Raising ‘Human Ammunition’: Motherhood, Propaganda, and the Great War

By Suzanne Evans

motherhood WWI posterIt’s no coincidence the monolithic “Mother Canada” statue proposed for the controversial war memorial on Cape Breton (and discussed in previous ActiveHistory posts herehere, and here) is the figure of a woman. Although women make only rare appearances in public memorials to the Great War, the “Mother Canada” statue evokes a long and potent tradition of both state and civilians mobilizing motherhood as the symbol of sacrifice in wartime. In her design, cowled and garbed in a flowing gown, “Mother Canada” is modeled after the monumental mother at the front of the Vimy memorial in France; she in turn bears a distinct likeness to images of Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as other prominent bereaved mothers associated with religious traditions such as the Jewish Maccabean mother of seven martyred sons, or al-Khansa the Muslim mother of four sons who died fighting for their faith. Each of these mourning mothers is portrayed in art and literature as grief-stricken but steadfast, holding true to her faith and ideals, and demanding that we remember and value the sacrifices they and their sons have made.

A woman whose body once gave life to the dead child she now mourns, enjoining – sometimes demanding – that the population honour her loss: this is the stuff of a propagandist’s wildest dreams. No surprise, then, that during the Great War “mother stories” were among the techniques used to spur military enlistment and civilian self-sacrifice. When Prime Minister Borden pledged 500,000 recruits from Canada in his New Year’s message of 1916, fictitious mothers, some noble and some wicked, were pressed into service to help fill the ranks and counteract the lengthening casualty lists. These stories illuminate the power and moral authority of the symbolic mother in wartime. The fact that the mothers are usually nameless suggests that they are meant to be read not as unique cases, but as archetypes, with women reading themselves into the role of the mother in question.

On 27 July 1916 the Manitoulin Expositor, a newspaper that had served Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island since 1879, published “The Tragic Story of a Woman who would not let her menfolk fight.”[1] Although it was authorless and the woman in question was nameless, the story was vouched for by a respectable source, Lt.-Col. Charles Hugh LePailleur Jones of the 227th (“Men o’ the North”) Battalion. Jones was a university-educated Montrealer then living in Sault St Marie, actively trying to muster a company’s worth of soldiers from Manitoulin for his battalion. The aim of his labour and that of the story neatly coincided.

In this story, “Mrs. ______” is introduced as having a husband and two sons, age 19 and 21. Being “red-blooded Canadian boys” the menfolk know “the necessity of Canada sending 500,000 men mean[s] they should do their duty and join the colours.” But their mother, instead of using her power of moral suasion to encourage her sons to join the fight, strenuously objects and through “selfish” and “unpatriotic” argument prevents them from enlisting. Terribly ashamed, the boys follow tragic paths. The older boy leaves home and becomes an alcoholic in Toronto; in a drunken stupor he steps onto the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train while travelling home on Christmas Eve. “What was left of him,” the author intones, “was taken to the morgue in a box and the mother never saw him again.” The mother’s second son then becomes mysteriously ill and dies. The father, a 50-year-old man now filled with remorse, and presumably atoning for his wife’s failures, joins up and goes to France. The mother is left “a lonely, broken-hearted woman… [who] did not love her sons well enough to want them to do their duty.” The author promised readers further “stories of women who prevented men going,” implying similarly dark consequences for their behaviour. We may smile at this melodramatic fiction now, but in the wartime climate of fear and powerful community pressure to be seen “doing your bit,” this theme, continually repeated, might have preyed upon anxious minds.

The story of another nameless mother, again one who could be any or every mother, appeared in the pages of the venerable Brantford Expositor (established 1852) on 19 October 1916, under the title “Heroes and Shirkers – A Mother’s Sublime Sacrifice.” Unlike in the previous story, this mother is eager to send all her sons to war. The author, Reverend A.J. Forson, a popular preacher of the Congregational Church in Glasgow, Scotland, begins: “To my mind there is a heroism even greater than the heroism of the boys in the trenches. It is the hearts of the mothers who pray and wait at home.” Forson, whose profession presumably lent a sense of veracity to his tale, offered as one instance of this heroism the story of a mother whose four eldest sons had already been killed in the war. Just shy of his eighteenth birthday, the fifth son, Robin, decides to enlist. The sergeant, hearing his surname, asks him if others in his family were in the war and learns that Robin is his family’s last surviving son. Then, acknowledging maternal authority, the sergeant asks the obvious question: “What does your mother say about your joining up?” According to the young man, his mother said to him, “Robin, there are four blanks in the army through your four brothers being killed, and I was just thinking it was time you were filling in one of these blanks.”

Lest readers think this mother cold-hearted, Reverend Forson adds, “Rest assured she felt the pain of her loss just as keenly as any other mother who has lost her son.” He emphasizes the mother’s honourable sentiments, comparing her sacrifice to that of the biblical Jacob in the story of Joseph and the Coat of Many Colours, writing that “… she was willing to see her Benjamin go forth from the home, possibly to share the same fate as his brothers.” Drawing upon his and his audience’s shared Judeo-Christian background, Forson called this willingness to lose a most beloved child “something too sacred even for praise. This is in the nature of a Divine sacrifice.” Like Jacob and his son Benjamin, or Mary and her son Jesus, the nameless mother was “willing to give her last boy to the great Cause.” The implication was that others should strive to emulate this heroism.

These two small-town examples echo other, more prominent and widely-read, pieces of Great War propaganda that used images of good and bad motherhood to garner support for the war. One famous instance was the anti-pacifist letter signed by “A Little Mother” who had only a single son. First published in London’s The Morning Post on 14 August 1916 and later reproduced in pamphlet form (selling 75,000 copies in less than a week),[2] the letter assured readers that British women proudly raised their sons to fight for the Empire. “We women pass on the human ammunition of ‘only sons’ to fill up the gaps, so that when the ‘common soldier’ looks back before going ‘over the top’ he may see the women of the British race at his heels, reliable, dependent, uncomplaining.”

These days, over-the-top rhetoric like this might make our blood run cold, as we wonder what our grandmothers and great-grandmothers thought of such tales.  But the sacrificing mother remains a powerful icon in conflicts around the world: for instance, the name of the seventh-century poet and mother of four martyrs, al-Khansa, was recently adopted by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for its all-women moral police brigade, and by al-Qaeda for its online women’s magazine created to help train women in the art of fighting.  “Mother Canada” may be envisioned by her creators solely for commemorative purposes in 2015, benignly reaching out to her soldier-sons buried abroad, but in the past she was actively mobilized to send them to war in the first place. In future, might she once again be called upon to encourage young Canadians to fight?

Dr. Suzanne Evans, author of Mothers of Heroes, Mothers of Martyrs: World War One and the Politics of Grief (McGill-Queen’s, 2007) writes in the field of women and war.

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. 


[1] Reprinted in Special Edition of The Manitoulin Expositor 12 September 2001, 5.

[2] Graves, Robert. Goodbye to All That (Cassell, 1966) 202.




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