By Stephen Dale
What ideas and convictions motivated the legions of young men who so eagerly headed off to the trenches of the First World War? What were the boys who stayed home told about the events of that war as the carnage escalated? And what sort of patriotic stories could be peddled after the war to youngsters who had lost fathers, uncles, brothers and neighbours mostly in Europe’s killing fields, but also in Asia, Africa and the waters between?
Some answers to these questions can be found in the pages of Young Canada: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys. The National Library in Ottawa has a collection of hardbound Young Canada annuals, each consisting of over 500 small-print pages and adorned with elaborate illustrations, including various editions published between 1913 and 1920. Read in succession, they provide fascinating insight into youth culture and the tenor of the times during the confident years that anticipated the First World War, through the war years themselves, and into their sullen, sorrowful aftermath.
In this short posting, I’d like to dip into the pages of Young Canada to pick up on one aspect of boys’ books of the time: the use of racist ideas as a justification for war, and the strange transformation of those ideas and their applications within this period. A fundamental idea taught to all children in the pre-war British Empire was that ‘the British race’ was inherently superior to other peoples, and that this state of affairs gave Britons a responsibility to seize control of as much of the world’s territory as possible. This idea is woven through most of the content of Young Canada but is particularly evident in “Pictures from the Book of Empire,” a series of long-form historical vignettes from the 1913 edition that recount the glorious adventures that established the British Empire.
There is no mistaking the good guys and the bad guys in these stories. “Lord Gough and the Fight that won the Punjab,” for example, begins with the stunningly ironic assertion that British Cavalry who took on Sikh fighters did so in order that a savage, violent outlook would be supplanted by a peaceful, enlightened one. In India, the article reads, “for centuries, might had been right and the warlike races had ruled the unwarlike. The strong oppressed the weak, the peaceful husbandman bowed to the fighting man; and when the cry of the oppressed rose up there was no redress.”
When they faced the British, the narrative continues, the Sikh warriors “went into battle mad-drunk with bhang and the slashing blows of their razor keen tulwars shore off heads and limbs with frightful ease.” The British certainly had shorn off their own fair share of limbs and heads in this encounter, but this is described much more matter-of-factly, even passively, with no reference to intoxication or madness. As the end of the battle approached, for instance, “the remainder of our cavalry were let loose upon them, and there ensued such a stampede that Shere Singh’s great army was cut to pieces.”
Elsewhere, the story “Omdurman, and the Fall of Khalifa” depicts the 1897 Battle of Omdurman, in Sudan, in similar terms. This was a military offensive that was aided by Lord Kitchener’s campaign of deliberate starvation, during which Sudanese civilians suffered immensely, and that saw roughly 13,000 people cut down by British machine-gun fire. Nonetheless, in this boys’ book, it is celebrated for its moral correctness: “Madhism had drawn the sword and had perished by the sword. Peace, order, mercy and justice had come at last to the Sudan, and the old days of bloodshed and rapine, of ignorance and excess, had passed away like a nightmare.”
What allows Young Canada’s editors to judge Britain’s mass violence as moral, even as violence on the part of its adversaries is taken as evidence of their savagery, is the pervasive assumption of Britons’ inherent, de facto superiority over non-Europeans. This state of affairs, by extension, meant any action advancing the British cause would be defined as worthy and noble, as evidenced in the passages above.
That assumption is baldly stated in the 1913 edition of Young Canada. A story entitled, “A Black Prisoner’s Heroic Deed,” for example, begins with the assertion that “The Australian black, in his ‘wild state’ is considered to be one of the lowest species of the human race. His encampments are filthy, his habits bestial, and his intelligence very little above that of the brutes.”
While these sorts of statements, made before the First World War, may have persuaded some Canadian boys to join the British military to help tame the world beyond Europe, the outbreak of the conflict in Europe made them more problematic: in this war, of course, the foe was white and many allies non-white.
This called for a change of tone. Thus, in the 1915-16 edition of Young Canada, the story “Our Indian Comrades: Their Valour and Hardiness in the Great War” that old, anti-Indian sentiment has been replaced by a realization that “it is fitting and right that the Indian army should have its share and take its part in the tremendous struggle which now for more than a year has been raging. For this is a war in which our existence as an Empire is at stake, and India is a part—a very old and splendid part—of that Empire.”
The apparent zest for battle that Young Canada’s writers had offered as proof of barbarity has now become something to relish: they’d become an Imperial success story. At Ypres, Indian soldiers saved innumerable British troops from an ambush. They threw “three or four light balls… into the air,” the story recounts, “and by their means the British troops could see, some 600 yards to the front, a mass of wild and struggling men, the gleem of steel and the whirling rush of the rifle butt. It was the Pathans at their deadly work. For ten minutes they hacked and slew among the half-awake and wholly-bewildered Germans, who had laid down in serried ranks to await the order for the night assault on the British trenches.”
With the image of once-denigrated colonial peoples now rehabilitated, the bottom rung in the human hierarchy was vacated, to be occupied by the Germans and their allies. The target of these antipathies had changed, but the terms remained the same. Canadian boys’ understanding of world events continued to be informed by the racist ideology of the day, albeit with the characters recast in new roles to accommodate new foes.
Stephen Dale is an award-winning freelance writer and the author of several books. His most recent is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books, 2014).
ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.