Victoria around the time of the First World War was not all glory and young men proudly going off to fight for Crown and colony.
Despite stories of people like a 41-year-old city accountant identified only as Adams, who went to war in 1916 and died at Vimy Ridge; and former schoolteacher Arthur Currie, who rose to command Canada’s army and was later knighted, there were signs Victoria had a dark side as well.
University of Victoria history PhD candidate Jim Kempling has discovered both during the assembly of a new website called A City Goes to War.
“It’s important that we remember the sacrifices, but also the nasty stuff that went on,” he said.
The city, with its heavy British colonial influences, was actually a rather racist place, he added.
The website, unveiled this week, features numerous newspaper headlines and stories that cast a negative light on race in the days before and during the war. Among the news items was the arrival of a boat filled with potential refugees from India, the moves local authorities made to prevent them from landing in Victoria, and the efforts taken to deport them (a court challenge saw them allowed to stay).
Another web page details an anti-German riot downtown that began with the trashing of the Kaiserhof Hotel (now the Backpackers Inn) in 1915, following the sinking of the Allied ship Lusitania by a German u-boat.
However, the website offers much more than a picture of British Victorians demonstrating a lack of tolerance for other ethnic groups. It paints a picture of the societal, political and religious norms of a city during wartime.
Retired infantry colonel Kempling is project manager for the website, under the oversight of lead researcher, UVic history professor John Lutz.
Kempling, who led a team of six graduate and undergrad students, remembers the “a-ha moment” that prompted him to investigate such a time-specific subject.
“The thing that really turned it for me was walking past a bronze plaque on the wall of a church in Victoria and seeing the names of 29 people who had been killed in World War I,” he recalled. “I wondered if anyone really knew anything about these people.”
While annual Remembrance Day ceremonies centre around the tagline, “We Will Remember” – a phrase originally referring to those killed in the First World War – Kempling said, “We’ve really forgotten who these people were.”
The site includes more than 2,000 photos, newspaper articles, letters and other documents, and a database with the service records of 6,000 Victorians who served in the First World War.
While it currently only contains information about Victoria, the goal is to expand the website to include similar details and stories about Winnipeg and Toronto. Submissions will be solicited from academic sources and moderated, Kempling said, to ensure information is historically accurate.
“But there’s still quite a bit to do here. People are still discovering the shoebox in the attic (filled with memorabilia).”
The research project, funded by Veterans Affairs Canada through its Canada Remembers program, is expected to continue for the next four years. Related courses will be offered at UVic and students will add material with the help of local and provincial archivists and historians.
A teaching element of the site is aimed at high school students, who are encouraged to build a “fakebook” page using material from the site, and their imagination, to create stories depicting life during wartime.
To visit the site, go to acitygoestowar.ca.