The war seems to have uncovered a new Canadian reading public just as much as it has brought new writers to birth, and with the improved machinery of publishing there never was a more appropriate movement [sic] far a new Canadian literature.
--J.M. Gibbon "Where is Canadian Literature?" (1918) (3)
Between 1914 and 1918 the country changed dramatically, although its population of nine million hardly grew. Of the 628,000 Canadians who enlisted in the military, about 425,000 went overseas. In the famous battles of Ypres, Passchendaele, and Vimy Ridge, the Canadians were gassed, shelled, frozen, and panic-stricken in their mud-filled trenches. We can read of these events in first-hand accounts by professional and amateur writers: in Robert Service's Rhymes of a Red-Cross Man (1916), which describes the poet's experiences as an ambulance driver, or in the responses of Bernard Trotter, who was killed in action before the publication of his volume, A Canadian Twilight, and Other Poems of War and of Peace (1917), or in 19-year-old Edgar McInnis's poetry pamphlets, or in Frank Prewitt's modernist volume, Poems (1921). The middle-aged Charles G.D. Roberts and Charles Gordon made it to the front lines but, like Gilbert Parker, they were soon recruited for publicity and propaganda work. In Gordon's novels and in Beckles Willson's 1924 novel Redemption, the War was viewed as "necessary and morally justifiable," (4) but the mild criticism of the conduct of the War in Willson's novel was intensified in Generals Die in Bed (1929), a hard-hitting autobiographical novel by Charles Yale Harrison, an American journalist who served with the Royal Montreal Regiment.
Peter Buitenhuis points out in The Great War of Words: British, American and Canadian Propaganda and Fiction, 1914-1933 that it was Max Aiken's (later Lord Beaverbrook) notion "that the trenches of Flanders were the baptismal font of the new nation," (5) and this view was quickly seized by politicians and pundits who claimed that the battlefield tragedies and the economic successes at home had unified the nation like no other event since 1867. Aiken's own account, Canada in Flanders, sold over 40,000 copies in Canada. (6) In this time of change, one new element was the role writers now played in bringing home to readers their daily contemporary world and interpreting it in a way that had never happened before in Canada. Never before in the history of this country had the events of four years generated an immediate outpouring of stories, poems, and contemporary history.
Here at home, the munitions factories offered good wages for workers and big profits for capitalists, as depicted in Stephen Leacock's satiric sketch "The War Sacrifices of Mr Spugg" and in Hugh MacLennan's novel about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, Barometer Rising (1941). In volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross, the I.O.D.E., the Women's Patriotic Leagues, and the Women's Volunteer Reserve, women joined together to help servicemen's families, provide relief, and to collect books, papers, food, and clothing for overseas hospitals and combatants. Their efforts changed attitudes about women's...