The First World War would cause changes in Brantford unlike anything the City had ever seen. During this period there was a demand for men for the front; shortages of food, fuel, and labour; and a pandemic. At the beginning of the war the City’s population was about 25,000.
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, of Austria-Hungary, and his wife on 28-June-1914 led to a chain of events that triggered four years of misery and horror. Tensions quickly escalated in Europe causing the Expositor to write in an editorial on 31-July When needs arises, Canadians one and all are Britishers. Britain's declaration of war on 4-August was met locally with unrestrained enthusiasm. In Brantford the farm implements industry was concerned about what the effects of that war would have, there was a fear that the Lake Erie & Northern Railway’s construction would be in jeopardy causing hardship for local labourers, and there was concern that food prices would increase.
Immediately local men raced to volunteer for service fearing they would miss the war, and wartime precautions went into effect - railway bridges in the city were to be guarded and wireless transmission equipment would be removed. The city’s attention turned from local matters to national and international concerns. By November-1914 500 men had left Brantford to fight.
W.F. Cockshutt, Brantford’s Member of Parliament during this time, sought permission to organise a Brant County battalion. The 125th battalion was the result of Cockshutt’s efforts. A second Brant County battalion, the 215th, was organised soon after.
Various methods were used to induce enlistment: the call to duty, patriotic rallies, public shaming, editorials, posters, and pressure from the churches, wives and girlfriends. Those whom avoided volunteering were referred to as slackers and subjected to ridicule. The recruiting rallies were very popular at the beginning of the war. They occurred every Sunday night at the Brant Theatre. The Brant Theatre was located at 77 Dalhousie Street, across from the Temple Building, roughly where the Bodega Inn is now.
As the war dragged on, enlistments plummeted, requiring the need for conscription in 1917. The idea of conscription was well received by the citizens in Brantford, although no so much by those about to be conscripted. The stories from the trenches coupled with the increase in pay offered by local factories contributed to men wanting to stay home.
At the beginning of the war, as the soldiers paraded to the train station to leave the city they would be accompanied by bands and townsfolk to cheer them on. By 1917 the soldiers paraded to the train station alone.
Brantford changed in other ways. Residents from enemy nations were deemed enemy aliens. These enemy aliens were divided into two camps: threats to security and those who posed no risk. The government interned the former while the latter had to report to the police monthly. People of German, Austrian, and Turkish descent were highly suspect. Hostilities even went beyond war issues; in 1918 foreigners, that is, those who spoke with an Eastern European accent, were barred from using the city run swimming area on the Grand River.
There were constant drives for money to support the war effort - Victory Bonds; the Patriotic Fund, to care for soldiers’ dependents; the Red Triangle Fund, for the comfort of soldiers overseas; the Red Cross and various relief funds, for the victims of war. Money was also raised locally to meet the needs of local army units. As enlistments declined so too did the community’s ability and willingness to contribute ever more dollars. By the end of the war Brantford and Brant County contributed over $1.2 million. This is equivalent to almost $22 million today.
As expected, food prices increased. Initially this was offset by an increase in wages but as the war dragged on the price increases exceeded wage increases. This resulted in the popularity of Victory Gardens, where residents would grow food to meet their own needs. Shortages were common for staples such as; meat, bread, canned goods and heating fuels. Coal was particularly hard to come by during the winter of 1917-1918. The city attempted to alleviate the situation by intervening to control the distribution of coal based on need. The end result was that no one was satisfied with the availability and distribution of coal; residents, local businesses, farmers, and especially the coal dealers.
The war also had a negative effect on many of the city’s industries, especially Massey-Harris, who relied on a large export shipments to Europe. The winter of 1914 - 1915 witnessed unemployment and economic hardship. However in 1915 the situation turned dramatically. Slingsby Mills, Brandon Shoe Company, Adams Wagon, Kitchen Overall & Shirt Company, Goold, Shapley and Muir, Waterous Engine Works, Ker and Goodwin, Cockshutt’s, and Dominion Steel Products started to receive war orders from the federal government. The city workforce went from underemployment to a scarcity of workers. The need for workers was so acute that women for the first time entered the workforce in large numbers. The need for factory workers to fuel the war effort led to the abandonment of virtually all civic improvements and created farm labour shortages. The business outlook for 1919 was promising as Europe needed to rebuild and resupply itself. One shift of note was the continuing use of women as bank clerks and tellers after the war.
One of the few city changes during the war was the city’s takeover of the street railway and the purchase of brand new street railway cars. In 1915 the Lorne Bridge was declared unsafe and costly repairs would be required. These repairs were not undertaken. The bridge was finally replaced in the early 1920s. The Lake Erie & Northern Railway was completed by the Canadian Pacific Railway. This gave the CPR a connection with its mainline at Galt and all the way south to Port Dover.
One the health front, during the war the Brantford General Hospital opened new wings and a smallpox hospital. The Brantford Sanitorium opened a new pavilion. Smallpox vaccinations for school children were made mandatory, then quickly rescinded due to negative public reaction. The first case of the Spanish flu which swept through Europe sickening and killing millions arrived in Brantford in the fall of 1918. By the time the epidemic had passed, 2,500 cases of the flu had been reported and over 250 people died as a result of the flu.
Prohibition went into effect in Ontario on 15-September-1916. With the battle against alcohol won by the temperance forces, attention was focused on the proliferation of pool halls in the city.
The war affected sports, entertainment, and recreational activities too. Sports were especially hard hit because of a lack of players available. Baseball limped along with local factory and regiment teams but hockey and soccer largely disappeared. Live theatre and filmed entertainment continued at the city’s theatres.
On 24-October-1917, the Bell Memorial was unveiled during a driving rain storm and cold weather. The memorial was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Allard. Many thought that the memorial was too abstract, however, it propelled Allard to fame and led him to to create the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, his most renowned work. It was at the unveiling of the memorial that Bell confirmed Brantford’s claim as The Telephone City …I am prepared to state that Brantford is right in claiming the invention of the telephone here.
When the war ended, the announcement was met by the ringing of the fire bell and church bells and the blast of factory whistles. Factories and stores closed and everyone converged on downtown making as much noise in celebration as they possibly could.
The pressing question for the city and its citizens was, what does the future hold for Brantford?