Nelson: In Calgary another war raged as vets returned

After four horrendous years of slaughter, the Great War was finally over. But in Calgary, that fateful day of Nov. 11, 1918, would mark only a brief respite against an equally deadly foe.

While many of the surviving sons of the young city were finally breathing a sigh of relief when fighting on the Western Front was ended with an armistice that eventually would be expanded into a peace agreement, their families and friends back home had no such respite. The city was in the grip of the Spanish Flu.

Globally, the illness would eventually claim more lives than the First World War, and it arrived with a deadly vengeance in Alberta in the fall of 1918.

Entire towns such as Lethbridge, Drumheller and Taber were quarantined, while in Calgary, schools, churches, pool halls, theatres and dance halls were closed and the congregation of large numbers of people prohibited. Meanwhile, citizens were ordered to wear cheesecloth masks across their mouths to stop the flu’s spread.

But when news broke that fighting had ceased in France and in Flanders, jubilant Calgarians shrugged aside those restrictions and gathered in huge numbers to celebrate.

The mayor of the day declared a half-day holiday and an impromptu victory parade began at the central fire hall on Sixth Avenue, which wound itself around the city before ending at City Hall at 3:30 p.m. Where now stands Olympic Plaza, two effigies were hung of the Kaiser and the German Crown Prince. Later they would be hauled down and burned.

The following day, civic restrictions to combat the flu were reinstated. It would be another nine months until it had run its course. By then, 4,308 Albertans had died from its effects, compared with the 6,140 men from the province that were killed in action.

Information poster issued by the Alberta Provincial Board of Health.

By the time the vast majority of troops arrived back in their hometown in June 1919, the worst of that epidemic was over, but they returned to a city that was far removed from the one some had left four years earlier. The war had changed them. It had also changed Calgary. And, now reunited, such change would only accelerate in the years ahead.

The most overriding and pressing issue was taking care of the huge numbers of physically wounded and mentally scarred veterans.

William Pratt, a lecturer in military history at Mount Royal University, said the combination of the ravages of the Spanish Flu combined with the public’s sympathy for injured vets would eventually lead to the creation of a department of veteran affairs and a fully-fledged federal health department, which, before the war was only interested in quarantining immigrants suspected of carrying diseases.

At the time of the armistice there were three functioning military hospitals with about 600 beds in the city, in Ogden, Sunnyside and the Fairbanks Morse building downtown: the latter would soon move and be renamed the Col. Belcher Hospital.

Ward in the old Colonel Belcher Hospital in the 1920s.

For those suffering from what was then termed shell shock, Alberta converted a ladies’ school in Red Deer into a mental-health facility, although military brass had long frowned upon such diagnosis at the front, believing it allowed men to shirk their duties.

“The army outlawed the shell-shock diagnosis in 1917 overseas. There was a real effort by military authorities to avoid that diagnosis because they feared anyone who was what they called a malingerer back then could claim shell shock,” said Pratt.

Pratt said about 20,000 Albertans were wounded in the war and it is likely that 10 per cent of those men would have been so badly injured that they would have been invalids needing care within the military hospital system for the rest of their lives.

Many of those who returned did not suffer with what was thought to be the usual injuries, such as blindness or lost limbs. Instead it was disease such as tuberculosis that proved the most damaging. A sanatorium was set up in Frank under the mistaken belief that fresh mountain air could cure the killer disease. It would later move to Calgary and become the Baker sanatorium.

Wounded soldiers are treated in a trench during the Battle of Courcelette on Sept. 15, 1916.

“There was pressure to look after returned soldiers, so those with mental disabilities or TB were not just left to their own resources, as often used to happen. If the First World War had not taken place you would not have had the backing of public opinion that this was something that needed to be done,” added Pratt.

Veterans were also in need of retraining in order to find work in the postwar world. This led directly to the development of a vocational training centre that would be the basis for today’s SAIT in Calgary.

The federal government, worried about the potential revolutionary sentiments of so many returning veterans at a time when socialist feelings were running high, decided to offer ex-soldiers cheap access to undeveloped land, especially in Alberta.

“We cannot better fortify this country against the waves of unrest and discontent that now assail us than by making the greatest possible proportion of the soldiers of our country settlers upon the land,” Interior Minister Arthur Meighen declared in June 1919.

“The end of the war helped open up the West. The Soldiers Settlement Act came into effect to help veterans. There was a lot of undeveloped land and the act gave veterans cheap access to this land. These guys were able to get into farming and the government got the land opened up and got the tax base expanded,” said Rory Cory, head curator at Calgary’s Military Museums.

Many veterans also needed the social support that came with gathering together alongside other ex-servicemen, which in turn led to the development of the Legion branches — the first is still operating in downtown Calgary.

Meanwhile, veterans along with all Calgarians would have one other thing to get used to after the war. It was supposed to be a temporary measure but it would outlast them all. It was called the income tax.

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