The Tragic Death of Lieutenant-Colonel William Barker, V.C.

12 March 1930

Lieutenant-Colonel William Barker is the most-highly decorated war hero in Canadian and British Commonwealth history. An ace pilot during World War I, he received the Victoria Cross, the highest award in the Commonwealth for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He was also awarded the Distinguished Service Order (twice), the Military Cross (three times), the Croix de Guerre from France, and the Silver Medal for Military Valour from Italy (twice). He was additionally mentioned in dispatches three times. Active on the Western Front in France and on the Italian Front, he is credited with shooting down at least 50 enemy aircraft. Despite being a household name one hundred years ago, ranking beside his friend Billy Bishop another Canadian war ace and Victory Cross recipient, he is largely forgotten today. In part, this is likely due to his untimely death at 35 years of age in a tragic accident that occurred on 12 March 1930 in Ottawa.

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William George Barker, V.C. by Swaine, Library and Archives Canada, PA-122516.

Barker was born in a log cabin on a farm near the small town of Dauphin, Manitoba in 1894. As a teenager, he was known for his keen eyesight and marksmanship. In December 1914, he enlisted in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles with whom he served as a machine gunner at Ypres. In the spring of 1916, he volunteered to serve in the Royal Flying Corps first as a gunner and, following receipt of a commission as a second lieutenant, as an observer in the B.E.2 two-seater reconnaissance airplane.  He received his first MC doing aerial photography. In July of that year, he recorded his first victory, driving down a German scout airplane using his observer’s gun. At the beginning of 1917, he was sent to flying school for four weeks’ instruction to become a pilot. Promoted to flying officer in February 1917, Barker returned to the Western Front again in two-seater reconnaissance airplanes (the B.E.2 and the R.E.8), but this time seated in the front pilot’s seat. Three months later, he was promoted to captain and given command of a flight of airplanes (four to six aircraft).

After being wounded in August 1917, he was transferred back to England to become a flight instructor. Hating his new job, he quickly got himself reassigned to active duty in France, though not before getting into trouble doing acrobatics over London. Barker began flying the Sopwith Camel, a single seater fighter, armed with twin synchronized machine guns. It proved to be a lethal combination of man and machine. Flying the highly manoeuvrable though temperamental Camel, Barker could fully exploit his skills as a marksman. Shortly after his return to France in late October he officially became an ace, downing his fifth German airplane, a German Albatros D.III fighter. Other “kills” quickly followed. Barker’s Sopwith Camel, serial number B6313, was to become the most successful fighter airplane in British history.

When his squadron was transferred to the Italian Front in late 1917, Barker took aim at Austrian air force. By April 1918, he had twenty-two victories. He also earned a reputation for taking down observation balloons, a deadly enterprise since the balloons were heavily protected by anti-aircraft guns. In July, he was promoted to major and given command of the No. 139 Squadron. Although the squadron flew the two-seater Bristol F.2b fighter and reconnaissance aircraft (also known as the “Brisfit”), Barker continued to prefer flying his cherished Sopwith Camel. When the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited the squadron in the summer of 1918, Barker took him aloft in a Brisfit, with the prince occupying the rear observer’s seat. Barker flew the prince deep into enemy territory before returning to the Allied lines. Fortunately, although they encountered anti-aircraft fire from the ground, no Austrian airplane went up to challenge them.

By September 1918, he was a highly-decorated ace with at least forty-six victories to his credit. Even more to his credit was the incredible achievement of not losing a single pilot or airplane under his escort during the previous year of active duty. Ordered back to England to take command the flight school at Hounslow, Barker’s greatest exploit, for which he was to earn the Victory Cross, was yet to come. Arguing that he needed to reacquaint himself with the Western Front to do his job properly, he obtained a ten-day roving commission in France. On 27 October 1918, on the last day of his commission and only two weeks prior to the end of the war, he encountered a German reconnaissance airplane over the Forêt de Mormal while flying the new Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe. Although Barker managed to down the two-seater craft, he made a rookie mistake and was caught unaware by a German fighter that had sneaked up behind him. He only found out that he was being pursued when his right leg was shattered by a bullet. Despite the pain, Barker managed to circle around the Fokker DVII, and bring it down too.

barkersopwithcamellac-pa172313

William Barker with his Sopwith Camel, France 1917, Library and Archives Canada, PA-172313

From there, things only got worse. Somehow during the dog fight with the Fokker, Barker had managed to stumble into an entire “circus” of German fighters. While accounts regarding the number of enemy aircraft vary from 15 to an incredible 60, Barker was vastly outnumbered. In front of thousands of Allied soldiers Barker managed to bring down two more German fighters but not before receiving crippling wounds to his left thigh and left elbow. His Snipe, hit repeatedly, with its fuel tank shot away, crashed behind British lines. Barker, amazingly still alive, was pulled from the wreckage by Scottish troops. On 20 November 1918, he was awarded the Victory Cross for this epic, single-handed battle, and the congratulations of his grateful Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and Sir Robert Borden, the Canadian Premier.

In early 1919, still recovering from his wounds, Barker flew again with the Prince of Wales, taking him on a tour of London by air. Barker needed canes to walk to the aircraft, and flew with his left arm strapped to his breast.  Speaking of his flight, the Prince commented: “I have enjoyed it immensely but what a sensation it is when you go over backwards.” The RAF promoted Barker to Lieutenant Colonel. On his return to Canada later that year, Barker entered civilian aviation in partnership with Billy Bishop. Together they operated an air-charter and aircraft maintenance firm located at Armour Heights Air Field in Toronto. In 1921, Barker married Jean Smith, the cousin of Billy Bishop. Their daughter Antoinette was born in 1923.

As was the case with many early civil aviation operations, Bishop-Barker Aeroplanes failed in 1922. Barker then joined the Canadian Airforce (CAF) and was made commanding officer of Camp Borden. Subsequently, he was made acting director of the CAF, and for a time lived in Ottawa. In 1924, with the establishment of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he was sent to England to act as the RCAF’s liaison officer with the British Air Ministry. He later studied at the RAF Staff College at Andover and saw service with the RAF in the Middle East.

In 1926, Barker resigned his commission from the RCAF, reportedly because he didn’t get along with his commanding officer. For a time, he operated a tobacco farm owned by his father-in-law, Horace B. Smith.  This did not go well. In 1927, Conn Smythe, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs (himself a former RAF pilot), made Barker the team’s first president. But civilian life did not come easy to the war hero. Like many veterans, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. For a time, he turned to alcohol to quell his demons. His family life suffered.

In early 1930, things finally looked like they were turning around for him. He had just landed the job of vice president and general manager of the Fairchild Aviation Company of Canada in Montreal. The day of his death, he was in Ottawa to help sell the company’s new trainer airplane, the two-person, Fairchild KR-21B biplane, to the Department of National Defence.

Wednesday, 12 March 1930, was a typical, late winter day in Ottawa. Weather conditions were good, with the wind out of the west, and a high temperature of 7 degrees Celsius. The Fairchild trainer was flown from Montreal to the Rockcliffe aerodrome in the morning by Captain Donald Shaw, the Fairchild Company’s test pilot. The trip was uneventful, with the airplane performing as it should. Shortly before 1pm, William Barker, who had travelled to Ottawa by train, decided to take the airplane up for a spin. He had never flown that model aircraft before but liked to take every opportunity to fly to maintain his competency. Apparently, until he joined the Fairchild Aviation Company two months earlier, he had done little flying since leaving the RCAF in 1926.

Barker seated himself in the real cockpit of the small trainer with registration marking CF-AKR. He warmed up his engine, taxied into the wind, and made a perfect take-off. After circling the airfield, he flew to the north-east across the Ottawa River to the Quebec side. Turning back towards the Rockcliffe aerodrome, something went wrong. One observer, struck by the odd manner in which the airplane was performing, claimed that he had a premonition that something was about to happen. Flying at an altitude of only a couple of hundred feet, the aircraft swerved and then plummeted straight down into the slushy ice of the Ottawa River roughly one hundred yards from the Rockcliffe slip close to the aerodrome. Striking the ice nose first, Barker’s aircraft crashed onto its left side. The plane was a tangled wreck. One of the blades of the propeller was sheared off on impact, while the other was broken in two. The engine was jammed back into the fuselage by the force of the crash. Only the rear of the plane and its right wing were left relatively intact. Col. Barker was found still seated in the real cockpit, but he was beyond human help. His body had been crushed on impact, his head smashed against the dashboard of his control panel.

News of the accident flashed through a stunned Capital. Immediately the Department of National Defence established a board of inquiry to examine the cause of the fatal crash. The Board determined that the Fairchild trainer was airworthy before the crash, that weather conditions were good, and that Col. Barker was a “commercial pilot in good standing.” Other than these basic facts, Board members had to depend on unreliable eye-witness testimony to draw their conclusions. Their verdict was pilot error. Later, there was speculation that Barker, suffering from depression, may have killed himself. But there is no evidence to support this contention. In many respects, the reasons for the crash remain a mystery.

Col. Barker’s body was conveyed by train to the home of his father-in-law at 355 St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto where distinguished guests and friends paid their last respects. On the Saturday afternoon after the accident, his body was brought to Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and was laid to rest in the Smith family mausoleum. Two thousand servicemen, representing all of the Toronto-area regiments, paraded in his honour. Immediately behind the casket walked family and friends, Ontario Premier Ferguson, Major General McNaughton, and a group of Victory Cross recipients. A warrant officer bore Col. Barker’s medals on a cushion. More than 50,000 people lined the route of the funeral cortege down St. Clair Avenue to the cemetery. Overhead a flight of planes flew, each in turn swooping down to shower the procession with rose petals. At the mausoleum, Rev. Canon Broughall, rector of Grace-Church-on-the-Hill, officiated at a short service.

For decades, there was little way of a public memorial to Lieutenant- Colonel William Barker, V.C., buried as he was in the Smith family’s mausoleum. In 2011, his grandchildren righted this wrong. They erected a monument outside of the mausoleum, consisting of a bronze propeller blade rising from a granite base with a bronze picture of Barker and a plaque noting his distinction as “The most decorated war hero in the history of Canada and the British Empire.” There for the official unveiling of the memorial was Barker’s descendants and the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, David Onley. Overhead, two vintage planes, one of them a Sopwith Snipe, and a CF-18 fighter flew a salute while a bugler sounded The Last Post.

Sources:

AcePilots.com, 1999-2016. Major G. “Billy” Barker, http://acepilots.com/wwi/can_barker.html.

CBC, 2011. World War I flying ace honoured 81 years after death, 22 September, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/wwi-flying-ace-honoured-81-years-after-death-1.1062894.

CBC, 2011. Honours for Flying Ace, 22 September, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyKOyoN9ArQ.

Globe (The), 1930. “Gol. Barker, V.C., Great Canadian Ace Dies Airman’s Death,” 13 March.

———————–, “Massed Crowd Mourn Great Airman,” 17 March.

Globe and Mail, (The), 1999. “The Greatest Ace You Never Heard Of,” 8 November.

—————————, 2011. Lieutenant- Col. William Barker,” 22 September.

National Defence and the Canadian Forces, 2009. Victoria Cross – First World War, 1914-1918, William George Barker, http://www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca/dhh-dhp/gal/vcg-gcv/bio/barker-wg-eng.asp.

Evening Citizen, (The), 1930. “Finds Error of Judgement Cause of Plan Crash,” 15 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1930. “Col. Barker, Great Canadian Air Ace, Killed Here,” 12 March.

————————————, 1930. “Fatal Crash Which Caused Death of Colonel Barker, V.C., at Rockcliffe Still Remains Shrouded in Mystery,” 13 March.

————————————-, 1930. “Epic Air Battle Won V.C. Award For Dead Flyer,” 13 March.

————————————-, 1930. “Toronto V.C.’s To All Attend Funeral In Body,” 13 March.

Ralph, Wayne, 2005-2016. “Barker, William George,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/barker_william_george_15E.html.

Roadstories.ca, 2011, William George Barker: Canada’s most decorated hero, 7 November, http://roadstories.ca/william-barker/.

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Spring Forward, Fall Back

14 April, 1918

When you mess with Father Time, you can be sure be sure somebody is going to be riled. Reportedly, people rioted when Britain and its overseas territories (including its North American colonies) switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, fearing that the government had stolen a fortnight of their lives since 14 September followed immediately after 1 September. While this story is apocryphal, it’s no exaggeration that the adoption of daylight saving time a century ago was highly controversial. Although people didn’t come to blows, the time change pitted rural communities against urban centres across North America. So highly charged was the issue, the Canadian and U.S. federal governments, after a temporary wartime trial run in both countries in 1918, bowed out of the fray, leaving the decision to adopt daylight saving time to junior levels of government. For the most part, individual cities determined whether or not they would go on “summer” or “fast” time each year. You can imagine the confusion this caused. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that some official order was instituted in the United States, with Canadian provinces following suit to facilitate cross-border commerce. Even so, daylight saving time has continued to be divisive. In Saskatchewan, the provincial government promised a referendum on the issue in 2007 though it was never held. In March 2015, the National Post ran an article in favour of eliminating daylight saving time. You can even join a Facebook community contending that “Daylight Saving Time is torture and should be abolished.”

Benjamin Franklin is sometimes referred to the “inventor” of daylight saving time. When he was ambassador to France in 1784, he suggested that if people got up and went to bed earlier, they would make better use of their daylight hours, and would save a fortune in candles. Daylight saving time, in the sense of advancing the clock rather than just encouraging early rising, was first proposed in 1895 by New Zealander George Hudson. He argued in favour of moving clocks forward by two hours during the summer so that people could make better use of the morning light, and to have more time for outdoor activities in the evening. As a part-time entomologist, he wanted more time before dusk to devote to bug collecting after he had finished his day job with the Post Office.

George Hudson

George Hudson, (1867-1946), late in life, author unknown

In 1907, Englishman William Willett published a pamphlet titled The Waste of Daylight, and began a campaign to have daylight saving time introduced in the United Kingdom. He proposed a gradual phase-in of daylight saving time over four successive Sundays in April (20 minutes each Sunday morning) with a similar four-week phase-out in September. Like today, to minimize disruption, he proposed changing the time at 2am, a point in the day when few trains ran. He estimated that daylight saving time would save the people of Great Britain and Ireland at least £2,500,000 a year (a huge sum in those days) through a reduced need for artificial lighting during the evenings. Despite intensive lobbying of the British Government, Willett died in 1915 without seeing his idea implemented. Many ridiculed him.

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Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet

It took World War I to shift opinions in Europe. The first country to adopt daylight saving time was Germany where clocks were advanced one hour on 30 April 1916. The principal reason was to conserve coal used to produce electricity. Britain, ashamed that an enemy country had acted before it had, swiftly followed suit with the Summer Time Act of 1916 under which daylight saving time began on 21 May 1916, and ended on 1 October. The experiment was deemed a great success, and was repeated in subsequent years. It was estimated that Great Britain and Ireland saved 300,000 tons of coal during the summer of 1916, equivalent to roughly 1.5% of production. Most other European countries also introduced daylight saving time that year.

While Britain may have been slow to act, some Canadians who were following the debate in London were more eager to experiment with ways to make better use of their early daylight hours. Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) was the first Canadian community to effectively introduce daylight saving time by advancing its clocks one hour for a two-month summer trial period in 1908. The town’s residents liked the effect so much that the following year the community permanently shifted to the Eastern Time Zone from the Central Time Zone. Neighbouring Fort William followed suit in 1910.  In 1912, Orillia introduced daylight saving time starting on 23 June to run until the end of August. However, the town revoked “Orillia time,” after only two weeks owing to opposition from workers who refused to abide by the time change. Between 1914 and 1916, Regina, Brandon, Winnipeg, and Halifax also introduced daylight saving time for trial periods.

In Ottawa, City Council voted in early June 1916 to adopt daylight saving time, starting on 20 June 1916 and running until 1 October, on the recommendation of Mayor Nelson Porter and the Board of Control. A proclamation to this effect was prepared for the Mayor’s signature. However, the night before summer time was to begin, Council unanimously rescinded the measure owing to overwhelming community opposition. Businesses feared that if they advanced their clocks, competitors might not, allowing them to stay open an hour later in the day. The Ottawa Electric Railway, which operated Ottawa’s trams, also refused to abide by the Council’s decision. The final blow to the idea came from the lack of support from the federal government, the city’s largest employer. With the public service continuing to operate on standard time, daylight saving time in the capital was a non-starter.

Prompted by Europe’s successful experience with daylight saving time, the federal governments in both Canada and the United States passed legislation in 1917 to advance the clocks on a trial basis. Seen as a way to save fuel, the move was deemed imperative for the war effort. After considerable debate, the United States set daylight savings time to start the last Sunday in March, running until the last Sunday in October, i.e. 31 March 1918 to 27 October 1918. The debate in Canada was also lengthy, and, as was the case south of the border, pitted rural communities that wanted to maintain standard time against urban centres.  What swung the debate in favour of daylight savings time was the insistence of Canadian railways that they would adopt daylight saving time to remain consistent with U.S. railways regardless of what the federal government decided. Canadian rail companies were concerned about the impact on their schedules and the risk of accident should the U.S. and Canadian time practices diverged.

Sir George Foster, Minister for Trade and Commerce, led the fight in the House of Commons for daylight saving time, arguing that the primary consideration was “economy, particularly in the matter of lighting.” He noted that manufacturing industries, boards of trade, and business associations of towns and cities all favoured putting clocks ahead by one hour during the summer. But members of Parliament from farming communities were almost universally against the move. Rural MPs argued that farmers would have to continue to function on standard time as the tending of animals could not be advanced. As well, fields could not be entered until the dew had evaporated, which would be an hour later if clocks were set forward. This would leave less time at the end of the day for farm workers to go to town before the stores closed. Some also argued that daylight saving time went against God’s plan. Still others worried that it would be more difficult to get children to go to bed, and was therefore anti-mother. One MP disparaging said it was no surprise that boards of trade favoured daylight saving time since they were comprised of lawyers, doctors, and merchants who were eager to get in an extra round of golf or tennis game after work. Notwithstanding these many objections, the Daylight Saving Act 1918 was passed, but not in time for Canada to move in tandem with the United States. Daylight saving time started in Ottawa, and in most of the country on Sunday, 14 April 1918, two weeks after it did in the United States. Both countries returned to standard time on Sunday, 27 October.

Following the end of the war in November 1918, the rural lobby forced the U.S. and Canadian governments to back-track. In the United States, Congress voted to repeal daylight saving time, and successfully overturned a presidential veto by Woodrow Wilson, a daylight saving time supporter. In Canada, daylight saving time was overwhelmingly defeated in the House of Commons in early 1919. The defeat was described as “a great victory for the men who tilled the soil.” In both countries, the decision to adopt daylight saving time, as well as the dates of observance, became the responsibility of junior levels of government. Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher announced that the nation’s capital would observe daylight saving time from 14 April to 27 October 1919. Toronto and Montreal did likewise. However, south-western Ontario farming communities and Windsor remained on standard time. With Ottawa adopting daylight saving time, the big question was what the federal government would do. Despite its rejection of daylight saving time for the nation, the federal government relented when it came to its Ottawa civil servants to ensure that “the time outside the door of the Parliament building would coincide with that within the building.”

This patchwork of observance across North America continued through the 1920s and 1930s. But when World War II commenced, wartime exigencies again predominated; the conservation of electricity became of paramount importance. In Canada, a federal order-in-council, issued in late September 1940, extended daylight saving time indefinitely in Ontario and Quebec on the advice of the Ontario and Quebec Hydro Companies. Towns that had already reverted to standard time, such as Arnprior near Ottawa, were required to switch back to summer time. On 9 February 1942, year-round daylight saving time was extended to the entire country, coinciding with the adoption of a similar policy, called “War Time,” in the United States.

As was the case at the end of World War I, daylight saving time reverted to local control in both Canada and the United States at the end of World War II. Again, North America was divided up into a patchwork quilt of observance with varying start and end dates. In some parts of the United States, a short car journey could require several time changes. To reduce the risk of accident and scheduling costs, railways operated year-round on standard time. Order was finally restored with the introduction of the federal Uniform Time Act in 1966 in the United States that specified the start and end dates for daylight saving time in the United States, though the decision to advance clocks was left up to individual states. Although no such uniformity was legislated in Canada, provinces adopted in 1967 the U.S. dates for advancing clocks to facilitate cross-border trade. Consequently, in 2005, when the United States lengthened the period of daylight saving by roughly a month starting the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, Canadian provinces followed suit.

Today, most of Canada, with certain exceptions, observes daylight saving time. The largest exception is Saskatchewan. However, as that province adheres to the Central Time Zone despite being geographically in the Mountain Time Zone, it is arguably on daylight saving time all year round. Today most people take daylight saving time for granted, and enjoy the extra hour of light in the evening. However, opposition is on the rise owing to the inconvenience of adjusting clocks twice a year, and recent studies that suggest that the economic benefits from “springing forward” each March and “falling back” each November are minimal.

Sources:

CBC, 2008. “Springing forward, falling back: the history of time change,” 31 October, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/springing-forward-falling-back-the-history-of-time-change-1.755925.

Citizen, (The), 1916. “Daylight Saving Is Favored by Ottawa City Controllers,” 2 June.

————–, 1916. “Prepared For Proper Trial,” 6 June.

————–, 1916. “Will Try Out The Daylight Saving Plan,” 11 June.

————–, 1916. “Depends On Government,” 14 June.

————–, 1916. “Daylight Saving Is In The Balance, 15 June.

————–, 1916. “May Rescind Resolution,” 16 June.

————–, 1916. “Delay Trial of Daylight Saving Plan,” 20 June.

Globe, (The), 1912. “Orillia Revoked Daylight Saving,” 13 July.

————-, 1918. “Daylight Saving Over Continent,” 7 February.

————-, 1918. “Daylight Is To Be Saved,” 27 March.

————-, 1918. “Bill Through Committee Now,” 3 April.

————–, 1919. “Likely To Respect Daylight Saving,” 11 February.

————–, 1919. “Canada’s Parliament Spurns ‘Daylight Saving’ In Summer,” 28 March.

————–, 1919. “Summer Time Sweeps Land,” 31 March.

————–, 1919. “Parliament ‘About Turns,’” 12 April.

————–, 1922. “Save Daylight In Cities of U.S.,” 29 April.

————–, 1940. “Time Saving Is Extended Indefinitely.” 21 September.

————–, 1940. “Centres Which Turned Clocks Back Required To Revert To ‘Fast’ Time,” 24 September.

————–, 1942. “Daylight Time Now in Effect Throughout Canada and the U.S,” 9 February.

House of Commons Debates, 1917. Daylight Saving Bill, 23 July.

———————————-, 1918, Daylight Saving, 26 March.

Klein, Christopher, 2012, “8 Things You May Not Know About Daylight Saving Time,” History, 9 March, http://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-daylight-saving-time.

Macdonald, Cheryl, 2007. “The Battle for Daylight Saving,” Pinecone.on.ca, http://www.pinecone.on.ca/MAGAZINE/stories/BattleDaylightSaving.html.

National Post (The), 2015. “National Post View: Time to eliminate daylight savings,” 9 March.

Prerau, David. 2005, Seize the Daylight, New York, Thunder Mouth Press.

Willet, William, 1907. “The Waste Of Daylight,” Daylight Saving Time, http://www.webexhibits.org/daylightsaving/willett.html.

 

Image:

George Vernon Hudson, (1867-1946), late in life, author unknown, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Hudson_

Cover of William Willett’s pamphlet, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2011/11/saving-energy-the-fall-back-position/.

Armistice Day

11 November 1918

The headline in The Citizen said it all: “PEACE! World War Ends; Armistice Signed; Kaiser Is Out; Revolution Grows.” After four years and a half years of fighting, the war was over. Shortly after 5am, Paris time, on 11 November 1918, the German politician Mathias Ezberger signed the armistice on behalf of Germany in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne, about 60 kilometres north of Paris. It was to take effect six hours later, allowing time for the news to reach the front—a delay that cost many men their lives as fighting continued right up until 11am. The last Canadian soldier to die in the war was Private George Lawrence Price of the 2nd Canadian Division who was killed at 10.58am by a sniper while his unit attempted to take the small Belgian village of Havré near Mons.

Newspaper

Front Page of The Citizen, 11 November 1918

News of the armistice reached Ottawa via an Associated Press dispatch at 3.06am that Monday morning. Seconds later, electric lights throughout the capital blinked four times—a pre-arranged signal organized by The Ottawa Citizen with the Ottawa Electric and Hydro-Electric Companies to indicate the arrival of peace. Except for patrons of all-night diners, most Ottawa citizens were home in bed, though many had left their lights on in hopes of witnessing history in the making.

Two days earlier, mid-Saturday afternoon, Ottawa’s electric lights had also blinked; that time twice on news that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated. Within minutes, the streets were a mass of exultant people, celebrating the end of the “Beast of Berlin,” and the overthrow of the House of Hohenzollern. Vehicles of all descriptions, flivvers, touring cars, tractors, and trucks, many decorated with flags and pennants, and loaded with people, slowly made their way down Sparks Street. The noise was deafening. In addition to horns, tin whistles, and the beat of pots and pans, some automobile owners had attached whistles to “cut outs” in their car exhaust pipes adding still more decibels to the cacophony. That evening, a mob of celebrating young people paraded through the revolving doors of the Château Laurier Hotel, past the statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the rotunda, and into the dining room, to the applause of diners. Shortly after 11pm, an effigy of Kaiser Bill, decorated with pictures of Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, the instigator of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Austrian Emperor, and the German Crown Prince, was burnt on Connaught Square. The effigy had been made by the Citizen press-room staff using oil-soaked rags and waste. It was set alight by Chief Graham of the Ottawa Fire Department. The crowds started to disperse after midnight to await news that peace had arrived.

An armistice had been expected the following day. But Sunday came and went without an announcement. Nonetheless, plans for the big day went ahead. Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher announced that the day of the armistice would be a public holiday. A “monster” parade was scheduled. A request went out for all car owners to decorate their vehicles with flags of allied nations, and join the parade. Along with the war veterans and members of the 2nd Battalion stationed at Lansdowne Park, the letter carriers would parade in uniform. The pipe band of the St Andrew’s Society was also requested to gather for the march on Parliament. Kiwanis Club members were asked to form up at the entrance to Parliament Hill close to Bank Street. A series of floats were also planned, including one of a boat on which the Kaiser was on his knees tied to a winch.

When the news finally broke in the wee hours of Monday morning, the city went wild; the ensuring celebration far outstripped anything two days earlier. As the Citizen noted, Saturday’s celebrations merely marked the passing of a murderer and tyrant, while Monday’s “was a celebration of the greatest victory for civilization in the history of the world.” After the city’s lights flashed, Ottawa residents were summoned to the streets by the sound of fire station gongs and sirens, factory whistles, and church bells. In these days before radio, telephone girls quickly spread the word across telephone exchanges. Whole families, tousled haired and hastily dressed, stumbled out onto the early-morning streets waving flags or pennants, and blowing tin horns. The Postmaster-General, Lieutenant-Col. Hon. Pierre-Édouard Blondin was in his home library on Range Road when his electric lights blinked. Immediately, he and his family got dressed and drove in their car to Sparks Street where they found themselves at the head of an impromptu parade of celebrating citizens.

At 3.10am, the Citizen posted the new bulletin “GERMANY SURRENDERS” on their Sparks Street office window, eliciting prolonged cheers from the growing throng outside. A short time later, the skirl of bagpipes could be heard over the din, emanating from the corner of O’Connor and Slater Streets, followed by the sound of drums and horns of the “Victory Loan” and G.W.V.A. (Great War Veterans’ Association) bands that had quickly assembled. Making their way to Parliament Hill, they played “Maple Leaf Forever,” with thousands of voices joining in the song. After the last chorus, the bands struck up the famous tune of the “Old Hundred,” to which the crowd sang “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” After a moment of silence, an immense cheer went up that lasted for more than two minutes. The massed bands and then played another old church favourite “Our God Our Help In Ages Past.” As dawn approach, Reverend (Major) T. Thompson gave a concluding prayer. Afterwards, the bands struck up some familiar tunes, followed by the National Anthem, and, finally, “Tipperary,” in tribute to the boys a long way from home in the trenches in France and Belgium. Unabashed tears ran down the cheeks of many as they sang.

The Ottawa Citizen described the scene as one of “extreme beauty.” Above the heads of the crowds, stars sparkled, with a faint hint of dawn in the east.  Over at Connaught Square, the lights illuminating the Victory Loan campaign, which included a huge promotional “cash register,” twinkled, giving the appearance of a “fairy spectacle.” High in the sky, the large electric sign mounted on top of the Château Laurier Hotel read “Victory” instead of “Buy Victory Bonds,” thanks to a quick-thinking hotel electrician. On Wellington Street, a bonfire cast an orange, flickering glow on the surrounding buildings and the milling crowds.  The partying continued through the day. Stores, decorated in flags and bunting, experienced a run on Allied flags. One shop even sold out of old Diamond Jubilee Flags, bearing an image of Queen Victoria, left over and almost forgotten from the 1897 festivities.

The official celebrations began at 2pm that afternoon with more than 10,000 people assembled on Parliament Hill. In a huge parade, veterans and the G.W.V.A. band, directed by Lieutenant Jones, assembled on Cartier Square, and marched to the Hill. There, the “vets” met up once again with the “Victory Loan” band, conducted by Sergeant Cook, in front of the new Centre Block, still being rebuilt after the disastrous fire of 1916. On either side of the steps leading up to the building were soldiers representing the allied nations holding their flags. At 2.30, the official party arrived, including the Governor General and his wife, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Lady Borden, the wife of the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Borden was in England at the time), Hon. Newton Rowell, the President of the Privy Council, as well as senior religious and military leaders.

After being introduced by Mr Rowell, the Governor General spoke of the major role played by Canadian troops in achieving victory, and how glad he was to be in Canada and “share in the pride that Canada had every right to feel.” He added “the Empire would never forget the deeds of its soldier sons, on land, in the air, and on the seas.” He concluded by saying that “we have laid the foundation for a long peace.” Although the Governor General was wildly cheered, the newspaper reported that his speech was difficult to hear owing to “small boys extracting horrible sounds from tin horns.” After prayers of thanksgiving offered by the clergy, the two bands reprised the hymns that they had played earlier in the morning in the spontaneous celebrations that had occurred immediately follow news of the armistice. The official ceremonies concluded by a speech from Rowell who spoke of the “debt of gratitude” owned by the nation to those who sacrificed their lives for the Empire in the fight for civilization. He also read out to the cheering crowd the armistice terms signed by Germany. The proceedings ended with a rousing rendition of “Rule Britannia.”

That evening, a special Thanksgiving service was held at St Bartholomew’s Church with the Governor General reading the lesson. The following day, 12 November, another Thanksgiving service was held at Christ Church Cathedral at noon. Among the congregation were the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and Lady Borden. Later that day, members of the Ottawa Motor Club assembled at the corner of Wellington and Bank Streets for the “Great Victory Parade” down Rideau, Bank, and Sparks Streets.

Sadly, as we all know, the Governor General’s hope that the war had laid the foundation for a lasting peace was not fulfilled. Twenty-one years later, a new generation of Canadian soldiers were called to arms.

Sources:

The Ottawa Citizen, 1918. “PEACE!,” 11 November.

————————, 1918. “When Peace Comes Ottawa Will Have Full Celebration, 11 November.

———————-, 1918. “Ottawa Joyfully Celebrated The News Of The Kaiser’s Abdication, 11 November.

———————–, 1918. “Ottawans Joined In Celebrations As Never Before,” 12 November.

The Ottawa Journal, 1918. “The Auto Parade,” 12 November.

———————–, 1918. “People’s Victory, Says Bishop Roper,” 12 November.

———————–, 1918. People Of Capital Celebrate Twenty-four Hours, 12 November.

The Phantom Air Raid

14 February 1915

One of the most curious events in Ottawa’s history occurred on Valentine’s Day night, Sunday 14 February 1915, six months after the start of the Great War. At roughly 10.30pm, the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, received an urgent telephone call from Mayor Donaldson of Brockville informing him that at least three German airplanes had crossed the St Lawrence River from Morristown, New York. The invaders, apparently seen by scores of Brockville citizens who were returning from Sunday evening church services, had just passed directly over the community travelling in a northerly direction, presumably towards the capital. One of the planes shone a powerful searchlight on the town, lighting up its main street. Reportedly, the planes dropped  “fireballs,” or “light balls,” into the river on the Canadian side of the border. Many Brockville citizens become hysterical.

After receiving the mayor’s call, Borden immediately contacted the Canadian Militia. Meanwhile, Brockville’s chief of police telephoned Colonel Percy Sherwood, Commissioner of the Dominion police regarding the air invaders. At 11.15pm, Sherwood ordered Parliament Hill to be blacked out to avoid giving the raiders an easy target.  While the phlegmatic Commissioner was not unduly apprehensive about the report of approaching enemy planes, he believed it expedient to take precautionary measures, including blacking-out key government buildings. The lights that illuminated the Centre block’s Victoria Tower when Parliament was in session were extinguished. The Royal Mint, which was also typically lit up at night, was similarly darkened. At Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General, the blinds were drawn. Although the Governor General was away inspecting troops in Winnipeg, his wife, the Duchess of Connaught, was in residence. Other buildings observed the black-out as news of the pending attack hit the streets. The Globe newspaper reported that the entire city of Ottawa was in darkness that night.

Victoria Tower

Centre Block, Houses of Parliament, Ottawa, 1914

Despite Ottawa being only 100 kilometres distant from Brockville as the crow flies, aviation experts told the Canadian authorities that it might take until midnight for the invaders to make their way to the capital owing to poor weather conditions, which included low clouds and rain. Recall that planes at that time were lucky to go much more than 100 kilometres per hour under favourable conditions. Smith Falls, Perth, and Kempville, which were on the expected flight path, were alerted, and told to keep a sharp look-out. But midnight came and went without any sign of the intruders.

The next day, newspapers were full of stories on the putative air raid. The Globe’s headline screamed: “Ottawa In Darkness Awaits Aeroplane Raid. Several Aeroplanes Make A Raid Into The Dominion Of Canada.”  In the streets of the capital, citizens experienced a frisson of excitement with the war apparently being brought to the city. The Ottawa Journal reported that “Ottawa feels first thrill of war,” and marvelled that usually reserved Ottawa citizens were stopping complete strangers on the street seeking news of the invaders. In the House of Commons, Sir Wilfrid Laurier rose and asked the Prime Minister for any information that he might be able to provide. Borden confirmed that he had received a telephone call from the Mayor of Brockville, and that he had communicated the news of the expected raid to the chief of the general staff, but he was “unable to give the point of departure of the aeroplanes in question.” That night, fearing that the previous night’s attack might have been aborted owing to bad weather and subsequently re-launched, government buildings were blacked out for a second night. Parliament sat as usual, but behind drawn curtains.

For two hours, Ottawa’s city council debated a motion submitted by St George Ward alderman Cunningham “that in view of the possibility of an air raid on the city hall while this august body is in session, Constable McMullen be instructed to pull down the blinds.” The Ottawa Journal wryly noted that the debate occurred under the glare of 61 electric lights which lit up the building. It also noted that the alderman frequently absented himself from the debate to climb the city hall tower to scan the skies for sight of the approaching planes so that he could be the first to warn his colleagues to take shelter in the cellar.

When no planes appeared, people started to look for other explanations. Quickly, suspicion focused on some Morristown youths, described as “village cut-ups,” who admitted to having sent up three “fireworks balloons” from the American side of the St Lawrence at about 9pm which exploded in the air above Brockville. Giving credence to this story, the remains of balloons with firework attachments were subsequently recovered from the ice on the St Lawrence two miles east of the town, as well as from the grounds of the Brockville Asylum, now called the Brockville Mental Health Centre. The ostensible reason for sending up the balloons was to commemorate the centenary of the end of the war of 1812. More likely it was a prank aimed at scaring Canadians.

Officials in Ottawa didn’t readily believe these reports. The Dominion Observatory reported that the wind that night was consistently coming from the east. It contended that as Morristown is directly opposite Brockville, any balloons sent up from the Morristown area would have travelled to the west, and certainly not in the direction the airplanes were said to have taken. The press also reported that militia authorities were in contact with Washington, and that a thorough inquiry had been set in motion to locate the airplanes’ base of operation.

Across the Atlantic in England, which had experienced its first German Zeppelin air raid just three weeks earlier, the phantom air raid on Ottawa was a source of merriment. By chance, the night after the Ottawa scare, the lights of Parliament at Westminster suddenly went out. Making a reference to the Ottawa raiders, William Crooks, Labour MP for Woolwich cheekily called out in the darkness” “Hello, they’re here!” The House of Commons cracked up with laughter.

So what really happened that Valentine’s Day night? How plausible was an attack on Ottawa?

It wouldn’t have been the first time that armed raiders had crossed the U.S. border into Canada. There were precedents. Less than fifty years earlier, the Fenians, an Irish extremist group, made a number of military forays into Canada across the U.S. border. The Ottawa Journal also claimed that German sympathizers in the United States had contemplated action against Canada during the early days of the war in 1914, going so far as to set up training bases in the United States with the objective of “making a descent upon Canada to destroy canals and railways” before being told to desist by U.S. authorities. Less than two weeks prior to the supposed air raid on Ottawa, Werner Horn, a German army reserve lieutenant, tried to blow up the Vanceboro international bridge between St Croix, New Brunswick and Vanceboro, Maine in an attempt to disrupt troop movements.

B.E.2c

British B.E.2c, manufactured by the British Air Factor, Vickers, Bristol, circa. 1914

However, an air raid on Ottawa by German sympathizers seems highly unlikely. While on a sharp upward development trajectory, aviation was still primitive in early 1915, the first powered flight having taken place only eleven years earlier. Even at the front in France, airplanes were then mostly used for reconnaissance. Typical of that era, the British military airplane, the B.E.2c, could stay aloft for only three hours.

The most likely explanation is the toy balloon story, combined with a bad case of war jitters. As suggested by one of the newspapers, the searchlight beam that reportedly lit up Brockville could be explained by a fortuitous flash of lightning while the balloons were above the city. However, the fact that the Dominion Observatory was adamant in its view on the wind direction that night fuelled fears that the bombers were real.

Certain modern-day investigators have a whole different explanation—UFOs. The story of Ottawa’s phantom air raid has featured in a number of books on the paranormal, including The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed. To add grist to the paranormal mills, the same night Ottawa prepared for an air raid, strange lights and planes were apparently spotted over other Ontario towns.

Sources:

Colombo, John Robert, 1999. Mysteries of Ontario, Hounslow Press.

House of Commons, 1915. “Reported Appearance of Aeroplanes,” Twelfth Parliament, Fifth Session, Volume One, 15 February.

Rutkowski, Chris & Dittman, Geoff, 2006. The Canadian UFO Report: The Best Cases Revealed, University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

The Globe, 1915. “Ottawa In Darkness Awaits Aeroplane Raid,” 15 February.

————————, 1915. “Were Toy balloons and not Aeroplanes!” 15 February.

The Ottawa Journal, 1915. “House To Be Dark Again To-night,” 15 February.

————————, 1915. “Wind From East; Fact That Casts Doubt On Toy Balloon Story; But It Seems Most Likely Explanation,” 15 February.

———————-, 1915. “The Air Raid That Didn’t,” 15 February.

———————–, 1915, “Brockville Statement,” 15 February.

———————–, 1915. “Laughing at Ottawa,” 16 February.

Unikoshi, Ari, 2009. The War in the Air, http://www.firstworldwar.com/airwar/summary.htm.

WFlem72706@aol.com. 2007. “The Phantom Invasion of 1915,” Rootsweb, Quebec-Research Archives, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/QUEBEC-RESEARCH/2007-04/1176680122.

Images: Statistics Canada. Parliament, 1914. http://www65.statcan.gc.ca/acyb07/acyb07_2014-eng.htm.

British B.E.2c, circa 1914, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Aircraft_Factory_B.E.2.

Sabotage on Parliament Hill?

3 February 1916

It was mid-winter. On the Western Front in France where tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers were entrenched, there was a lull in the fighting; the battle of Verdun was yet three weeks away. Back home in Ottawa, all too was quiet on the parliamentary front. But this was to quickly change. The House of Commons convened in the afternoon of 3 February 1916 with a light agenda. Among the items for discussion was a proposal by Mr. Clarence Jameson, deputy for Digby, Nova Scotia, for an inquiry into the large differential between the retail price of fish and the dock-side price received by fishermen. Shortly before 9.00 pm, Mr. William Loggie, member for Northumberland, New Brunswick, moved that the House refer the issue to the Marine and Fisheries Committee. Further debate was interrupted by a commotion at the far end of the Commons chamber facing the Speaker’s chair. In rushed Mr. R.C. Stewart, the Commons’ Chief Doorkeeper. As tersely reported in Hansard, the parliamentary record, Stewart exclaimed “There is a big fire in the reading room; everybody get out quickly.” Within seconds, the corridor leading to the House of Commons was in flames. With smoke billowing into the chamber, members, officials, and visitors in the gallery fled for their lives. It was a close call. Coughing and gasping for breath, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had to be helped outside by a fifteen-year old page.

Firefighters from Ottawa’s Fire Department were on the scene within minutes to assist the Dominion Police who were responsible for fire protection on Parliament Hill. They were alerted by a signal sent to a nearby fire station by a newly-installed automatic fire alarm system which responded to the dramatic change of temperature inside Parliament’s centre block. But their quick response was to no avail. The gothic building which housed both the House of Commons and the Senate was quickly engulfed in flames. Constructed fifty years previously, its interior largely consisted of highly inflammable varnished wooden panelling and cabinets, its roof supported by massive pine beams. While furnished with modern fire extinguishers and hoses hooked up to the water system, the building was not equipped with an automatic sprinkler system, nor did it have fire doors which might have retarded the fire’s progress.

Seventy-eight firemen and Hill staff battled the blaze. Through the smoke and flames, the bell in the Victoria Tower tolled the hours until the stroke of midnight when it finally crashed to the ground. When fire fighters finally got the fire under control at 2.00am, the centre block was gutted. The only part spared was the Parliamentary Library to the rear, saved by the quick action of Michael MacCormac, assistant parliamentary librarian, who closed the iron doors which separated it from the main building.

Sadly, seven people lost their lives. Two were guests of Madame Sevigny, the wife of the Commons’ speaker. She had been hosting three friends in the Sevignys’ third floor apartment. When the alarm sounded, Madame Sevigny left the building with her two children and their nursemaids. Unfortunately, Madame Morin and Madame Brey didn’t immediately follow her, stopping first to retrieve valuables. Unfamiliar with the building, they were unable to find an exit in time and were overcome by smoke. Madame Dusseault, the third friend, survived by jumping from a third-floor window into a net held by firemen. Other victims included Mr Bowman Law, deputy for Yarmouth, and Mr J. Laplante, who were trapped in upstairs rooms. A policeman and two civil servants also perished when a wall fell on top of them as they battled the fire. Also lost in the blaze was the historic mace of the House of Commons, symbol of its authority, acquired in 1845 and used by the Province of Canada prior to Confederation.

Many believed that the fire was deliberately set by a German saboteur.  This was not as far-fetched as it might sound. A year to the day prior to the fire, a German army reservist was partially successful in blowing up a railway bridge between Vanceboro, Maine and St. Croix, New Brunswick in an effort to disrupt troop movements. Chief Graham of the Ottawa Fire Department was convinced it was sabotage, saying that the “fire was set and well set.” He also clamed hearing five explosions that sounded like artillery shells.

 

Parliament Hill Fire

Parliament, Centre Block after the Fire
4 February 1916

A Royal Commission set up to examine the origins of the fire and its causes, looked closely at the sabotage allegations as well as other more mundane explanations, such as careless smoking or an electrical fault. It established that the blaze began in a lower shelf of one of six large wooden tables in the reading room located between the House of Commons and the Senate chambers at about 8.55pm. The first person to spot the fire was Mr Francis Glass, MP, who was in the reading room at that time. The only other occupant was Madame Verville, the wife of Alphonse Verville, another member of parliament. After Glass called for assistance, a policeman came in with a fire extinguisher but was unable to douse the flames which spread to newspapers hanging from a nearby wooden partition which in turn ignited the highly varnished wooden shelving that lined the room.

Experts testified how incendiary devices or fire accelerants might have been responsible, but no evidence of their use was found. Several people reported seeing strangers in the vicinity, including a “shifty” and “nervous” man with a “rather striking” grey moustache close to the House of Commons lobby shortly before 9.00pm. But nothing came of these allegations.  Most damning was a statement from Mr John Rathom, editor of the Journal, a Rhode Island newspaper, who claimed that three weeks prior to the fire he had received information from employees at the German Embassy in the United States (then a neutral country) that Canada’s Parliament would shortly catch fire. While he had passed on this intelligence to a U.S. District Attorney, it was not sent to Canadian authorities. However, Mr Rathom declined to come to Ottawa for examination, and refused to reveal the names of his informants at the German Embassy.

Colonel Sherwood, head of the Dominion Police, was not convinced by the sabotage explanation. Given the times, he argued that fires were frequently but erroneously attributed to German sabotage, pointing to an incident in Brooklyn, New York where the explosion of two British munitions ships was initially thought to have been the handiwork of German saboteurs but was in fact due to faulty wiring. Although the general public had access to Parliament, including the reading room, the police had added staff at the start of the war and had taken additional security precautions following the Vanceboro incident. Any intruder would have been spotted by the constable on duty immediately outside the reading room.

With others testifying that the “No Smoking” signs in the reading room were routinely disregarded, a wayward cigar or cigarette seemed a plausible explanation for the fire, especially as burn marks marred the reading room’s furniture. But there was no evidence of anybody smoking immediately prior to the fire’s discovery. Alternatively, a fault in the building’s primitive electrical wiring system might have been responsible.  However, experts ruled out the possibility of an electrical fire, testifying that the wires running to the lights on the tables in the reading room were safely housed in metal conduits.

One thing that became apparent at the Commission hearings was the considerable discord between the Dominion Police and the Ottawa Fire Department. Colonel Sherwood had refused to allow Chief Graham to station city firemen permanently on Parliament Hill.  In his view, divided responsibility was “usually fatal and would always be vexatious and productive of friction.” He also maintained that all of his men were qualified to use fire equipment, and were trained to be more observant and alert than Ottawa’s firemen—a view disputed by Chief Graham. This dispute may have coloured the two men’s opposing views on the cause of the fire. A finding by the Commission that the fire had been the result of sabotage might have also reflected badly on the Dominion Police. On the other hand, Chief Graham seemed to see saboteurs behind every large Ottawa fire.

The Royal Commission concluded that “there are many circumstances connected with this fire that lead to a strong suspicion of incendiarism…But, while your commissioners are of such opinion, there is nothing in the evidence to justify your commissioners in finding that the fire was maliciously set.” They hoped that more evidence could be found in the future, and recommended that their report be treated as “interim” rather than “final.” While details of German espionage and sabotage activities in North American became known after the war, no additional evidence ever surfaced linking such activities to the Parliament fire. Nevertheless, the Commission’s suspicions provided grist to conspiracy theorists’ mills for decades to come.

 

Sources:

Grams, Grant, 2005. “Karl Respa and German Espionage in Canada During World War One,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Fall 2005, Vol. 8, Issue 1.

Royal Commission, 1916. Re: Parliament Hill Fire at Ottawa, February 3, 1916, Report of Commissioners and Evidence, Sessional Paper No. 72a, J. de la Tache, Ottawa.

The Maple Leaf, 1946. “Old clock tolled the hours until midnight when it crashed to the ground on the last stroke of 12,” 8 February 1946.

The Montreal Gazette, 1978. “Parliament on Fire,” 17 June.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1916. “Thousands View the Pathetic Spectacle on Parliament Hill,” 5 February.

———————–, 1946. “Mystery Still Shrouds the Burning of Parliament Buildings in 1916,” 1 February.

———————–, 1949. “Was Big Fire on “Hill” of Incendiary Origin?” 15 February.

———————–, 1949. “How One Mysterious New Resident Vanished,” 22 February.

———————-,1984. “He Helped save PM from 1916 Parliament,” 3 March.

———————-, 1985. “Parliament Can’t Function Without 17 1/2lb Symbol of Authority, 4 March.

Toronto Daily Star, 1945. “Saved Parliament’s Library in ’16, Dies,” 13 March.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parliament_Hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Spanish Lady

26 September 1918

It was 1918, and the Great War was into its fifth year. In March, Germany launched a massive offensive on the Western Front in a desperate attempt to break the military stalemate before American doughboys arrived in force. But as soldiers of the Allied and Central Powers grappled in the mud of France and Belgium, a new, insidious enemy emerged, affecting both sides without discrimination. Amidst the clamour of war, it initially went unnoticed. But as tens of thousands at the front and at home began to experience symptoms of fatigue, loss of appetite, aches, stuffy nose, cough, high fever and in some cases death, it became clear that the world was facing something new and terrible. People called it the “Spanish” influenza, or the “plague of the Spanish Lady.”

Those first affected were in fact the lucky ones as they acquired an immunity that largely protected them from a far more virulent form of the disease that emerged later than year. Hundreds of millions of people around the world fell ill. With a mortality rate of 10-20 per cent, millions succumbed either of influenza, or of secondary infections, including pneumonia. Oddly, a disproportionate number were young adults rather than the very young or old. Pandemic experts place the number of dead at 50-100 million, equivalent to 3-6 per cent of the world’s population, before the disease petered out by early 1919. In comparison, “only” 17 million soldiers and civilians died in the Great War. Canada got off relatively lightly. 50,000 Canadians died of the flu in the space of a few months, compared to 65,000 Canadian military deaths in four and a half years of war.

Today, we know the “Spanish flu” as the avian H1N1 subtype of the influenza A virus. But in 1918 the cause of the disease was unknown. Most doctors thought it was a type of bacterial infection. Regardless, nobody was sure how to treat the disease, or how to stop its transmission. The only advice given was to avoid crowds and sneezing or coughing individuals, walk to work, eat well, and get a lot of rest.

Even the origins of the disease were uncertain. With news heavily censored in belligerent countries, accounts of the disease were initially reported in neutral Spain, and so it became identified with that country. One theory placed the disease’s origins in Kansas in the U.S. heartland. Another identified China as its point of origin, with the disease initially transmitted by infected Chinese workers who arrived in France via Canada to work behind the front lines. Regardless, the flu quickly spread around the world as thousands of infected soldiers travelled between home and the trenches.

Ottawa’s first fatality occurred on 26 September 1918, roughly two weeks after the first deaths in Canada were reported in Quebec City. Jules Lemieux, a 72-year old civil servant, succumbed to respiratory failure after a 5-day struggle. By mid-October, there were thousands of cases, with the city recording 50 deaths per day.

Ottawa’s Board of Health ordered the closure of schools and theatres, and forbade public gatherings. After some initial hesitation, churches cancelled services. The city’s streetcars were fumigated with formaldehyde. Stores and government offices closed at 4:00pm; the argument being that the body’s vitality was at its lowest ebb and hence most susceptible to the disease in the late afternoon. Over considerable public opposition, Ottawa’s Mayor Fisher cancelled sporting events, including a ploughing competition to have been held at the Experimental and Booth Farms. Although outdoors activities were considered safe, Fisher was concerned about people crowding onto streetcars to attend them.

In contrast, pharmacy hours were extended, with Sunday shopping temporarily permitted. With doctors prescribing whisky to patients, especially those in the pneumonia stage of the disease, anxious people crowded into drug stores, the only legal vendors of hard liquor during Prohibition. But pressure to allow drug stores to sell whisky without a $2 doctor’s prescription was resisted. Fisher argued that “the better physical condition of people, resulting from prohibition, had saved a great many lives.”

Despite precautionary measures, hospitals were flooded with patients. With medical staff also sickening, healthy doctors and nurses were taxed almost beyond human endurance. To help cope, a registry of voluntary nurses was set up by Lillian Freiman, wife of A. J. Freiman, the owner of Freiman’s department’s store on Rideau Street. Upon her recommendation, temporary hospitals were also established in schools and in the University of Ottawa dormitory on Laurier Avenue.

The disease hit all segments of society. But a disproportionate number of deaths occurred in the poor, largely francophone and Irish working class districts of LeBreton Flats, the home of the CP Railway Station, Lower Town, and areas adjacent to the Grand Truck Railway corridor than ran along the Rideau canal to Union Station. With the railways the main entry point for the disease, those working on or living close to the railways were at greatest risk. Over-crowded living quarters and poor hygiene were other contributing factors.

Influenza

Hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918,
A Flu Hot Spot

There were many sad stories. On Sunday, 6 October, George Neville of 61 Augusta Street, his wife Irene and their newborn child died within hours of each other in the same hospital. In Rochesterville on the city’s outskirts, a woman and her eight children were found ill by a worried neighbour. The mother was almost unconscious, while the children were laying about the house, all stricken with influenza.

With most able-bodied men in military service, the burden of caring for the sick and dying fell to women. Mayor Fisher called for their mobilization, asking the women of Ottawa “to get into the trenches themselves.” Women switched from making socks for soldiers to gauze masks and “pneumonia jackets” (padded cotton coats to keep in the body’s heat, supposedly hastening the disease’s progress and stimulating respiration). Female volunteers cared for those unable to get to hospitals. An appeal also went out for car owners to deliver supplies and nurses to homes of the ill, while the Central Canada Exhibition Office was converted into a soup kitchen, staffed by women.

Although many volunteered to help at great personal risk, some exploited the situation. Dubious patent remedies were sold to desperate people. “Fruit-A-Tives” billed itself as the wonderful fruit medicine that “gives the power to resist the disease.” A box of six tablets sold for $2.50, equivalent to about $37 in today’s money. Even Murphy-Gamble, the big Spark’s Street department store, encouraged women to dress warmly “To Check the ‘Flu.” According to its advertisement in The Ottawa Journal, the store claimed that “The woman who persists in wearing gauze undergarments and illusionary stockings in the face of unfavorable elements not only flirts with pneumonia, but courts the Pale Spectre.”

By mid-November, the disease appeared to have largely run its course in Ottawa, and life gradually returned to normal, or as normal as it could be with so many families having lost loved ones or friends. On 23 November, 1918, The Globe newspaper reported that the Spanish flu had claimed 570 lives in the capital, giving a death rate of 548 per 100,000 people, a far worse rate than that of most other major Canadian cities.

The influenza pandemic underscored the value of a co-ordinated national approach to Canadian health care leading to the establishment of the federal Department of Health in 1919.

Sources:

Bacic, Jadranka,  1998. The Plague of the Spanish Flu: The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Ottawa, Bytown Pamphlet Series #63, The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Siamandas, George, 199?, The 1918 Influenza Outbreak: The Spanish Flu Panics Canada, http://timemachine.siamandas.com/PAGES/more%20stories/SPANISH_INFLUENZA%20.htm.

St. Pierre, Marc., 2002, Ottawa’s Dance with the Spanish Lady, 11 December, http://www.bytown.net/flu1918.htm.

The Globe and Mail, 1918. “The Spanish Influenza,” 1 October.

————————-,1918.  “Let Liquor Fight The Flu,” 10 October.

————————, 1918. “How Influenza Hit Ontario,” 23 November.

The National Post, 2014. “Spanish flu, the pandemic that killed 50 million, started in China — but may have spread via Canada, historian says, 4 February.

The Ottawa Journal,  1918. “Ottawa Valley is Badly Hit by Spanish Flue,” 4 October.

————————-, 1918. “Close Schools, Theatres, Etc. to Check “Flu,” 5 October.

————————-, 1918. “Influenza Spread Doctors Report to Board of Health,” 7 October.

————————-, 1918, “Mr. and Mrs. Neville And Babe Succumb,” 7 October.

————————-, 1918. “To Check the ‘Flu — Dress Warmly!”, 8 October.

————————-, 1918. “Nine in Family Reported Down With Influenza,” 9 October.

————————-, 1918. “Health Officers Think Situation Here Improved,” 10 October.

————————, “R.C. and Anglican Churches Cancel Sunday Services, 11 October.

————————, 1918. “Football Game Cancelled by Mayor at Late Hour Last Night,” 12 October.

————————, 1918. “Wont Hold Match Until Next Year,” 15 October.

————————, 1918. “To Close Stores at Four O’Clock on Board’s Order,” 15 October.

————————, 1918. “Gov’t Employees Will Quit Work at Four O’Clock,” 16 October.

———————–, 1918. “Spanish Influenza Rages in Canada,” 19 October.

Wikipedia, 2014, The 1918 Flu Pandemic, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1918_flu_pandemic.

Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:CampFunstonKS-InfluenzaHospital.jpg.

“Rib”

4 August 1914

On the night of 4 August 1914, a slender, athletic, 21-year old man know as “Rib” took the night train from Ottawa to New York, never to return. That afternoon, he had been playing tennis with three friends at the Rideau Club when he received word that Great Britain had declared war on Germany which meant that Canada was also at war. Being a German national, Rib, along with other citizens of hostile countries including the Austrian chef at the Château Laurier, had four days to settle their affairs and leave the country, or be interned. Rib made a few hurried telephone calls, packed his bag, and dined with friends at the Chateau Laurier before catching his train. So quick was his departure that he had to borrow $10 from James Sherwood, the son of Col. Sir Arthur Percy Sherwood, Commissioner of the Dominion Police Force. Rib was sorry to leave. More than thirty years later, shortly before his death, he commented that if the war hadn’t come along, he might have never had left Ottawa. There, he had been “indescribably happy.”

Young Rib

Young “Rib,” circa 1913

Rib first arrived in Canada with his big brother Lothar in 1910. In an age before passports and visas, Rib, just 17 years old, quickly found employment. He worked for a time at a Molson’s Bank branch as a clerk in Montreal, before being employed by an engineering firm rebuilding the Quebec Bridge that had tragically collapsed in 1907. This was followed by a stint on a railway as a car checker, and a job as a logger in British Columbia. After briefly returning to Germany to convalesce after a bout of tuberculosis, Rib came back to North America. Arriving in New York, friends suggested that he go to Ottawa, where he turned up in late 1913, that halcyon time before the outbreak of World War I.

What he did in Ottawa for a living during the next year is not entirely clear. Using a small legacy left to him by his mother, Rib began importing German wines and champagne, helping to supply Ottawa’s wealthy lumber barons, politicians and lobbyists with their favourite tipple. But his earnings could not have amounted to much. Other reports suggested that he was briefly a civil servant, or that he worked as a clerk, again at Molson’s Bank. But there is no solid evidence to support either contention. Others claimed that he was a German spy. While Rib might have been a bit of a snoop, this allegation is barely credible either. There was very little to spy on in pre-World War I Canada. Moreover, the German government was unlikely to employ a secret agent who was barely out of his teens. One thing certain, however, is that Rib made a huge splash on Ottawa’s small social scene.

Fluent in English and French as well as German, the tall, elegant, blue-eyed Teuton presented a dashing figure, and was an immediate hit among Ottawa society debutantes. A champion schmoozer, he became a fixture at the best parties. Being an expert violinist, Rib also joined an amateur Ottawa orchestra deemed the best in Canada. This too facilitated his access to the cream of society who was starved for good entertainment. His first known appearance at a society event was at a Christmas charity function for needy children put on in December 1913 by the May Court Club. Rib helped Father Christmas hand out presents.

In May 1914, Rib appeared in Ottawa’s premier “Kermiss,” a charity theatrical event held at the Russell Theatre on behalf of the Victorian Order of Nurses. The production drew rave reviews. The Evening Citizen enthused that “not for many years has the capital seen a spectacle so surpassing in brilliance, so bewildering in its riot of color, yet so wholly enjoyable.” Powdered and bewigged, Rib performed a stately “Royal Minuet” with other young men and women of Ottawa’s high society.

The centre of the social whirl in Ottawa during those pre-war years was Rideau Hall, the residence of Canada’s Governor General, the Duke of Connaught. The German-speaking Duke was the third son of Queen Victoria. His wife was Princess Louise Margaret of Prussia. Rib was introduced to the vice-regal couple, by Arthur Fitzpatrick, the son of Canada’s Chief Justice, Sir Charles Fitzpatrick. The suave and debonair German was invited to Rideau Hall for dinner on at least two occasions, where he conversed with the Duchess in her first language.

Rib was also popular with the young men of the city. At his rooms at the Sherbrooke boarding house located at the corner of O’Connor and Slater Streets, Rib installed parallel bars, a flying swing, and a vaulting horse. There, he entertained his friends with gymnastic feats. In the evenings, he dined regularly with other residents of the house, which included a reporter for the Ottawa Free Press, an employee at the Parliamentary Library, an Ashbury College teacher, and a public servant. Never the retiring type, Rib told his friends that “a great future was in store for him.” Rib had few vices. Despite being a wine seller, he was a teetotaller. While he enjoyed a game of poker, he never played for large stakes. On weekends, he went for walks in Rockcliffe, or played tennis at the Rideau Club. Considered one of the Club’s best players, you could count on Rib to turn out nattily attired in court whites, completed with a black bow tie.  In the winter of 1913-14, Rib also joined the Minto Skating Club, and accompanied its skating team to a competition that February for the “Ellis Memorial Trophy” in Boston.

This charmed existence came to an end with Rib’s hurried departure for New York on that fateful August day. He left without paying a number of bills. Sometime after Rib had left the country, his doctor received a letter requesting that his medical bill be sent to an address in Switzerland. The $156 bill, a large sum in those days, was paid in full. Rib neglected, however, to pay his druggist, Harry Skinner of Wellington Street, to whom he owed $1.38. And he never repaid the $10 he borrowed from James Sherwood.

Reichsaussenminister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1938

Reichsaussenminister
Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1938

The “Ottawa lad” known as “Rib” to his friends was indeed destined to go far…and to fall even farther. Better known to the world as Joachim von Ribbentrop, he became Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs in 1938, the architect of the Russian-German non-aggression pact that immediately preceded the start of World War II. The pleasant young man that had charmed Ottawa high society a quarter century earlier had morphed into an ardent Nazi, fanatically loyal to Adolph Hitler. Following his trial by the Allies in Nuremburg after the war, he was hanged on 16 October, 1946 for war crimes, including his participation in Nazi efforts to exterminate Europe’s Jews.

Sources:

Bloch, Michael, 1992. Ribbentrop, A Biography, Crown Publishers, Inc.

Gwyn, Sandra, 1992. Tapestry of War, Harper Collins, Toronto.

Lawson, Robert, 2007. “Joachim von Ribbentrop in Canada, 1910-1914, A Note,” The International History Review, Vol. 29, No. 4.

von Ribbentrop, Joachim 1954. The Ribbentrop Memoirs, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1954.

Schwartz, Paul, 1943. This Man Ribbentrop: His Life and Times, Julian Messner Inc. New York.

Boston Evening Transcript, “Boston Skaters Winners,” 24 February 1914.

Hamilton Spectator, “Ribbentrop Sold His Wines in Ottawa,” 15 December 1945.

Ottawa Journal, “Ottawa’s Premier Kermiss Was a Feast of Song and Dance for Charity,” 6 May 1914.

—————–, “In Ottawa, Von Rib Foresaw Great Future, 15 June 1945.

——————, “Von Rib’s Days in Ottawa, Nazi Gangster Has C.S. Post, Paid Up Physician in Full,” 16 June 1945.

The Evening Citizen, “The Kermiss,” 6 May 1914.

Toronto Daily Star, “Ribbentrop a Cad Owed Ottawa Bill,” 16 June 1945.

Image: “Rib,” 1913, unknown, http://karkataracts.tumblr.com/post/60015944807/springtime-in-heaven-joachim-von-ribbentrop.

Image: Reichsaussenminister, 1938, unknown, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-18083,_Joachim_von_Ribbentrop.jpg.