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  • “She’s a Dear Old Lady”: English Canadian Popular Songs from World War I
  • Gayle Magee (bio)

Since the 1920s, the Great War has been portrayed as a defining moment in Canada’s emergence from its British colonial past to an independent and unified nation on the world stage. Yet recent scholarship has questioned these long-held beliefs, suggesting that unification proved more elusive than independence, for the war actually sharpened the rift in English-French relations. As the Canadian military historian Jonathan Vance states, the war “strengthened the two nationalisms of French and English Canada,” in which “both societies gained a greater appreciation of their separate identities from the experience of war.”1

The dominant view through much of the twentieth century, that the Great War defined the nation, depends on the remarkable effort to create a trained military within a country that had not fought a war on its own soil for nearly a century. When Britain (including Canada) declared war on August 4, 1914, the country had an insubstantial army of 3,000 soldiers.2 Through the late summer and fall of 1914, men from most parts of the country rushed to enlist: within one year 35,000 troops were fighting in Europe. By 1916 more than 250,000 Canadian soldiers were training in [End Page 474] Canada and Great Britain, and by 1918 that number had nearly doubled, with almost half a million soldiers serving overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, or CEF. These numbers are particularly impressive given that the country’s total population was just over seven million.

Canada’s prime minister, Robert Borden, had promised half a million soldiers to fight for Britain, and the creation of a substantial Canadian army was seen as a major success. The truth, as always, is more complex. While there was a surge in enlistment at the onset of the conflict, recruiting declined over the next five months. The effort to train thousands of new soldiers stressed the government’s minimal administrative infrastructure. Millions of dollars in separation allowance promised to mothers, wives, and children of the volunteer force went unpaid for months. Newly hired and undertrained clerks struggled to complete stacks of byzantine paperwork involved in keeping track of every single soldier. Through the fall of 1914, the first reports of casualties of Canadian troops serving with the British army in Europe and the British navy in the Pacific signaled to the general population that, in fact, the war would not be over by Christmas.

The recruiting crisis of early 1915 and later the conscription crisis of 1917 serve as reminders that the Canadian experience of the First World War was more complicated than represented in later narratives that emphasized nation building and unity over division and intranational conflict. The state-sanctioned view gained traction in part due to widespread censorship under the War Measures Act of August 1914 and to highly restricted access to official records for decades after the war.3 The War Measures Act explicitly allowed the “censorship and control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communication, and means of communication,” including approximately three hundred sheet-music publications.4 (See the appendix for a list of songs discussed in this article, with authorship, publication information, dates, and sources used to locate the songs’ sheet music, texts, cover images, and other information.) Films, novels, and posters in circulation required the approval of head censor Ernest Chambers, working under the authority of Canada’s minister of militia and defense, Sir Sam Hughes.

As the following study demonstrates, songs approved by the Ministry of Militia and Defense and published or reissued within Canada reflect the official narrative of the progress from colony to nation and to a unified Anglophone Canadian culture loyal to British rule. These songs served two critical propaganda purposes: first, to recruit the army’s volunteers, and second, to build popular support for the war at home. Some songs were written by professional musicians, especially Gitz Rice (1891–1947), who would go on to a successful career as an international entertainer after the war, and Gordon V. Thompson (1888–1965), a prolific [End Page 475] composer and publisher based in Toronto...


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pp. 474-506
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