From Destruction to Construction: The Khaki Univesity of Canada, 1917-1919

Article excerpt

The Khaki University was a pioneering educational system established for Canadian soldiers during the First World War. Organized by Henry Marshall Tory, the Khaki University brought education to more than 50,000 soldier-students. Initially implemented to better the soldiers, this educational system was a key component in disseminating government policy, complementing the military power structure, keeping soldiers busy during the demobilization period, and imparting a nascent pride in the Canadian accomplishments during the war.

L'universite Khaki, un systeme educatif tout A fait nouveau destine aux soldats canadiens, a ete mise sur pied lors de la Premiere Guerre mondiale. Organisee par Henry Marshall Tory, elle a permis A plus de 50 000 soldats de recevoir une education. Ce systeme, qui visait au depart a << ameliorer >> les soldats, a ete Fun des elements cls qui a permis la dissemination des politiques gouvernementales, servi de complement A la structure militaire du pouvoir, occupy les soldats pendant la periode de demobilisation et permis aux Canadiens de commencer A se sentir fiers des exploits accomplis par les leurs durant la guerre.

With 60,000 dead and more than 170,000 wounded and maimed, Canada paid a terrible price in the First World War. Canada, then a nation of less than eight million, suffered proportional losses equal to the 600,000 American Civil War dead.1 As a result of the attritional nature of the fighting, subsequent generations of Canadians have had difficulty in seeing beyond the firing line and the poignant image of soldiers lurching forward in ill-conceived plans against barbed wire and hardened defenses bristling with machine guns.

Yet there was more to the Great War experience for Canadian soldiers. In fact, the big pushes of the Somme, Vimy and Passchendaele were much more uncommon than the constant drudgery of garrisoning the trenches, acting as reinforcements in the second line of supporting defenses or resting in rear billets before once again taking a turn in the rotation. The tens of thousands of Canadians training in England had a very different war from that of the men on the Western Front. Although it is true that many of those same "trainees" eventually transferred to fighting battalions, batteries or other units in the Canadian Corps to shore up the constant wastage incurred in trench warfare, new recruits often had months in camps before they were sent to France. Military training took up much of their time in England, but there were still free moments. Wet canteens, which served beer and food, were popular among the men. A smaller number of men were interested in bettering themselves through education. To meet this desire, a pioneering educational system was established; it was known as the Khaki University of Canada.

Organized by Henry Marshall Tory, president of the University of Alberta, the Khaki University began schooling the citizen-soldiers of the Canadian Corps in early 1917. Envisioned as an institute for soldiers who wished to pursue part-time studies, it eventually expanded to provide all levels of education, from the teaching of illiterate men to read and write all the way to the instruction of university-level students, both behind the lines in England and among the fighting troops in France. At its closure in July 1919, more than 1,000 Canadian soldiers were enrolled in university courses and more than 50,000 had been instructed at more junior levels.

This monumental achievement has been all but forgotten.2 When the killing stopped on 11 November 1918, the generals of the victorious entente armies were concerned. Now that the war was over and the justification for keeping their citizens in uniform was gone, how would they hold their armies together? Years of terrible conditions on the Western Front had made most soldiers wish to return home as soon as possible. Yet military policy-makers knew the demobilization period would be long and complicated due to the shortage of ships, the number of men in the various national armies and a lack of suitable ports in Canada. …