honourable, while being conscripted usually was not. Doing the right thing of your own free will made all the difference in the eyes of early twentieth-century Canadians.

Although the spirit of voluntary service animated this wide range of wartime activities, this essay will focus on unpaid, home-front, civilian volunteering. There were enormous similarities between such activities in the First and Second World Wars – so much so that, unless they are explicitly labelled with a date, it can be difficult to determine whether particular artifacts (knitting instructions or postcards, for example) come from the first or second war. There was a great deal of overlap in both the organizations and the volunteers active in both wars. Many First World War charities undertook the same or similar roles in the Second World War, while many individuals – a few decades older, the second time around – provided support or leadership to the same voluntary organizations in both wars. The Second World War may well have been greeted by these volunteer veterans of the First World War with an attitude akin to the title of a popular 1940s song: “We Did It Before (and We Can Do It Again).” The great benefit of this overlap was that many lessons learned the hard way during the First World War were applied by organizational leaders during the Second World War.

An excellent example of how Canadians’ First World War volunteering experience shaped their handling of the Second World War is the Canadian Patriotic Fund (CPF).  The CPF, Canada’s leading war charity of the First World War, was noticeably absent from the Second World War. Although Canadians were supportive of the CPF’s function of providing for soldiers’ families and dependents, the charity was resented by many beneficiaries because its policies were not consistent across the country, and its volunteer visitors were seen as busybodies interfering in the domestic affairs of soldiers’ families. In hopes of providing for soldiers’ dependents while avoiding these inconsistencies and resentments, the role played by the CPF in the First World War was instead assumed by the federal government when the Second World War broke out in 1939. 3

The evolution of Canadian support for soldiers’ families and dependents also highlights the most significant difference between voluntary efforts of the two world wars: namely, the growing presence of government, either regulating or replacing voluntary work, during the Second World War. The 1917 War Charities Act took a step in this direction during the First World War, requiring organizations raising funds for war-related charitable purposes to register with the federal government and submit financial statements on a regular basis. This regulatory role was expanded during the Second World War with the creation of a new federal government department specifically to deal with the voluntary, civilian side of the national war effort: the Department of National War Services. The new department not only policed the registration and financial doings of war charities, it also determined which organizations could and could not fund-raise, when they could do so, and in what fashion. Its goal was to encourage greater efficiency and coordination in the voluntary side of the war effort. Some organizations, accustomed to greater independence (being, after all, non-governmental organizations), vigorously protested these restrictions, but to little effect. Greater government intervention in the voluntary side of war was there to stay. 4   

Although voluntary efforts could at times be highly inefficient, the Canadian government (like other wartime governments) encouraged and supported its citizens’ voluntary activities. It did so because of the power inherent in the idea of volunteering. Since volunteers chose which cause(s) to support, with what frequency, and in what manner and degree, donations and voluntary labour could be interpreted as indications of popular support for a particular cause. When citizens were not forced into wartime service but instead voluntarily gave their time, money, and talents, the real winner was the national war effort; morale was boosted as civilians felt they were making a contribution of their choice to the war effort, and the government benefited from the human and material resources freely given. The trouble, of course, was that volunteers could withdraw their offerings as well as give them. This meant that not only voluntary organizations and war charities, but also the government itself, had to spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort wooing public support throughout both wars. Many volunteer-related artifacts of the two world wars therefore relate to this public relations side of volunteering: a sea of pamphlets, posters, newspaper advertisements, and other propaganda. 

As Ted Barris and Alex Barris state in their oral history of the Second World War, throughout the war years, via everything from newspapers to candy wrappers,
     Canadians were badgered, cajoled, threatened, nudged, scolded, [and] exhorted
     to do or not do an ever-growing list of things. Save ... be careful what you say ...
     don’t travel if you don’t have to ... sacrifice ... scrimp ... dig deep to finance the
     war ... write often ... send parcels ... knit socks ... save tin foil ... re-use everything ...
     wear last year’s clothes ... buy bonds ... walk, don’t drive ... be kind to men in
     uniform ... do volunteer work ... roll bandages ... support the war effort ... use less
     sugar, gasoline, meat, butter, rubber ... take a job in a war plant ... join up. 5

Examining wartime artifacts related to this exercise in marketing voluntary service can reveal two important things. First, these artifacts tell us what behaviours or activities were considered sufficiently important for organizations to try to convince Canadians to do them. For an organization to issue this kind of appeal generally meant that either people were not used to doing a certain thing and needed to be asked or gently reminded; or the message was meant to chastise the public: Canadians had already been asked to do a certain thing and were failing in their duty to do so. Second, these artifacts give us insight into the techniques that organizations used to try to convince Canadians to volunteer or donate, through the images and messages employed. In other words, which heartstrings did particular causes tug on? 

This kind of volunteering-related propaganda most commonly appealed to Canadians’ patriotism, sense of duty, and belief in the necessity of extraordinary measures in wartime. The idea of duty was frequently framed in the context of providing home-front, civilian support to the troops fighting overseas: non-combatant Canadians owed it to their soldiers to “Back the Attack,” as the Second World War phrase put it. Beyond patriotism and duty in an emergency situation, other emotions were appealed to as well, sometimes for specific types of causes. Organizations providing comfort, entertainment, or medical relief to troops and refugees generally appealed to Canadians’ caring and compassion for others, for instance. Conversely, civil defence efforts frequently appealed to Canadians’ senses of self-, family- and community-preservation. Whether for the benefit of themselves or others, Canadians responded to these appeals. 

Among the wide variety of approaches taken in both wars to promote a host of causes, gender was an angle frequently mobilized by organizations to motivate Canadians to volunteer. As Robert Rutherdale writes of the First World War, home-front activities “gave civilians the opportunity to apply perceptions of themselves as men and women to wartime settings, to participate in a national enterprise of ‘protection’ or ‘service’ through the immediacy of local settings.” 6  Canadians entered both world wars with certain ideas about the appropriate social and economic roles of men and women, and wartime voluntary work offered opportunities for Canadians to pursue those roles in new ways – with the added lustre of doing patriotic service in the process. As Rutherdale points out, women’s voluntary work was often discussed in terms of “service” (to soldiers, to refugees, to the nation), while men’s voluntary work was often portrayed as being about “protection” (of the home front, of soldiers overseas, of the nation).

Given women’s traditional exclusion from combat roles, voluntary opportunities for wartime service were particularly important for women who wished to throw their support behind the nation at war. Their efforts to do so eventually branched into non-traditional roles (such as the First World War Farmerettes who helped harvest crops, or the Second World War entry of women into the military), but they started from a firmly traditional place. The IODE, one of Canada’s leading national women’s organizations, launched a campaign to raise funds for a hospital ship immediately upon the outbreak of war in 1914, calling upon Canadian women to play their “natural” role of healing and saving wounded troops. “It is felt that this will be an opportunity [for] every Canadian woman to show her loyalty and devotion to the Empire,” stated the IODE national executive, adding that the hospital ship project was “most fitting as it is the woman’s part to minister to the sick and wounded.” 7  The millions of socks knitted and bandages rolled by women of all ages, races, and social classes in a host of organizations from coast to coast in both wars were similarly framed as caring, maternal work on behalf of the “boys” overseas. Since women were excluded from direct participation in the fighting (although Nursing Sisters, VADs, and Second World War members of the women’s armed services got closer than most), such appeals to women to “do their bit” through voluntary work and donations were widely heeded. Many women took pride in contributing to the war in this way; others found solace for grief or relief from the agony of waiting for news, through volunteering. The importance of having something concrete to do in such a tense and difficult time crops up frequently in first-hand accounts of women’s wartime experiences.

On the other end of the gender spectrum, home defence and air raid precautions (ARP) work was pitched particularly to men, since it represented a form of home-front “fighting” and a defensive role that was the next best thing to actual military enlistment. Age, health, and a variety of other reasons kept many men from the battle fronts, and active participation in voluntary work – whether through money or time – was promoted as one way for a man to publicly demonstrate that he was still serving his country at home. 8  Slogans like “Fight or Pay” (used by the CPF in the First World War) made it clear that those would could not or would not bear arms against the enemy were expected to contribute in other ways.

Canadian children were barred from active military duty for obvious reasons, but many of them were keen to participate in other ways. Their energy and enthusiasm were therefore harnessed by schools, churches, and other organizations in both wars, and children across the country were encouraged to tend Victory gardens, save their pennies to buy War Savings Stamps, knit quilt-block squares, and collect scrap metal in their neighbourhoods for salvage campaigns. 9 As was the case with appeals directed at adults, themes of supporting the troops overseas, showing compassion to those who were suffering, and contributing to victory appeared in volunteering propaganda directed specifically at children.

Artifacts related to wartime volunteering can tell us a great deal about what exactly was being done by volunteers in the two wars, and how they were doing it. War charities and voluntary organizations often published internal reports, newsletters, or circulars explaining their activities, listing boards of directors or committee heads, enumerating donations, and otherwise making public their inner workings. From these documents we can sometimes catch glimpses of who specifically was volunteering for these organizations, information that is especially useful when most membership records are long gone or never existed in the first place. We can also learn the types of voluntary assistance deemed useful, either by donors or by organizations (the two not being necessarily the same thing). Were those baseball uniforms and broken phonograph records the Canadian Red Cross Society received in 1914 really what the agency needed? Was it possible to direct Canadians’ desire to give into other channels? The pages of Bulletin – a regular Red Cross publication of the First World War – provide the answers.  And no, they were not keen on the odd items arriving on their doorstep!

Volunteering artifacts can sometimes help us grasp the ways in which communities understood and expressed the importance of their voluntary work in the context of the wider war effort. The IODE awarded service bars (worn attached to regular IODE badges) to its members whose close relatives saw active service in either the First or Second World War: blue for a husband, red for a son, white for a daughter. These service bars acted as a tangible, visible link between a woman’s home front IODE voluntary service and the military service of her relative(s). No doubt they were worn with great pride. The IODE’s attitude toward its place in the grand scope of Canada’s war efforts is further indicated by a discussion of the organization’s more than $5,000,000 contribution to the Second World War. “The real worth of the work lay not in its material values,” wrote an IODE historian in 1950, “but in the spirit which inspired and sustained the members through the years of war. An organization composed of patriotic women which has the power to rally other patriots in a time of national emergency, is a power in the land.” 10 This attitude was not limited to IODE members. Across Canada, during both wars, Canadians engaged in all manners of voluntary service felt that they were an important part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves.

Some artifacts provide concrete evidence of what Canadians were doing during the war years. The booklets of knitting instructions issued regularly throughout both wars by the Canadian Red Cross and other organizations, for instance, will lead a knitter to a finished product that looks the same in the twenty-first century as it would have in the early twentieth. Newsletters and pamphlets produced by organizations for the next-of-kin of Canadian Prisoners of War detail the ongoing effort to maintain communication with POWs and provide them with supplementary food and clothing parcels. Other artifacts offer insight into how Canadians prepared themselves to deal with the worst – and what they imagined the worst might be. This category includes St. John Ambulance instructions for providing first aid to the injured, and guidelines for dealing with incendiary bombs in your neighbourhood. Throughout both world wars, volunteers attempted to anticipate future challenges, as well as to deal with those already existing, through concrete, hands-on voluntary work.

Some volunteering-related artifacts testify to Canadians’ creativity and ingenuity: with so much competition for a limited pool of time and money, organizations resorted to gimmicks to gain public attention, fundraising fads ebbed and flowed, and when money was unavailable in-kind donations were accepted. In both wars, war charities, church groups, and other organizations arranged tag days, charity teas, raffles, bake sales, door-to-door canvasses, patriotic concerts, and corporate fundraising appeals, but Canadians came up with all sorts of unexpected approaches as well: cute dogs bearing collection boxes, or the sale of patriotically-themed dolls, for instance. In rural and remote areas where cash was scarce, farmers donated produce or livestock and trappers donated fur pelts, the sale of which would generate funds for an organization. Businesses sometimes offered in-kind donations of potential use to voluntary organizations or the military: shaving cream, musical instruments, or whatever was their special stock-in-trade. Although not every in-kind donation was accepted, no cash donation was ever too large or too small, and the idea that everyone could and should contribute – regardless of age, race, class, religion, region, language, or gender – was a theme that resounded throughout both the First and Second World Wars.

While volunteering-related artifacts readily reveal the strategies used to try to motivate Canadians to donate their time or money and offer us insights into what Canadians were doing and how they were doing it, they do not speak so clearly when it comes to the question of why Canadians actually did so much volunteering. Did the propaganda strategies actually work? Were Canadians genuinely motivated by these appeals to their patriotism, their sense of duty, their traditional roles in society as men and women? We know that Canadians were volunteering in droves, and while a letter from a businessman offering a particular item to the military may provide a clear statement of his motives for doing so, we do not have such letters from every woman who rolled a bandage, every child who collected aluminum scraps, every family that invested in Victory Bonds. Therefore, we must engage in some educated speculation. It seems reasonable to infer that Canadians volunteered for a variety of reasons as diverse as Canadians themselves. As discussed earlier, Canadian society valued volunteering very highly in this period, wartime or not.  Many citizens seem to have been genuinely stirred by appeals to their patriotism and wished to contribute to victory. Other Canadians were probably inspired by personal connections to soldiers or by social pressure to be publicly seen “doing their bit.”

Volunteering is about more than altruism: volunteers benefit from their involvement, even if it is through something as simple as the personal satisfaction of contributing to a worthy cause. Families who contributed to the Victory Loan campaign were not only helping to finance the war, they were also investing in their own post-war financial prosperity. Volunteers who prepared hospital supplies for the Red Cross helped sick and wounded servicemen in the abstract, but they also knew they might end up helping sick or wounded servicemen from their own families and communities. Companies that made large, well publicized financial donations created positive associations in the public mind for themselves and their products, while aiding the war effort. Capable women who took leading roles in community fundraising efforts found an outlet for their abilities even as they garnered funds for the cause. Citizens who publicly took part in voluntary work provided much-needed free labour, but also satisfied their nosy neighbours and gossipy social circles that they were pulling their own weight in the war. By organizing patriotic concerts and tag days, racial and ethnic minority communities raised awareness and money while simultaneously demonstrating their (sometimes questioned) patriotism and asserting their worthiness for full citizenship rights.

The fact that there were mixed motives for much, if not all, of the voluntary service undertaken by Canadians during the First and Second World Wars does not lessen the significance of that work either to the prosecution of the war, or to Canadians themselves. Through voluntary means Canadians contributed tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of dollars in cash and kind to the two war efforts – resources that otherwise would have come from government coffers (sinking the country further into debt) or been done without. And by undertaking a variety of voluntary work and contributing to the war effort financially, Canadians invested themselves in the success or failure of these two wars. Their fellow-citizens were fighting overseas, and through their voluntary work on the home front these civilians made the war their own.

The history of wartime volunteering is integral to understanding the history of Canada during the First and Second World Wars. The majority of Canadians never came close to a battlefield, but their government, their neighbours, and usually they themselves nonetheless believed they had important contributions to make to the war effort. The surviving artifacts of Canadians’ wartime volunteering offer fascinating insights into two periods of time when giving freely of oneself and one’s resources for the good of the country was both encouraged and expected. Through their formal volunteer work, donations of money and goods, and voluntary adherence to a wide range of behaviours and guidelines, Canadians patriotically “did their bit,” found a sense of comfort and/or accomplishment, fulfilled social expectations, asserted their place in Canadian society, and made the years 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 truly ones of “total war.”

Sarah Glassford, University of Ottawa / Carleton University

Suggested Reading:
First World War:

Fallis, Donna. “World War I Knitting” in Alberta Museums Review (fall 1984): 8-10

Glassford, Sarah, and Amy J. Shaw, eds. A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012)

Miller, Ian Hugh. Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002)

Morton, Desmond. Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004)

Quiney, Linda J. “Assistant Angels: Canadian Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses in the Great War” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 15/1 (1998): 198-206

Quiney, Linda J. “‘Bravely and Loyally They Answered the Call’: St. John Ambulance, the Red Cross, and the Patriotic Service of Canadian Women during the Great War” in History of Intellectual Culture 5/1 (2005): 1-19

Riegler, Natalie. “Sphagnum Moss in World War I: The Making of Surgical Dressings by Volunteers in Toronto, Canada, 1917-1918” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 6 (1989): 27-43

Rutherdale, Robert. Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War (Vancouver:  UBC Press, 2004)

Scates, Bruce. “The Unknown Sock Knitter: Voluntary Work, Emotional Labour, Bereavement and the Great War” in Labour History (Australia) 81 (2001): 29-49

Warren, Gale Denise. “The Patriotic Association of the Women of Newfoundland: 1914-18” in Newfoundland Quarterly 92/1 (1998): 23-32

Second World War:

Baldwin, Douglas O., and Gillian Poulter. “Mona Wilson and the Canadian Red Cross in Newfoundland, 1940-1945” in Newfoundland and Labrador Studies 20 (2005): 281-311

Bruce, Jean. Back the Attack! Canadian Women during the Second World War, at Home and Abroad (Toronto: Macmillan, 1985)

Durflinger, Serge Marc. Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006)

Gregor, Frances. “The Women of the St. John Ambulance Brigade: Volunteer Nursing Auxiliaries in Wartime and Post-War Halifax” in Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 8 (2005): 17-34

Kapp, Richard W. “Charles H. Best, the Canadian Red Cross Society, and Canada’s First National Blood Donation Program” in Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 12 (1995): 27-46

Keshen, Jeffrey A. Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War  (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004)

Oppenheimer, Melanie. “Controlling Civilian Volunteering: Canada and Australia during the Second World War” in War and Society 22/2 (2004): 27-50

Pomerleau, Daniel. “La Societé canadienne de la croix-rouge et les prisonniers de guerre, 1939-1945” in Bulletin d’histoire politique 16/1 (2007): 177-188

Vance, Jonathan F. “Canadian Relief Agencies and Prisoners of War, 1939-1945” in Journal of Canadian Studies 31/2 (1996): 133-148


Glassford, Sarah. “Marching as to War: The Canadian Red Cross Society, 1885-1939” (PhD diss., York University, 2007)

Pickles, Katie. Female Imperialism and National Identity: Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)

Rutherdale, Robert. “Home Front” in Oxford Companion to Canadian History (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006)



  • 1McKenzie Porter, To All Men: The Story of the Canadian Red Cross (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1960), 51; Jeffrey A. Keshen, Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 23.
  • 2This attitude was a carry-over from the late-nineteenth century. See for example, Veronica Strong-Boag, “‘Setting the Stage’: National Organization and the Women’s Movement in the Late 19th Century” in The Neglected Majority: Essays in Canadian Women’s History edited by Susan Mann Trofimenkoff and Alison Prentice (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977).
  • 3Desmond Morton, Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004).
  • 4The War Charities Act, 1917, and Regulations and Forms Thereunder, foreword by Martin Burrell (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1918); Melanie Oppenheimer, “Controlling Civilian Volunteering: Canada and Australia during the Second World War,” War and Society 22/2 (2004): 27-50.
  • 5Ted Barris and Alex Barris, Days of Victory: Canadians Remember: 1939-1945 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1995), 61-2.
  • 6Robert Rutherdale, Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 195.
  • 7Katie Pickles, Female Imperialism and National Identity: Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 43.
  • 8Verdun, Quebec’s Second World War Civilian Protection Committee offers a good example.Many of its ARP volunteers were First World War veterans. Serge Marc Durflinger, Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006), 78-87.
  • 9Children’s First World War voluntary work is discussed in Kristine Alexander, “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, edited by Sarah Glassford and Amy J. Shaw (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012).
  • 10The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire: Golden Jubilee 1900-1950 (Toronto: T.H. Best Printing Co., 1950), 29, 76.