The year 1917 was filled with events that both shook and defined the world. Though our library has many books about years “that changed everything”, one can argue this year was one that can legitimately be called one of the most seminal for the world we currently live in. Many of these events have been or are going to be officially remembered through ceremonies and events, but if you are interested in learning more, the library has material that can help you explore their history.
Vimy: The Battle and the Legend by Tim Cook
We have just celebrated the centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, on April 9th. This tactical victory did not in itself change the course of the war but it started to change how Canadians saw themselves in relation to Great Britain and the rest of the world. This victory was notable because of its meticulous planning and execution. It was achieved by Canadians from all over the country who were fighting together as the Canadian Corps for the first time and succeeded where other attempts had failed. This feat of arms came at a high cost (over 10,000 casualties) but helped cement the reputation of the Canadian Corps as an elite formation distinct from the British army – a fact that would be reflected in Canada signing the Versailles Treaty separately from Great Britain in 1919. Whether this constituted the “birth of a nation” can be debated, but it was certainly a step away from being a colony toward full-fledged nationhood.
This wasn’t the only event that was important in Canadian history that year. 1917 was a federal election year, and the first where Canadian women were able to vote. The stakes of these wartime elections were high. The conscription crisis to replenish the manpower of the Canadian Expeditionary Force drove a wedge between the mainly French-Canadians opponents who resisted volunteering for a war that they did not see as theirs to fight and the supporters of Britain and her allies. Tensions between the two factions rose to such a level that violent riots erupted in the city of Quebec on Easter, leaving 4 dead and 150 wounded, and created a chasm between Quebecers and the rest of the country that would be felt for generations.
The Curse of the Narrows by Laura MacDonald
The first World War’s effects were felt by entire societies in direct and indirect ways. In countries like Canada, which was far from the front, it left scars in every community, but none more than in Halifax. The port city was already a central hub for men and supplies being sent overseas when tragedy struck on December 6, 1917. Two ships filled with explosive material collided, resulting in a blaze that spread out of control. This resulted in the largest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded, devastating the city and killing or wounding 11,000 inhabitants. In addition to the immediate death toll, a colossal rescue effort by both Canadians and Americans was necessary to tend those left wounded and homeless in the middle of a blizzard.
March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund
On the world stage, 1917 saw the fall of the Romanov dynasty, that had ruled Russia for centuries, by the Russian Revolution, which would see the rise of the first communist regime in history. This revolution (traditionally marked on October 25th) saw Russia withdraw from the war and radically shifted the balance in Germany’s favor. As the German Empire successfully dealt with its enemy in the east, it unwittingly gained another when the United States of America declared war on April 6th. The country had remained neutral until unrestricted submarine warfare and an intercepted telegram revealed a German plan to goad Mexico to invade them with promises of winning back part of its former empire. Though a relative late-comer on the Allied side, the U.S. influx of men and supplies was decisive in the war ending in their favour. Both events were the first steps that would see the rise of the two superpowers that would dominate international politics of the 20th century.
The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonathan Schneer
A less well-known but equally far-reaching event, a letter issued by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, led to the creation of Israel and conflicts that persist today. The widely-published letter was addressed to a Zionist organization and was interpreted as promising the creation of a Jewish homeland in the territory known as Palestine, occupied by the Ottoman Empire. However, this was in apparent contradiction with promises made to Arab leaders who were also revolting against the Ottomans for their independence. What became known as the Balfour Declaration left plenty of ambiguity about where and how this Jewish homeland would be established, with British diplomats initially hoping that a peaceful compromise could be made with all parties. This proved unworkable in the decades following the war, with terrible consequences for the Middle-East.
Finally, this year will also mark two important but overlooked landmarks: 100th anniversary of the Canadian income tax (imposed as a “temporary” war measure) as well as the founding of the National Hockey League (November 26th).