Historicist: Patriotic Fervour at the CNE
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Historicist: Patriotic Fervour at the CNE

At the Canadian National Exhibition during the First World War, Torontonians on the home front got a glimpse of the war effort overseas.

Soldiers drill with guns, CNE camp, ca. 1915. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 777C.

Not long after the end of the 1914 CNE, Senzikas notes, the exhibition grounds were radically transformed. In late September, city officials offered the grounds to the federal government for use as a military training camp for the winter months. Within three weeks, furnaces, and bunks were hastily built to convert cowsheds, stables, and other buildings into barracks to house thousands of troops. Another building was converted into an indoor rifle range. The Exhibition’s massive buildings allowed troops to practice marching indoors—even in heavy snowfall.

“For the first time in a generation military patrols mount guard over the imposing gates,” the Toronto Star noted on November 8, 1914. “Where but two months ago thousands of Canadians and Americans celebrated ‘Peace Year,’ two thousand of the pick of Ontario’s manhood are grimly preparing for war.”

The camp’s proximity to the city was highly advantageous for a camp whose troops awaited deployment to Europe. But the location could also pose difficulties for camp administrators. Civilians with relatives in camp or in its hospital came calling any time, not just during the official visiting hours of Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Visitors' day, CNE camp, ca. 1915. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 777H.

The military would continue to use the CNE grounds to house and train troops before their embarkation to Europe, and for demobilization upon their return, until July 1919. This meant that several smaller exhibitions, like the Ontario Horticultural Exhibition, were cancelled during the war years, though the Canadian National Exhibition went ahead each year.

Visitors to 35th Battalion trenches, CNE, 1915, by John Boyd. {a href="http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=3395547"}Library and Archives Canada{/a}.

In previewing the 1915 Exhibition’s war theme, the Globe wrote: “Last year the war was only a month old when the Exhibition opened, and the uncertainty of the outlook gave rise to a good deal of solicitude. But the Exhibition paid its way then, and this year, in view of more settled conditions, it may fairly be expected to do a great deal better than that.” Proclaimed to be a “Patriotic Year,” the 1915 fair had an overt military flavour—and even had a recruiting office on site.

Promotions for that year promised enough midway amusements to fill 32 railway-cars. There would also be displays of “all kinds of engines and implements of destruction…to remind visitors of the significance of the big struggle now going on in Europe.” The exhibits included a model of the torpedo boat Grasshopper and armoured vehicles. There were to be “Moving Pictures, depicting War times in and about Great Britain,” and demonstrations from Canada’s new war industries. Another most “remarkable Exhibit of War Trophies ever seen on the Continent” was to include items ranging from “the huge Krupp gun first captured by British valor to a blood-stained cap of a Teuton Uhlan.”

“No doubt the model military camp will attract thousands of visitors, a great many of whom have relatives at the front,” the Globe predicted. Indeed, Exhibition and military officials estimated that three-quarters of fair attendees explored the model camp, where detachments of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Artillery, Royal Canadian Engineers, and Royal Canadian Regiment resided during the CNE.