The glory days of the British Empire were in full swing. The English presence was in every part of the world. School children saw all the red patches on the world map and knew that Britain was in control. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, patriotic fervor swept through English-speaking Canada. It followed a period of unemployment in 1913 and over 70,000 Canadians went to war. One in seven did not return.
On August 19, 1914, Canada declared war on Germany. At that time the strength of the Canadian armed forces was 3000 officers and men in the permanent force, and 5615 officers and 68,990 men in the militia. The Canadian Navy possessed only two cruisers, which were turned over to the Royal Navy. On August 29, the Princess Pats Canadian Light Infantry sailed from Montreal. October 3rd, the first Canadian Contingent sailed from Quebec for England. It was over subscribed, mostly by unemployed single British men. A total of 33,000 men, 7000 horses and 144 pieces of artillery were transported in 32 ships and escorted by ten British warships. It was the largest force to cross the ocean at that time. Canadians arrived at Plymouth, England on October 14 and moved to camps in Salisbury Plain. Later in 1914, a regiment of French-speaking men was formed in Quebec, the Royal 22nd, nicknamed the Van Doo’s.
In those days, war meant marching men and bands. Dan was soon busy organizing military bands to go overseas. Hector left school and with some of his friends, joined the 169 Battalion bugle band which was stationed at Niagara-on-the-Lake. He and the other young buglers were in and out of difficulties due to childish pranks and neglect of duty. The latter was mostly due to staying up late at night and not being up to awaken the rest of the Camp in the morning. They were confined to camp more than often when it came time for leave. This, and the fact that they seldom wrote to the folks at home, had their families worrying. Hector was underage for the Army but somehow recruitment was based on a man’s word and his size. He was a big young man but his young face told his age. However, the excitement caused by the war was in the young people and he wouldn’t stay at school. One Sunday, Winnie was dispatched to Niagara-on-the-Lake by boat to check on her brother. She was in the company of couple of her girl friends, and on entering the ladies powder room on board, one friend pointed out that someone in one of the stalls had a pair of shoes similar to those Winnie had bought the day before. When the door swung open, it was Doll. She was wearing Winnie’s best blouse and her new gloves. Winnie seized her sister by the arm and to her shock saw that her gloves were cut off at the wrist. “I didn’t want to wear my best things on this trip and here you are in them. What have you done to my gloves?”
Doll was unabashed, “I had to cut them as the sleeves of the blouse are long.” She had a habit of lifting her chin and swinging herself around as if to say, ‘I can do whatever I like, and no one can stop me’. Winnie was too embarrassed in front of her friends to say more, but it was something she always remembered. That day was full of remembrances for Winnie.
Enquiries around the camp revealed that the whole bugle band was under detention in the Guard House. As the girls approached the soldier on duty, Winnie was nervously twisting a shoelace around her fingers. She had picked it up from the ground as she walked toward the Guard House.. The soldier told her that the band was in detention and could have no visitors. Winnie became brave and told him what she thought of treating young boys that way. The man laughed and said, “those monsters?” and asked if she would give him the shoelace as his was broken. With a flip ’round that would have done Doll proud, Winnie bounced off still in possession of the shoelace.
The next weekend, Hector did get leave home and arrived in the company of the soldier who had been on duty. Spr. John Bond had arranged to meet the young lady of the shoelace. They were married on June 12, 1916.
The Canadians took over a 4-mile section of trench line near Armentiers, France, in 1915, and fought in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. In March, some of the 2nd Division began to arrive in England. The 13th Battalion plugged a gap made by chlorine gas at Ypres, Belgium, and repelled the German attack until relieved. Twelve hours later they had suffered 6000 casualties. The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George was impressed with ‘the colonists’ and thereafter the Canadians were marked as storm troops. War correspondents were censored for sending anything but cheerful news. Word of victories did not tell of the many Canadian casualties but the people at home could count the number of families who received word of the deaths or injuries of their loved ones.
Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia and Defense insisted on the use of the Ross Rifle although it had a history of jamming in continuous use. 100,000 were distributed to Canadian soldiers who used them at Ypres as clubs. Soldiers took British Lee-Enfields from the dead. Hughes clung to the Ross Rifle until the Prime Minister fired him.
One-third of allied shells were made in Canada. 250 munitions factories worked around the clock. American Bethlehem Steel Company made 50 million tax-free dollars profit in 1916. Du Pont’s profits on the sale of gunpowder increased 200 percent. The first Canadian War Loan of $50 million was issued early in 1915 and $100 million later in the year. In 1917, a third loan of $150 million was raised.
‘Tommy’ Church, the popular Mayor of Toronto was in office from 1915 to 1921. With everyone working, inflation reared it’s head. Food prices climbed to nearly 75% and war profiteers took advantage of the war to make fortunes.
Dan Bulmer went overseas in 1915 and on turning 16, Hector joined the regulars and went overseas late in 1916. Father and son visited the relatives in England. Dan’s parents were still in the same house. His brother, William, lived in Gleason in a tiny house with a cobble stone floor in the kitchen. William told Winnie’s daughter years later that Hector was such a big man that he ‘filled the door’.
Polly was seldom physically alone. Their home was always open to friends for a cup of tea and a chat. Now, more than ever, friends gathered to talk and be comforted about news or lack of word from overseas. Dan was good at writing letters and told what he knew about Hector and other friends over there, but the mail was a long time in coming. Some families received letters at the same time they signed for a telegram telling of a death or casualty. The appearance of a Telegraph boy on a bike struck terror into hearts and prayers of ‘don’t let it come here’ were often in vain. **Postcards were issued to those on active service, so some communication could be maintained.
Polly’s days were full with housekeeping and the children. Our Jack and Myrtle were not at school as yet. Polly pushed to one side any serious thought of Dan during the day, when there were others around. She kept a jolly, positive attitude. “They’ll be home by Christmas or at least by the spring. It will go faster if we keep busy and Lord knows there is a lot to do. I have joined the Red Cross. The Salvation Army is sending boxes to the servicemen and they need a lot of help with knitting and packing the boxes. There’s no need to be idle and mope around,” she would tell anyone who complained of loneliness. But, after everyone left and the house was quiet, Polly would do the rounds of the house, locking up and putting out the lights. “Where are you now, Dan?” she would often murmur. Later, in the big bed alone, she would stretch from one side to the other seeking him and the comfort of his arms. “I don’t know how, but we’ll make it through this.”
I am quite well…
I have been admitted into hospital…
(sick) and am going on well…
(wounded) and hope to be discharged soon…
I am being sent down to the base…
I have received your(letter…telegram…parcel…
Letter follows at first opportunity…
I have received no letter from you lately…
signature only Date …
NOTHING is to be written on this side except the date
& signature of the sender. Sentences not required
may be erased. If anything else is added the post
card will be destroyed
There were those women who sought a good time because they had assured themselves that their husbands were doing the same overseas. “All those English and French girls falling all over them. I know my Henry (or whoever), he’s having a grand old time and not giving a thought to me left alone over here,” some would say. “I can’t see how much time he’ll be having to play around, sloshing through the mud and getting shot at,” Polly would answer.
Winnie was working on munitions after her husband left for overseas with the 2nd Pioneer Overseas Battalion. Winnie was moody and bad tempered. It was hard for a mother to console her daughter who was sure that no one could understand how she was feeling. “It’s different for you, you’ve been separated before and are used to it,” the young woman would snap. “It’s something you never get used to, my girl,” Polly replied.
Winnie soon found that she was pregnant and it became evident that someone else in the family was also. Doll’s behaviour did not improve. She lied about her whereabouts when she was out, and she was seldom on hand to do her share of the chores. She was such a pretty girl with dark auburn curly hair and a winning smile. It was her father who had called her his ‘doll’ and she was always snuggling up to him. Ivy’s coming did not put her out of her place in the family, as Ivy was quiet and unassuming. But Doll always wanted more of everything. “I’m going to lick the world some day,” she would say.
Polly was glad that Dan was not there and she arranged for Doll to stay at the Home for Unwed Mothers until her child was born.
On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, through a snow and sleet storm, four Canadian Divisions and one British Brigade cut through three lines of German trenches at Vimy Ridge and took the high ground. Overhead the first airplane battle of the Royal Flying Corps, half of them Canadians, went up to fight. 13,000 Canadians were dead or wounded.
More Canadians were dying at the front than were enlisting. The British requested 250,000 more recruits. In June, 1917, the Canadian Conscription Bill was passed. Objections were heard from English and French Canadians who did not want their sons to die in a foreign war. There was no way to cloak the numbers of casualties. Churches preached loyalty to the Crown, and women’s groups handed white feathers to those young men not in uniform. All able bodied men up to the age of 45 had to register.
Canadian servicemen went on to distinguish themselves in Passchendale in so much mud that it swallowed men and horses. Nine Canadians won the Victoria Cross in one day. 15,000 German prisoners were taken. Canadian air aces named Billy Bishop, Billy Barker, Stuart Cully and Roy Brown who shot down Baron von Richthofen, became heroes.
The war was brought sharply to Canada’s east coast on an explosion in Halifax Harbour. The Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship carrying over 1816 tonnes of picric acid, benzol, gun cotton and TNT collided with a Belgian relief ship in the Narrows, where the harbour is only three-quarters of a mile wide. The shock and damage was felt for miles. 1800 people were killed and 4000 seriously injured. 6000 were homeless and property damage was in the range of $50 millions. Tents were pitched on the Citadel in the snowy winter night to make temporary housing and first-aid stations. Most communications were cut off as railway lines had been torn up and messages coming in and out were jammed with relatives and friends seeking information.
Word had been received that Hector was being sent back to Canada because of his eyesight. His eyes had been burned when, as a young lad, he had been too close to exploding firecrackers that he was trying to put under a can.
Polly had come home from a visit to the Salvation Army to find out what they knew of conditions in Halifax and of where Hector might be, when the door opened and in walked the man in question, oblivious of the concerns on his behalf. “Why didn’t you get in touch with us? You might have known we’d be worried sick.” “A fine welcome home!” he laughed. He had missed the explosion by a few hours.
The Americans entered the war in the winter of 1917, to get ready for a spring offensive. On May 24, 1918, the Canada Elections Act gave all women the right to vote in federal elections. Every male 16 to 60 had to be regularly employed.
Doll’s baby was born in February 1918, a girl Thelma. When they were well enough, they moved back home and Polly told her friends that she was looking after a baby because its mother was unable. Never wanting to openly lie, Polly qualified the story to the rest of the family. “It’s partly true; her mother isn’t able to look after her.” Doll liked her child but soon found that looking after her took time from doing other things she wanted to do more. As soon as she had recovered from her confinement, she was off with her friends more than she was at home. It was Winnie who tended to little Thelma. She was tiny and weak. A formula feeding had to be fed into her mouth with an eye-dropper. She lived for three months. It was obvious how much Doll regretted her loss as years went by. She always wanted to dress and pet Winnie’s little girl who was born on May 31, 1918 and named Irene Alberta. Polly was 38 years old. She acted as midwife at the birth, giving her daughter reassurance and encouragement. “Oh Mum, it’s so hard and so long!” Winnie gasped between contractions. “That’s why they call it ‘labour’. It’s the most work you’ll ever do and the pain soonest forgotten,” her Mother explained, “If we didn’t forget, we wouldn’t keep having children.”
The Bulmer house was crowded with all the children home again. Hector was at work at a garage and the last little one, Myrtle, would be in school that fall. Polly went looking for larger accommodations. “When your Dad comes home, I don’t know how we’ll manage for space, if I don’t find something soon.”
That was when she found the ‘Big House’ at 150 Roncessvales Ave. on the corner of Galley. It had five bedrooms on the middle floor and three in the attic. There were two staircases, a parlour, sitting room and a large dining room on the main floor. The kitchen, scullery and pantry were on the back of the house. Two large verandahs surrounded the first two floors. There was only one bathroom in the house. Polly loved it. There was plenty of bedroom space for her family and it was similar to the houses in which she had done service in England — polished dark wood and leaded glass windows. The girls were shocked, “What will Dad say?” I’ve written to him and he says I can have it if I want. I’ll have a real confinement room on the middle floor. There are two doctors next door. And here is the rest.– I am going to start a proper dining room and serve lunches!”
It took several trips with a horse and cart to bring the furniture around, with special attention given to moving the piano. Almost every day, a carter would arrive with more furniture for the dining room project. Polly set the girls to work polishing the big stove and she hung her pots in order. The younger, ones were sent off with notices written in Winnie’s splendid handwriting to all the banks, the post office, the police station and of course, to the school teachers, that Mrs. Bulmer would be ‘serving two choices of hot meals each day except Sundays from 12 to 2. By appointment only’. Meal tickets were five for $2.50.
Chairs and tables with their best needlework cloths and serviettes were put in place. During the first few weeks only the dining room was used. By then, so many were trying to become regulars that the sitting room had to be sacrificed to become part of the dining area. The sliding doors were pushed back into the walls, more tables and chairs picked up from the Thrift Store and for two hours each day Mrs. Bulmer’s dining room was full.
The girls hardly noticed the loss of the sitting room as there was little time for sitting. Worked started first thing in the morning with the cleaning and setting up of the tables, preparing the vegetables and washing dishes. Ivy rushed home from school at noon and helped serve the tables. Winnie had her baby to attend to and Myrtle was not yet in school. Our Jack did what he could, bringing in wood, taking out ashes and garbage, and running errands on his bike. Laundry was done in the evenings with a gasoline washing machine. Ironing of table clothes and serviettes was ongoing. Polly was excelling in the kitchen, preparing all the old recipes on her gas cooker. Money was coming in, but there were no short-cuts taken to serving the best. The savings account had to be built up after using so much of it to set up the business. But Polly had her dream and everyone was busy and too tired at night to be lonesome for the men overseas.
At first, Doll liked the excitement of all the people coming in, so many to talk to and make a fuss over her, but it soon became monotonous and she could not be counted on. They hired a girl to help in the kitchen but Polly was in charge and was enjoying herself, planning and shopping for large meals and making her fabulous pastries. She had soon made enough money to pay off the debts she had incurred in setting up her dining room, but there was no time to think of her confinement room.
On August 8, 1918, Canadians at Amiens broke the German Hindenburg line and attacked from the rear. The Royal 22nd lost ever officer in an attack that virtuously ended the war. In the second battle of the Marne, Canadians faced a quarter of the German Army and suffered another 16,000 casualties. Germany was ready to ask for peace and the war was over on November 11, 1918. 68,462 Canadians served in the armed forces. 424,589 Canadian men went overseas, 60611 were killed and many more permanently maimed or crippled.
Although the dreaded ‘flu’ of 1918 was slowing down, some of the last casualties were Polly’s sister Maude, and her baby, young Albert. Soon after the funeral, Albert took to his bed and died a few weeks later, leaving Florence an orphan. It did not take much discussion to decide that Flo would move in with the Bulmers and become one of the family. Not yet seven years old, thin and pale, the last of the Palser family, Flo was one year older than Myrtle.
Dan Bulmer was home for Christmas 1918. No words can express the joy in families where their men and boys returned home safely. The Dining Room was closed for two weeks. Friends dropped in from all over the city, at all times of day to check on the men returning and to renew old acquaintances. Music was heard in the big house which had lots of room for dancing and parties. Polly laughed and danced with the joy of having her family together again. Winnie’s happiness at having her father home, was clouded by the fact that her husband stayed overseas until 1919 as his outfit was sent into Germany with the Army of Occupation.
When it was time to re-open the Dining Room, Dan was reluctant to having ‘all those strangers’ in his home. It was not that he minded eating in the kitchen, it was all the time Polly and the family spent on the business. She convinced him that she should continue ‘for the time being’. He said, “We’ll see”, but the subject was not closed. Polly did not dare have an un-ironed shirt or have Dan’s supper late to the table, as she feared he would ‘put his foot down.’ Doll was working in a shop again and didn’t spend much of her free time at home. Winnie wanted to be upstairs with her baby, especially after John came home. Ivy did her best and now Flo and Myrtle did many of the chores, but the days of the Dining Room were counting down.
Continued – Polly – Chapter 4