Author: Jenn Annis

Publication Date: 2009

Edited: 2022



Any Guelphite who was awake and Downtown at midnight on Tuesday, August 4, 1914, would not have noticed anything different about the town as the massive hands on the clock aligned at the top. However, by the dinner hour on Wednesday, few citizens would not know that Britain, and by extension Canada, was at war with Germany. The Guelph Evening Mercury, the principal source of news for the citizens of the city, announced that the nation was at war on the front page of the August 5, 1914 edition. The following days saw a multitude of war-related articles in the Mercury as the editors attempted to explain the situation in Europe to the citizens of Guelph, many of whom had never been further from their homes than London, Ontario, if indeed they had ventured that far.


The Guelph Evening Mercury offers a window onto the town of Guelph during the Great War, expressing the views of the citizens, politicians, soldiers, and its own staff through its feature articles, letters, photographs, editorials, cartoons, advertisements, and society columns.


The Mercury was the main source of news for the citizens of Guelph in 1914, and as such had considerable influence. The Mercury used its influence to stimulate recruiting, as well as inform the citizens during the First World War. At the outset of war, the Mercury had to do little more than inform its readers of the need for men and the locations of recruiting drives to achieve the desired result. The public thirst for anything war-related filled the pages of the Mercury with pictures and articles describing the new kind of warfare.


When war broke out in 1914, the town of Guelph was almost 100 years old. The town, situated on the Speed River, was the County Seat of Wellington County. The location on the Speed River helped Guelph industry evolve quickly from its early days of grist and saw mills to the turn of the 20th century which saw, "Nearly 100 prosperous manufacturing enterprises," in the town in 1916, the most famous of which were Sleeman's Silver Creek Brewery, the Bell Piano and Organ Company, and the Raymond Sewing Machine Company.1 The population of Guelph according to the 1911 Census was 15,175, of which 80 percent claimed British heritage.2 The town was the industrial and retail hub of Wellington County - the surrounding townships were much smaller and primarily agricultural. The Ontario Agricultural College (O.A.C.) was located in the town and formed a college company of the 153rd (Wellington) Battalion in 1916.


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Spectators gather to catch troops boarding a train, circa 1916. There is a recruitment poster on the side of the railway bridge.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


There were two local papers in Guelph during the First World War - the conservative-leaning Guelph Herald edited by Harry Gummer, which had a relatively small circulation, and the Liberal-leaning Mercury edited by J. Innes Mclntosh.3 The Herald was bought by the Mercury in 1924 and there are few surviving issues, making it impossible to compare the two newspapers. The Guelph Evening Mercury was published from Monday to Saturday except on statutory holidays, and was an evening paper, so the day's news was often included in the edition. In March 1915, the Mercury's average daily circulation was 3,409 copies or roughly 20 percent of the population of Guelph.4 If we assume that copies were shared amongst families or tenants in lodging houses, the actual readership climbs to about half of the population of the city, giving the Mercury a large sphere of influence. It was this influence that Editor J. I. McIntosh chose to utilize in order to affect recruitment in the Royal City.


The Mercury's coverage of the first year of the war - the period between August 1914 and August 1915 - can best be described as informational. The primary purpose of the newspaper during this time was not to persuade men to enlist, but to inform them of how they could do so, what they could expect, and against whom they would fight. To communicate information to its readers, the Mercury used both direct and indirect methods, depending on the information that was to be conveyed. Fundamentals such as how and when to enlist, the requirements for service eligibility and the number of troops required were best transmitted using the direct method - clear articles and advertisements. Other information such as why the Germans were the enemy, conditions at the two Canadian camps (at Valcartier Québec and Salisbury Plains, England), and the safety of soldiers thanks to new equipment was typically conveyed using indirect methods - letters home from soldiers, photographs, 'Editorial Brevities' (which were short quips written by the editor), and editorial cartoons. Articles were the most direct way to disseminate information. The Mercury informed the citizens of Guelph of the requirements for service the first Saturday after war was declared in an article entitled, "Recruits Lined Up for Service at the Armories."


The following is the standard the men who are enlisted will have to measure up to: Height for gunners, 5 feet 7 inches and over; height for drivers 5 feet 3 inches and over. The chest measurements must not be less than 34 inches. Infantry - Must stand not less than 5 feet 3 inches, and must have a chest measurement of not less than 33 inches. Preference will be given to unmarried men. Married men without families will come next and married men with families last. Recruiting goes on again tonight at the armouries and recruits wanting to enlist should make application there.5


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"Pick out your soldier boy's camp," on Salisbury Plain.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Mercury).


By clearly delineating the requirements for service and telling Prospective recruits where and when they could enlist, the Mercury helped to weed out those without the necessary physical attributes and make the job of the recruiting officer easier.


The most direct aid that the Mercury offered to enlistment and recruitment at the beginning of the war was to publish notices and advertisements for militia units. The peak of these notices occurred during the first two weeks of the war. Advertisements for all members of the 30th Wellington Militia regiment to attend the annual military camp at Goderich on August 6th were quickly followed by the announcement of the camp's postponement and the cancellation of leave of absences for all militia officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the regiment just one week later on August 13th. 6,7


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Military parade in St. George's Square, circa 1914.

(Photo courtesy of Guelph Museums).


Advertisements were also used to assuage the fears of men heading to the front, such as the one from the law firm of D. H. Barlow and company which advertised that they would, "Draw up wills and take care of papers FREE OF CHARGE for any men going to the front."8 Of course, advertisements were also used for the more traditional purpose of selling goods. Wrigley's Gum capitalized on the trend of sending soldiers packages containing 'comfort items' and encouraged people at home to include its product in any care package. The ad notes that the gum will stand up to the harsh conditions at the front and thus makes a good inclusion in any care package.9


Closely linked to the advertisements in their use of patriotic imagery were the editorial cartoons featured in the Mercury. The paper did not carry regular cartoons, but had them as an occasional feature. Editorial cartoons in the Mercury were featured either on the front page of the paper or on the front page of the second section and were intended to grab the reader's attention. One of the cartoons was particularly patriotic - entitled "Jack Canuck Gets His Gun," which features a strong, rugged- looking man holding a rifle aloft as he steps outside his log cabin in the newly tamed Canadian Wilderness. Looking suspiciously like a cross between a Mountie and a Boy Scout, Jack Canuck says, "I don't want to fight, but by Jingo if I must," in the caption underneath the cartoon.10 The brave Jack Canuck understands his duty to the Empire and though he does not want to go to wax, he realizes that he must fight - silently implying that brave men across Canada must do the same.


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Advertisement: Gillette Safety Razor.

(Courtesy of the Guelph Mercury).


In the first months of the war, the Mercury's primary focus was to inform its readers. The Mercury believed that if the readers were informed of a shortfall in the Canadian Patriotic Fund or in the number of bodies for the next contingent the readers would rectify the situation. This tactic worked well at first, but as the initial euphoria and excitement over war faded, the Mercury found that it had to convince people to enlist, and the paper was forced to take on a much more persuasive tone in order to sway those people who still had not done their patriotic duty. Of course, the paper still published informational articles and as more and more Guelph boys left for the war, the supply of letters from soldiers increased to the point that, "From the Firing Line: Guelph Boys who are fighting the Battles of the Empire tell the Home Folks of their experiences - some interesting and well written letters," became a regular feature. Often, these letters included a plea to those who were still at home such as this one:


"Remember me to all the boys at home. Just tell them all that they are missing a whole lot by not coming out here to help us lick these Germans."11


In this way, letters from soldiers served a dual purpose. Not only were they tangible accounts of the war that made those at home feel like they were a part of this global conflict, but they also helped shame any slackers who had not yet signed up.


The Mercury utilized the following approaches to encourage enlistment: reminding readers of the justness of the cause and their duty to the Empire; attempting to evoke local pride through the 153rd Wellington Battalion, and attempting to shame or ridicule those who were shirking their duty. Each of these tactics would have appealed to different readers, helping to ensure that the Mercury reached as many people as possible and encouraged them to enlist. Ultimately, all of the persuasion did not avert conscription, but it did help Guelph to raise its share of recruits for the Wellington Battalion.


The Mercury maintained that there was no greater duty than to aid the Empire in her time of need. The war was portrayed as an epic battle between good and evil, and those who were not actively fighting for the Empire were aiding the Germans through their indolence. By the second year of the war, the editors of the Mercury believed that the time for subtleties had passed, and used the editorial page to make their point about the duties of Guelph men to the Empire. One short yet poignant editorial that ran in December 1915 was entitled, "He Could Never Forgive Himself," and drew attention to a letter published later in the day's paper. The author of the letter, a 'Guelph Boy' who was identified only as Harry wrote:


"I wonder what [blank] is doing about enlisting. If he can pass the medical examination, I would not discourage him. I feel that if I hadn't joined, I never could have forgiven myself. It is the world's greatest problem, and I am glad to do my bit. I didn't write to [blank] in this tone, but that's how I feel about it."12


The name had been taken out, but it is assumed that it was in the original letter and that the editors took it out for the sake of the boy's privacy.


Another editorial, entitled "Indifference!" blamed the stand-still in recruiting to the apathy of the men in Canada. The editorial is one of the most strongly-worded opinion pieces the Mercury ran during the war. It ended with this poignant question:


"What if we lose? What matters then? The war is greater than stores and shops, greater than farms and colleges, greater than churches and factories. It is the great, big, ugly, dirty monster that we have to deal with, and if the young manhood of Guelph and of Wellington does not deal with it with strong hands and a stronger determination, then the future has in store for us an existence, the contemplation of which is as bitter as gall itself."13


The Mercury's point was quite clear - unless the Allies won the War, nothing else would matter.


The 'Editorial Brevities' often focused on the duty-to-Empire angle to encourage enlistment. Quips such as: "Follow the flag. It has given you liberty and freedom. Enlist today and Help Belgium to regain her liberty. Follow the Flag," or, "Be sure that the excuse you give for not enlisting is as big and worthy as the job you are dodging."14,15 The men of Canada in the opinion of the writers at the Mercury had a duty to do and should not shirk it.

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Cartoon: An Act of Barbarism, December 1914.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Mercury).



One of the other methods used to describe the righteousness of the cause was vilifying the other side. In making the Germans seem inhuman, the Mercury was helping to convince people of the righteousness of the Empire's position in protecting them from the vile Germans. One cartoon, from December 1914, is a humourous look at a serious situation. The caption says, "Not only are the Germans firing on the Red Cross and Flags of Truce, but they are rendering the work of Santa Claus difficult and hazardous."16 By using the figure of Santa Claus as a foil, the seriousness of the Germans ignoring the white flag of truce is highlighted.


While some young Guelphites would have been swayed by the notion of duty to the Empire, many had never been outside Wellington County and thus the concept of Empire was an abstract one at best. To encourage these readers to enlist, the Mercury appealed to their sense of civic pride. In an effort to spur enlistment, the Mercury appealed to the latent rivalry between Guelph and the nearby city of Berlin, now Kitchener. The Mercury quoted an article from the Berlin Telegraph on October 20, 1915, in which the young men of Guelph were called unpatriotic for failing to enlist in droves after a recruiting meeting.17 These articles undoubtedly helped to stimulate recruitment in both cities as each tried to outdo the other in the number of recruits. The Mercury encouraged enlistment in any form throughout the war, but particularly in the 153rd Wellington Battalion.

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Advertisement: Men more Men.

(Photo courtesy of the Guelph Mercury).


Appeals to national or civic pride did not affect every prospective soldier so the Mercury used yet another tactic shaming and ridiculing those men who chose not to sign up. The Mercury used their 'Editorial Brevities' to shame the "slackers" who had not yet enlisted. In February 1916, an editorial brevity asked,


"How about the young men who were at the station cheering the married men who left with the batteries? Is that as near as they are ever coming to enlisting?"18


The Mercury frequently used the word "slacker" to embarrass people into enlisting. The writers at the Mercury, knew that they had struck several nerves with the use of the word "slacker" when they received letters protesting the use of the term. The response from the Mercury was as follows:


"The Mercury received a protest the other day concerning the use of the word "slacker". Did you ever notice, though, that the man in uniform is never referred to in this term? Get the lesson?"19


The Mercury was unapologetic about its stance on enlistment. Having lost a number of its staff in the trenches of France and Belgium, the Mercury was like any family that had soldiers at the front - it did not want their sacrifices to be in vain.


In the months leading up to the decision to implement conscription, the Mercury tried a number of tactics aimed at persuading the eligible Guelphite to enlist rather than shirk his duty. It is impossible to judge how well any of these tactics worked as 'reason for enlistment' was not a category on the attestation papers, but each tactic would have appealed to a specific audience and encouraged some men to enlist.


Ultimately, the voluntary system collapsed under its own weight and the government was forced to bring in conscription in April 1917. When the war broke out in August 1914, few would have predicted that four long years later the two sides would still be engaged in conflict. Nobody could have predicted the devastating casualties caused by poison gas and long-range explosives or the amount of munitions necessary to keep the soldiers supplied with ammunition. The First World War was so unlike anything the world had ever seen before, that it is no surprise that the government vastly underestimated the manpower necessary to achieve victory. The Guelph Evening Mercury had faith in and promoted the voluntary system until it proved itself incapable of producing the recruits required to sustain the war effort.


The Mercury, like many other small town Ontario newspapers, used its influence to stimulate recruiting during the First World War. In the beginning, the Mercury had to do little more than inform its readers of the need for money but as the war dragged into its second year, the paper found that simply informing citizens of the need was no longer enough and thus mounted a persuasive campaign to encourage enlistment. By January 1917, the Mercury believed that the voluntary system was no longer effective and pledged its support to the conscription of manpower. Wellington County contributed over two-thousand men during the voluntary stage of enlistment but in the end, there was nothing the Mercury or any other non-governmental agency could do to stimulate recruiting during the last months of the voluntary stage and conscription was required.20 That so many young Guelphites enlisted under the voluntary system, (only 350 letters were sent to Guelph residents considered to be eligible for service by the National Service Board in 1917).21 This is undoubtedly due, in part, to the persistence shown by J. I. McIntosh and the editorial staff of the Mercury in encourging enlistment through the pages of his newspaper. As a case study, the Guelph Evening Mercury opens our eyes to the work of small town Ontario newspapers in presenting sophisticated arguments to support enlistment in their respective towns.