When Nova Scotians were fighting in France a century ago they were leaving a province that was much different than it is today. But, in some ways it’s very similar.
Brian Douglas Tennyson captures a province coming to terms with the First World War in his book Nova Scotia at War: 1914-1919, published by Nimbus Publishing and launched earlier this month.
While historians have written books about Canada’s role in the first war, Tennyson said very few have captured Nova Scotia’s contribution to the war effort or how its people were impacted by a war many thought would be over in months as opposed to years.
“This book is written for the public and using the Nova Scotia Archives I was able to use the province’s newspapers to get a sense of what life was like and how the war impacted Nova Scotians,” Tennyson said.
In nine chapters, Tennyson chronicles what the war was about, not only for the fighting men who went thousands of kilometres to live, fight and die in France, but also for those who stayed – the farmers, the fishermen and the civilians who worked in factories on the home front.
Tennyson touches on the war experience in every corner of the province and how, in some cases, it revitalized a stagnant economy and mobilized a population to support the troops and the effort to defeat the Kaiser.
The professor emeritus in the history department at Cape Breton University, Tennyson said most Nova Scotians know very little about the First World War, other than what they see on television or hear in the media about Vimy Ridge or Passchendaele.
“Sometimes what they think they know is not quite accurate, but it’s really not there fault,” he said. “Among the older population there’s a greater sense of the war, but I’m pretty sure most Nova Scotians don’t know much about their part in the war because it really hasn’t been written about. If you went out or down to the library today and asked about a book on the First World War you’d draw a blank because most people just don’t know about it.”
Tennyson, who has written a book about the 25th battalion, said he wrote the book to educate himself about the war as much as he did it for readers.
“I did this, in part, because I thought it would be really interesting to me, but also to a lot of people. Because I used newspapers from across the province you had this wonderful local information about the economy or the guy who signed up. There is a lot of local colour about people, what they did and the economic aspects of the war. It’s not all about the boys overseas fighting.”
War, he said, changed Nova Scotia as well as the men who went to war. More than 35,000 men served in the armed forces. While not all went overseas, the vast majority did and Tennyson said you can’t experience that sort of thing without being changed.
For many communities, such as Amherst, Truro, Yarmouth and Bridgewater, the war impacted the economy and provided a bit of a bubble in the manufacturing of everything from shells to pants.
For Amherst, war’s arrival helped turned back several years of recession. It also became a stopover for regiments on their way to war as well as home to the largest prisoner of war internment camp in the country. Kentville benefited from having the largest training centre in eastern Canada nearby while the war’s requirements for supplies and material breathed new life into factories from Yarmouth to Sydney.
Tennyson also talks about the Halifax Explosion as well as the war at sea and the role of ports in Halifax and Sydney in getting supplies and soldiers to England. It also touches on the end of the war, the return of the soldiers and how the economic bubble burst in many communities and forced many of the returning young men to leave the province for opportunities in the west and the United States.