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Managing the
War Effort

Home Front

The Politics of War



at War



A Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Partner Project. Created under contract to Canada’s Digital Collections, Industry Canada.

Home Front

Some 12,000 Newfoundlanders, of an estimated population of 242,000, enlisted during the war. Nearly as many again volunteered but were rejected. Thousands more were involved behind the scenes, raising the fighting forces, outfitting them, training them, providing comforts, looking out for their families, caring for returned soldiers and sailors, commemorating them, and raising funds. Newfoundlanders were involved in virtually every aspect of the war effort, for the war was fought on many fronts.

The war effort was concentrated in St. John’s (population 32,000). It was the social, commercial and political centre of Newfoundland, and dominated 1,300 mostly small fishing settlements. The pulp and paper town of Grand Falls, controlled by British newspaper interests, was the only major inland centre. The Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA), the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA), the Newfoundland Regiment and the Royal Naval Reserve were headquartered in St. John’s.

Women’s Patriotic Association workers at Government House, ca. 1914.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL B-5-173), St. John’s, Newfoundland.
(52 Kb)

The NPA was intended to be broadly representative. It included the leading citizens of St. John’s—merchants, lawyers, educators, journalists, city councillors, city clergymen, officers of all city societies and unions, representatives of the cadet corps, Frontiersmen and rifle club, members of the Legislature, and medical doctors, newspaper editors and magistrates throughout Newfoundland. The make-up of its various committees and sub-committees was carefully weighed and balanced along political and religious lines. Outport magistrates established outport branches. Most soon lapsed, however, and the NPA remained overwhelmingly St. John’s based.

From the time it was announced in August 1914 that Newfoundland would raise a military force, until the first 537 recruits headed overseas in October, war fever gripped St. John’s. Men had to be selected, drilled and equipped, officers chosen, and transport arranged. There were banquets, socials and farewell parties. Patriotic poetry, prose and song filled the press. It seemed the whole town was involved. Not surprisingly, St. John’s provided the majority of the men, mostly from the ranks of the cadet corps.

D Company, First Newfoundland Regiment, lining rails of S.S. Stephano, ready to leave for overseas, March 20, 1915.
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA-37-23), St. John’s, Newfoundland.
(49 Kb)

The first contingent had hardly sailed through the Narrows when enlistment was renewed for a reserve force and the whole process began again. Before the war ended thousands of soldiers, sailors and foresters would be assembled in St. John’s and dispatched overseas. Throughout the war the city was on a virtual war footing, at times resembling an armed camp. Patriotic fervour never abated. Not even the disastrous Somme offensive with its terrible toll of young Newfoundlanders caused its citizens to falter, or Newfoundland’s continued participation to be questioned.

Only in the company town of Grand Falls did support for the war effort rival that of St. John’s. Large fishing towns, such as Carbonear and Harbour Grace, lagged far behind in terms of enlistment. In St. John’s and Grand Falls a large number of men were engaged in trade and manufacturing and could thus be spared without disastrous results for the city’s economy. In the outports, however, where the health of the staple industry depended on an adequate supply of young men, their absence could spell ruin.

Grand Falls downtown area, ca. 1909.
This early picture features three hotels, the Town Hall, the Anglo Newfoundland Development (AND) Co. Store and the Company Barn.

Courtesy of the Heritage Society of Grand Falls-Windsor, Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland.
(68 Kb)

In smaller, more remote outports the war seemed distant. Some war news filtered through and the occasional recruiting party called by. But for the most part it was the steadily rising price of fish that concerned people most.

For three years the NPA directed recruitment. Small groups of returned men toured the island, their efforts supplemented by fraternal organizations and local officials and dignitaries.

Newfoundland military personal recruiting at Harbour Grace, ca. 1917.
The inscription on the monument reads: "WHICH! Have you a reason or only an excuse for not enlisting NOW!"

Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL NA-11028), St. John’s, Newfoundland.
(49 Kb)

Enlistments aside, Newfoundlanders as a whole were caught up in a whirl of patriotic fund-raising and other charitable activity on behalf of the troops. Whether urban or rural, Catholic or Protestant, rich or poor, young or old, they did not stint in their efforts. There was the Patriotic Fund (designed to assist the dependents of combatants), the Belgian Relief Fund, the Khaki Prisoners Fund, St. Dunstan’s Fund for Blind Soldiers and Sailors, the Mayo Lind Tobacco Fund, the Fish and Brewis fund, the Aeroplane Fund, the Cot Fund, the Jensen Red Cross Fund, and a host of others. An estimated $1,000,000 was raised, a truly magnificent effort.

There was much other work to be done. The women of Newfoundland busied themselves with everything from the production of “comforts” to visiting the bereaved and entertaining the troops. The needs of the wounded and disabled—pensions, medical care and civil re-establishment programmes—occupied many. Women were also responsible for bringing in supplies, and ensuring that the fish made it to market.

Pairs of knitted socks, ca. 1915.
5,276 pairs of socks knitted by the women of Newfoundland - 2nd Contingent. One pair reached a knitter’s son.

Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Mary Southcott Collection 190), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland.
(39 Kb)

On the whole, Newfoundlanders did not suffer greatly from shortages of food and other consumer products. But shortages threatened and prices leaped upwards, sometimes to more than double their pre-war levels. Fortunately, the worldwide demand for food and other raw materials meant higher fish prices, full employment and better wages. Conspicuous consumption and luxury spending, it was said, were on the increase.

The most welcome effect of the war was increased trade and prosperity. Imports doubled in value and exports soared. The government recorded a surplus of revenue over expenditure four years in a row.

Newfoundland’s experience with the Great War on the Home Front was not so different from Britain’s or Canada’s. The war engaged more than just a nation’s soldiers and seamen: it required the mobilization of population and resources on an unprecedented scale in support of the war effort. Newfoundland proved to be remarkably imaginative in organizing its war effort in spite of a small population and limited resources. But the war also siphoned off a good part of the country’s productive manpower and a significant portion of its wealth. The long-term costs of the country’s involvement in the war were to be considerable.