Canadian Children and the Great War | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canadian Children and the Great War

The vast majority of Canada's eight million people fought the Great War at home.

The vast majority of Canada's eight million people fought the Great War at home. They produced munitions and grew food for the Allied armies. Women volunteered their skills and energy to support overseas soldiers (See Women and War). Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised through the purchase of war bonds . Direct taxation of individuals and businesses forced all Canadians to contribute to winning the fight against Germany. From 1917 onward, the Dominion was pushed to extremes. Yet despite a war effort that has often been described as “total,” we know very little about how the war affected the roughly two million children and adolescents in Canada — and how some even died in the cause.

Pre-war Militarism

In the two decades before 1914, since the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, Canadian youth had been exposed to militarism. Cadet groups were popular across much of Canada, and tens of thousands of youth were taught to march and shoot. In schools, physical fitness for boys was mixed with military drill. Moreover, in 1914, about 74,000 fathers, uncles, and older brothers were part of the Canadian militia, the part-time soldiers who prepared to defend Canada against invasion or were employed by the government in putting down strikes. The militia’s colourful uniforms and camaraderie appealed to older men and younger boys.

Soldiers’ Families

When war broke out in August 1914, the conflict was portrayed by Britain and its allies France and Russia as a just war against German military oppression. Canada was a Dominion in the British Empire and was automatically at war when London declared war on 4 August 1914. The First Contingent of Canadian soldiers, some 30,000 strong, left for Britain in early October and would be followed by hundreds of thousands more over the next four years. With Canada having had only a small professional pre-war army of 3,100, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), as the overseas contingent was known, consisted of civilian soldiers drawn from across Canada and from all social classes. By war’s end, 424,589 Canadians went overseas. About 20 per cent of them were married. Most were gone for years; thousands never returned — they lay buried in cemeteries on the Western Front and around the world.

With husbands having gone off to war, the most pressing need at home was to support the soldiers' families. While most husbands assigned a good portion of their pay to their wives, the private's pay of $1.10 a day would have left most families starving without additional assistance. Even though the government provided an additional monthly stipend of $20 a month to wives of soldiers, it was still not enough.

Canadian Patriotic Fund

In the fiercely patriotic environment of 1914, Sir Herbert Ames, a Montreal MP and businessman, re-established the Canadian Patriotic Fund (CPF). It had first been organized during the South African War to care for soldiers' families, and it would do the same during this longer and costlier war effort. Under the slogans of “Do your bit” and “Give 'til it hurts,” Canadians contributed an astonishing $6 million to the fund in the first three months of the war and eventually raised $47 million. The money was doled out to soldiers’ families, often by middle-class women. Payments usually amounted to about $25 a month; another $3 to $7.50 was included per child, depending on age.

But the money came with some strings attached. With much of Canada's overseas army consisting of working- class soldiers, the families receiving CPF funds often felt humiliated in having to ask for support and face inquisitions about how the money was spent. CPF representatives acted as moderators of norms and morals. They had the power to cut off undeserving wives considered to have transgressed with everything from committing adultery, to spending money on frivolous goods – leading to significant tensions over the way funds were administered.

War in the Classroom

The war intruded into all aspects of children's lives. In school, students were taught that the British Empire was fighting for liberty against the evil and militaristic German “Hun,” who had started the war by invading and occupying Belgium. School rooms were festooned with maps, flags, and other patriotic symbols. By the halfway point of the war, in 1916, new texts began to emphasize the Canadian contribution to the Empire's war effort, and patriotic books, like Lord Beaverbrook's Canada in Flanders, revealed the heroics of Canada's fighting forces. All the while, male teachers slowly disappeared from the classroom, enlisting for service.

The war was evident in most urban centres. War posters plastered the walls of buildings and public spaces and there were never-ending patriotic fundraisers. Eaton's and other stores soon offered war-related toys, everything from tin soldiers to popguns. Girls could choose dolls dressed as Red Cross nurses. Faux military uniforms, along with the puttees that soldiers overseas wrapped around their lower legs, allowed boys to be dressed as little warriors. Few adults objected to this creation of mock child soldiers.

Waiting and Worrying

Illustration for the children's  song I Want to Kiss Daddy Goodnight.
Written by Gordon Thompson.
My Dad is at the Front.
Button produced by the Canadian Patriotic Fund in Toronto.
The Children's Story of the War.

Those who saw fathers and elderly brothers go off to war spent years thinking about their loved ones in the trenches. Care packages of food, treats, and reading material were gathered lovingly, along with a daughter or a son's penned letters or coloured drawings. Popular songs of the day captured children longing for their fathers, including Will Daddy Come Home Tonight and I Want to Kiss Daddy Good Night. Children worried about the long absences between letters from family members at war. They watched their mothers sit in quiet contemplation. They feared the knock at the door by a telegram boy carrying a terse government message announcing that a father or older sibling had been wounded or killed in action.

Young Girls

Girls were encouraged to emulate their mothers and to band together in sewing groups. These clubs for girls created new communities of patriotic youth. Knitted socks for soldiers were material evidence — as were care packages — that the boys fighting overseas had not been forgotten by their grateful country or their families.

A popular 1914 pamphlet, Grey Knitting and Other Poems, highlighted knitting as an act of devotion to the soldiers. A wartime poem, What can we do for our country?, observed that "Canadian children can't handle / Bayonet, musket or gun. / ... But each can be doing a bit; / And we are helping our soldiers / When a warm grey sock we knit."

Victory Gardens and War Stamps

Local food production by children was encouraged throughout most major Canadian cities. Patriotic stories circulated of generous youth cultivating Victory Gardens, and banners in schools and public areas claimed that the Dominion's youth were battling Germany’s Kaiser by “artichoking” or “beeting” him with their Victory vegetables.

Children were also encouraged to raise money for the war effort. Stories of overseas atrocities frequently highlighted the trauma to French and Belgian children suffering under German occupation and were used to elicit support from all Canadians. Across Canada, the youth of the nation could support the war by salvaging coal or recycling metal. Posters reminded children to pool their pennies and purchase war stamps that could be collected and stuck to special sheets and later handed in to banks for bonds that could later be redeemed for money.

Children of all ages were told to do their duty and assist their mothers or other families whose sons or husbands had gone off to war. As an acknowledgement of one’s duty fulfilled, patriotic certificates and ribbons were issued for supporting the war or raising money. And all brave youth were to be on the lookout for shadowy saboteurs, profiteers, and the unpatriotic.


A few thousand teenagers, aged 15 to 19, were recruited in 1917 to serve as "Soldiers of the Soil." Wearing special uniforms, the adolescents marched out to assist farmers and bring in the crops. The next year, at least 18,000 Ontario high school students signed up for the program. These new “soldiers” were lauded for “doing their bit” for the war effort and enjoyed the bonus of being exempted from classes and final exams.

Throughout the war, some 20,000 underage young men enlisted for overseas service. While the minimum age for service was 18 (later raised to 19), young Canadians anxious to prove their manhood lied about their age. Complacent recruiting sergeants often turned a blind eye to the obviously young recruits, especially as they struggled to fill quotas after 1916. At the same time, thousands of adolescents, many of them 15 or 16 years old, also enlisted. Several thousand were turned back upon arrival overseas or after their desperate parents complained to authorities. But thousands more served in the trenches, including a 12-year-old. Most fought with bravery alongside their older comrades in arms.

A large number of British-born children who had been shipped to Canada as part of the Home Children resettlement schemes, such as the Barnardo boys or the Maritimes’ Middlemore boys, also enlisted for service. For example, one study of the more than 3,000 Middlemore boys who were sent to Canada found that more than half of them enlisted for service in the CEF.

The acknowledged problem of underage recruitment became an epidemic by 1916 and early 1917 when the manpower-short army refused to allow combat-trained underage soldiers out of front-line service, even when parents supplied birth certificates. Responding to growing outrage on the home front, a Young Soldiers’ Battalion (YSB) was established in England in July 1917. A few months later, the Canadian military high command ordered underage soldiers to be pulled back from the front and placed in the YSB, where they were offered special training — a mixture of Boy Scout-like skills and military instruction. When the young men reached the age of 19, they were shipped back to the front. By war's end, it is estimated that 2,000 underage Canadian soldiers had been killed. Many were buried under the false names they had used to enlist, so as to evade discovery by their parents.

The War at Home

Throughout the Great War, children were asked and expected to serve and make sacrifices. While the children’s experience between 1914 and 1918 varied according to race, class, age, culture, and the rural/urban divide, few escaped the impact of the war overseas, and almost all faced their own wars on the home front.

Selected Works of
Canadian Children and the Great War

Collection: First World War