Vimy Ridge Pilgrimages and the Spanish Civil War

By Stephen Cook in Places, Events, & History

Visitors to the Canadian National Exhibition from August 23rd to September 6th , 1919, experienced the ‘Canadian Victory Celebration”, as 1919 was proclaimed Canada’s Victory Year. The celebration was advertised as “A Gorgeous Spectacle – A Festival of Triumph”. For many in attendance, it would have been the first time they had attended the Canadian National Exhibition for many years. A poster of the period describes the upcoming events as an “Incomparable programme eclipsing all former triumphs”. The program highlighted the Grenadier Guards Band, a surrendered German U-Boat and Canada’s Official War Trophies. Attendees of the festival would have experienced a simplified version of the War seeing dioramas showing the fate of disabled veterans throughout history. They would have witnessed a large mural depicting Canadian troops attacking Ypres and during the Labour Day Parade, a German Submarine was shown. War trophies in the Air Show featured a Fokker Aircraft and other captured German Planes. Exhibition-goers might have also paused to watch Canadian Airmen Billy Bishop and W.G Barker, both winners of the Victoria Cross, re-enact dog fights over the Western Front.
These featured experiences were still very reminiscent of the glorification of war read in the literature of the day drawing upon prior conflicts such as the Boer War or the War in the Sudan. Children’s school books of the period also presented similar themes. In 1900, a school ‘First Reader’ sold for 4 cents and the ‘Fourth Reader’ sold for about 14 cents. To a large extent the books were filled with stories and poems which glorified British military and naval victories, instilled patriotism, and extolled the greatness of the British Empire. Rudyard Kipling was, of course, a favourite. However, after World War I ideals began to slowly change and the enthusiasm for war became less evident as was seen to be expressed in meetings and lectures of the day such as the ‘world without war series’ held in many towns and villages during Womens Institute gatherings and town meetings during the mid 1920’s.
Locally, politican and political activist Agnes McPhail, having strong views about war, urged total disarmament for Canada. In 1929, she became the first Canadian woman to be sent as a delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, where she was an active member of the World Disarmament Committee. The League of Nations was the first permanent international organization whose guiding principle was to maintain World Peace. The League having been established after the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. Its mandate was collective security and disarmament with the security of one being the concern of all. But implementation of this ideal proved problematic, as the guiding principle was a democratic philosophy only with no military of its own. At its height, from September 1934 to February 1935, The League of Nations counted 58 member states. However, as it was incapable of subduing aggression during the 1930’s, it fell.
As the 1930’s progressed, memorials to those that fought for our freedom in World War I were being visited and celebrated by participation on embarkations to Vimy Ridge or Battlefield Tours. This act, being one of support to those that fought, was also a time for reflection on what the world could be like without conflict – what could be “The World of Tomorrow”.
In mid-July 1936, 8,000 pilgrims embarked from Montreal for Le Havre on six steamships to commemorate Canada’s War Memorial in France, which was being unveiled by Edward VIII. A further 2,000 celebrants travelled independently from Britain to Vimy Ridge. Major companies, local communities, federal and provincial governments facilitated the pilgrimage by giving special leave of absence to their employees. In the case of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for instance, giving them leave at full pay. In many communities lotteries were also held to help pay passage for local ex-servicemen. As the steamships, including The Duchess of Bedford, made their way down the St. Lawrence, crowds lined the shores in small towns, and in Quebec City thousands waited in darkness to see the ships pass on their way to Vimy. In absolute contrast to the pilgrims homage to the solidification of peace, was the increasing international tensions having already re-started in Europe. As the pilgrims sailed on to commemorate the end of the ‘war to end all wars’ at Canada’s War Memorial, the Spanish Civil War was already underway. A conflict identified today as an initial battle of World War II. Newspapers of the day report on July 30, 1936, ‘Contradictory reports of fierce fighting in Spain’ and ‘Canada’s War Memorial in France to be unveiled by Edward VIII’. Also on August 3, 1936, ‘Civil War in Spain said to be ferocious’. ‘Germans and Italians helping Fascist rebels.’ A ‘World of Tomorrow’ it would not be. During the 1939 New York World’s Fair, held in Flushing Meadows, the “World of Tomorrow” theme was further explored by examining the contributions to mankind made by science and technology. The World’s Fair promoted hope and prosperity, all within a new world of streamlined, modern art deco, consumerism and consumption.
Like many of his generation, British author George Orwell sympathized with the escalating situation in Spain and joined a small contingent to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The contingent he fought with consisted of about twenty five men and departed from England on January 1, 1937. George Orwell fought for six months from January 1937 to June 1937, being a member of a division located in Barcelona. Overall, an International Brigade representing approximately 52 countries provided upwards of 40,000 volunteers to fight during the conflict.
From a Canadian perspective, the headquarters for recruitment for the Spanish Civil War was in Toronto at the corner of Queen and Spadina. At these headquarters the political backgrounds of volunteers were checked, generally looking for leftist backgrounds. Many Canadian volunteers changed their names to Spanish derivatives upon arrival in Spain. They travelled under false pretences to Spain and sometimes under false names and documentation, as the conflict was not formally recognized. Due to these facts much of the identification of the volunteers was mixed up or lost, ultimately resulting in poor records of those who volunteered. The Canadian contingent of the International Brigade consisted of approximately 1200 to 1500 men. A list of occupations of those who volunteered comprised the following: general workers, 4 Doctors (1 fake), demographically 61% of all volunteers were over the age of 30 and 3.5% of the forces were farmers. Canadian volunteers generally fought as one unit and were identified as the “Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion” better known as the ‘Mac-Paps’ a battalion which fell under the control of 15th International Brigade.
Despite the best efforts of the International Brigades, Spain fell to the Fascists during April of 1939, almost to the month of the start of the New York World’s Fair. The “World of Tomorrow” would truly have to wait.