In remembrance: The Great War took its toll on Alberta’s southeast

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I have reached back into the Forgotten Alberta archives to re-post a retrospective on the impact of the Great War on Palliser’s Triangle.

This article was originally published in the Prairie Post East on November 16, 2012

It has been said the Canadian nation was born on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War.

While the end of the war in 1918 marked a new beginning for Canada, its commencement four years earlier signaled the beginning of the end for many southeastern Alberta communities.

Following the declaration of war in 1914, overseas investment in mines, farms, railways and irrigation projects across Palliser’s Triangle dried up nearly overnight.

The economic and social fallout that ensued forever altered the landscape of Alberta’s southeast, and helped inflame ethnic tensions that smoldered long after conflict ceased.

As detrimental as the entire episode seems today, back in the summer of 1914, declaration of war was seen as cause for celebration.

“War excitement is running high,” reported the Bassano Mail in early August 1914. “No matter what hour of the night there will be found small groups of citizens on every corner talking over the situation and wondering what the crazy Emperor of Germany will do next.”

Within weeks, men were marching off to war. Those who stayed behind canvassed for the Red Cross and Patriotic Funds, formed militias and home guards, and remained vigilant against German invasion.

Indeed, wartime fervor bred paranoia, with common sense becoming the first casualty. In August 1914, the Bow Island Review reported a man with a “strong German accent” stepped off the train in that community, with a package local observers speculated was dynamite. Police intervened, only to discover the stranger was no German anarchist bent on blowing Bow Island to bits, but a Norwegian Lutheran Minister on his way to Swift Current. His package? A lantern and slides for illustrating lectures.

In this atmosphere of suspicion, the province’s Austrian, German and Ukrainian settlers were singled out for abuse. Labeled “enemy aliens” and required to register and report monthly to authorities or risk internment, some concealed their ethnicity by adopting English-sounding surnames.

Two southeastern communities with German-sounding names, Carlstadt and Bingen, underwent a patriotic rebirth in 1915, becoming Alderson and Nemiskam respectively.

Undeniably, there were “aliens” who remained loyal to the “Fatherland.” One group, 40 German farmers from Hussar, attempted to return to Germany to enlist, only to be detained en route and imprisoned for the remainder of the war.

The sad reality was that the war’s destructive effect did not discriminate. On the home front, every settler suffered, regardless of their ethnicity, when rail and irrigation projects were postponed or cancelled as a result of war in Europe.

Farmers west of Redcliff, having endured drought and economic downturn prior to the war, were left high and dry when war prompted the bankruptcy of a nearby irrigation project in July 1914.

Hundreds of homesteaders, and villages such as Bow City, Retlaw and Suffield, whose prosperity was dependent on the establishment of irrigation, would never recover.

Settlers from the steppe north of Redcliff — in the vast territory known today as C.F.B. Suffield — were marooned when construction of a railway running north from Medicine Hat was delayed in 1914, and later abandoned.

Work on another railway stretching from Suffield west to Blackie was halted at Lomond in 1914, leaving farmers from Armada to Arrowwood to wait another decade for rail to arrive.

Buffeted by drought and written off as a bad investment, thousands of homesteaders — many whose sons, husbands and fathers had gone off to war, never to return — had little recourse but to abandon the prairie outright.

Today throughout much of Alberta’s southeast, discarded rail beds, orphaned irrigation works, weathered shacks and overgrown cellar holes are the only monuments to a generation’s dreams and potential, wiped out by war.

Lest we forget.

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