Wander into any of our many Royal Canadian Legion halls and you will see all the paraphernalia of the fighting forces. You will also find information about the wars in which Sudburians participated and to which they contributed, but less about how the city benefitted.
Participated? The military history of local fighters is proudly displayed through many photos and medals. For example, at Branch 76 in Minnow Lake, guns, grenades, gear, shells, plus souvenirs taken from other countries, comprise one display. Unit flags and commemorative plaques grace other areas. Huge photos cover a whole wall. A close look at one of the latter indicates that a company in the 159th Battalion had a bear as mascot in 1916. The 159th, known as the Algoma Overseas, was raised in Sudbury/Sault Ste. Marie/Manitoulin during the Great War.
Men and women from Sudbury participated in all the major wars of the 20th and 21st centuries from the Boer War to Afghanistan. Sometimes the participants fought in Britain’s imperial ventures, and other times defended the world from aggression as in the Second World War.
In the First World War, at least 305 soldiers who enlisted had been born in Sudbury and more than 915 had lived here. In the Second World War, at least 79 of the deceased had been born in Sudbury, while some 183 had lived here. Whether they joined because of the prewar economic downturns, for adventure, or out of patriotism is hard to determine.
One wrote home March 14, 1942: “I do not wish to hinder the industrial effort but life is much more enjoyable with the air force than with ‘Incko’.” However, many lost their lives in the trenches, at sea and in plane crashes.
Contributed? The winner of a Victoria Cross for taking out two German gun emplacements while wounded, William Merrifield, worked at Inco before the First World War and intended to go to Sudbury on demobilization in 1919. However, he ended up in the Sault which then claimed the celebrity as its own.
Sudburians fought and died or were captured at Ypres, at Vimy and at Passchendaele.
Among dozens of airmen, Sudbury had at least four Distinguished Flying Cross winners during the Second World War. Sudburians fought and died or were captured at Dieppe, in the Italian and Netherland campaigns, and the Algonquin Regiment, to which many Sudburians belonged, mopped up German forces beyond the Rhine.
Especially in the second great conflict, women filled the jobs left by industrial workers going to the fronts. Thus, the war provided the beginnings of a significant gender breakthrough because it resulted in women demonstrating that they could do work previously reserved for men.
Benefitted? The wars of the last 150 years have required and used metals from Sudbury. The hidden elephant in the military memory rooms is the source of the materials which made the killing machines possible. Rifles, artillery shells, warships, and bombers require metals from mines. Our iron, copper and nickel supplied the armament industries.
The mining companies made huge profits during wartime, though after the demand of war, they slowed production and laid off men. In short, the boom and bust cycles of the mining industry were reinforced by war.
In 1914, 45 million pounds of nickel and 29 million pounds of copper were produced; in 1918, 92 million pounds of nickel and 47 million of copper, respectively.
During the Second World War, Inco produced 1.5 billion pounds of nickel and 1.7 billion pounds of copper; more than all previous years combined.
In sum, in the 1930s due to Italian and German rearmament, during the world war because of Allied needs, and during the Cold War because of American stockpiling, Inco and Falconbridge expanded and profited and Sudbury benefitted from warfare.
Perhaps Canada has been lucky in that during its official first 150 years as a country, no wars have been fought at home. However, foreign wars have greatly affected Canadians. Wars should not be glorified or romanticized because, for those doing the fighting, they are usually horrific affairs. When commemorating, we should reflect on causes, family suffering, and destruction of people and property in the hopes of minimizing future conflicts.
Historian Dieter K. Buse is writing a book, War and Northeastern Ontario: The Untold Story, for which he would gratefully accept stories and documents. ([email protected] or 705.522.5119)