Cowichan civilians fought WWI in the fields

We tend to think of the First World War as those names on the Duncan Cenotaph, casualties, for the most part, of the fighting in the infamous trenches of France and Belgium.

But there was a second war zone, this one right at home, known as the Patriotism and Production movement.

For all of the appeals to enlist in His Majesty’s armed services, there was an equal need for farmers to feed the nation, the armed forces and the Motherland. The pages of the Cowichan Leader,1915-1918, are filled with news, editorials and exhortations for those at home to produce, produce, produce, not just for local consumption but to feed the British populace who were enduring a blockade by German submarines.

With the Valley’s youngest and finest off to war, farmers were challenged to meet and to exceed posted quotas while shorthanded, and it became the practice in the last years of hostilities for high school students (those who were expected to pass) to be granted leave to work in the fields. Those who participated received a medal, too, one that’s likely to be a collector’s item today.

So overwhelming was the response by home farmers that, as early as April 1915, it was reported that the demand for bulletins, pamphlets, records and reports from the federal Department of Agriculture had exceeded the printers’ capacity to fulfill orders promptly. From Ottawa, Minister Martin Burrell made it plain what wcf was needed of Canadians: OB "One great outstanding fact confronts us. This is a war for the triumph of government of the people by the people and for the people. Democracy is literally on

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"We have sent and are sending our sons and brothers, but we cannot all be in that fierce battle line. It remains for us, who are left behind, to broaden our sympathies and bear each other’s burdens, and to direct our efforts to sustain those who are bearing the brunt of the fight. We cannot do better than by ensuring a full measure of the necessities of life to those who are in the front. It is our duty not less than Britain’s, to see that not a sailor in the fleet or a man in the trenches shall lack a single one of those things which he so surely needs.

"Russia, that great producing country, must necessarily yield less with its millions drafted in the war. Belgium as a producing factor is obliterated from the map. Britain, always unable to sustain itself, will have strongest needs. That beautiful section of France where, little more than a year ago, I saw the countless stocks of golden grain, is now scarred with deep-dug trenches. Surely, surely, there is need for all we can do…" Newspapers and popular magazines were filled with how-to articles on growing vegetables, raising livestock and home egg production.

Instructions for canning jams, fish and meats, recipes for preserving fruits and vegetables were among the topics of the day – and not looked upon as being just women’s work, either. Everyone was expected to do his or her share, even young children being urged to help their parents in the garden and with farm chores. The rationale was simple: the more individuals produced for themselves, the less that commercial farmers would have to divert from the war effort for home consumption. And should ordinary citizens produce sufficiently to sell some of their bounty, well, that was okay, too, as it added to the war-strained economy.

As an example of some of the ways in which varied members of the community were engaged, a Parlour Poultry Show was staged by the Shawnigan Farmers’ Institute. There were 18 entries and of the six winners, the ladies held their own with the men, 3-3. Not to be outdone, the Cowichan Girl Guides had their own weekly produce stall at the public market.

How could any patriotic Canadian fail to heed such headlines as this one that appeared on the front page of the Leader in May 1915: ‘Call to Arms Sounds to Farmers of all Canada…

"[Britain] cannot feed herself, and is compelled to rely largely on other countries for a supply of the necessities of life. In such a case the duty of her children is distinctly clear…

"With such a state of affairs existent it is hardly necessary to explain to stay-at-home

Canadians how best they can fulfill their manifest duty and show the burden-bearers how completely they possess their sympathy… To all the people, and to farmers and settlers in particular, the Patriotism and Production movement that is in progress is blowing its bugle… Its object is to arouse all and sundry to the part they are called on to play… in order to secure increased and improved production, by which alone cultivators of the soil can contribute towards the credit of the country and the empire, the greatest care in the selection of seed, in the breeding of live-stock and in economy of the land."

So it went, with ever-increasing urgency, for four bitter years. Cowichan men too young or too old to serve, and women and children, answered the nation’s call for home produce.

The term Victory Garden hadn’t been coined but both the intent and the spirit were there throughout the First World War when ordinary citizens became heroes and heroines of the soil for God, King and Country.