Children At the Homefront in Edith Lelean Groves’ Saluting the Canadian Flag and The Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmerettes

(A Dramatic Drill)
Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmettes by Edith Lelean Groves
(A Patriotic Exercise)
Saluting the Canadian Flag by Edith Lelean Groves












© Copyright 2014, Matteo Cianfrone


The First World War was a time of sacrifice and distress.  Families across the globe faced the ever-increasing anxiety of never seeing their loved ones again.  In Canada, however, the aim to suppress these daunting thoughts were subdued through the use of literature.  In 1917 and 1918 the All Canadian Entertainment Series presents Edith Lelean Groves’ dramatic drills, Saluting the Canadian Flag and The Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmerettes.  The two paper-back plays were both published in Toronto by McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart Limited.  The books are held in the Children’s Literature Archive at Ryerson University and are in incredible shape considering the books are almost one hundred years old to date.

Who is Edith L. Groves?

Edith Lelean Grove
Edith Lelean Grove

Born in Cheltenham, England on January 22, 1870, Edith Sarah Lelean moved to Canada at a very young age.  Educated in Toronto, Edith Lelean was very involved in the school system and eventually became a teacher herself.  She taught at Ryerson School where she met her future husband, the school principal, William Edward Groves.  After their marriage, she took her husband’s name and became Edith L. Groves.  After being actively involved for a decade on the board, as a trustee, her admirable dedication to education led to an eventual Toronto District School Board chairmanship in 1929 (The Globe).  This was the first time a woman had ever received this position.  She was well respected by her peers and when Edith passed away on October 17, 1931 she received a great number of accolades for her accomplishments. In a Globe article, the chairman at the time spoke highly of Groves stating, “Canada has lost one of its greatest friends of childhood.”

During her days as a teacher, Edith L. Groves was also a writer.  Before World War I, Groves authored a five-volume series of school drills for children to partake in at school (Gerson).  However, she was again inspired in the late World War I years to revisit her writing ways.  Why?  As stated before, World War One was a time of anxiety and great sacrifice; this was no different for Edith L. Groves.  By 1916, she had already lost one stepson at Passchendaele and the other was badly injured in the Battle of the Somme.  However, her greatest heartbreak was in 1917 when she lost her husband (Gerson).  To deal with the pain, she turned to writing.  She continued to write drills and exercises for Canadian schools to perform.  Somewhat inspired by sorrow, Groves wrote sixteen drills during the war years; four in 1916 and seven in 1917 alone (Gerson).  Two of sixteen drills are the ones I will be visiting in this paper.

Intentions/Receptions of Edith Groves’ Drills

 The first patriotic drill in Canada was presented in 1899, during Canada’s first Empire Day in Toronto.  Empire Day was an annual in-school event that promoted loyalty to Canada through a series of presentations, speeches, or (in this case) drills.  The exercise proved to be a success and caught on like wildfire.  It became a tradition in every Empire Day celebration.  The patriotic exercises “required the child to operate not as an individual but as part of a group – good preparation for becoming a loyal citizen and a reliable soldier” (Fisher 13).  Thus, these drills did not only put pride in Canadian hearts, but prepared the children for battle.  The drills would cultivate the habit of following the word of command and foster military preparedness.  The drills became so important within schools, that it became mandatory for all teachers, across the nation, to acquire a certificate in drills as a prerequisite, before getting their license (Fisher 14).  The patriotic maneuvers collectively united a group of children in the hope of one day unifying a battalion in the army.

Boys and Girls in No Man's Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War by Susan Fisher pg.17
Young Canadian boys practicing drills

Groves’ publications were directed exclusively towards teachers and students.  Both Saluting the Canadian Flag and Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmettes are advertised in publications like the Western School Journal.  This was a book handed out to students and teachers within the School Board of Winnipeg.  Sold at 15 cents per book, the Western School Journal includes each grades curriculum, a schedule for classes the next year, as well as the name of graduates.  Therefore, Groves’ drills were advertised so both students and teachers alike would purchase them.  In addition to advertisements for school drills and exercises, the publication includes advertisements for “Loose Leaf Notebooks” and “Books for Teachers” (Western School Journal).  This would suggest that Groves’ drills were exclusively written to be performed in schools.  The lack of reviews on the play would prove that these plays did not make it outside of the school walls.  Unfortunately, Groves’ drills stayed out of theatres and resided within the classrooms to boost school patriotism amongst the children (as opposed to an older, grander audience).

Groves understood that children, during the depressing years of World War One, had very little to be happy about.  Fathers, mothers, siblings, and friends were going overseas to never be heard from again.  Groves understood this, she experienced it herself.  One of the most admirable traits possessed by Groves was, although she experienced the worst of the war’s grievances, you would never see it in her writing.  Her bitterness towards war, along with her experience of death, was never reflected in her books.

Groves, instead, used her drills in an effort to lift the spirits of these depressed Canadian children.  In Edith L. Groves’ Soldier of the Soil and the Farmerettes, she explicitly states, “This little Exercise, or Playlet, or Drill … is arranged to deal with the present situation in Canada” (Groves 1).  Groves goes on to indicate the clear intentions of this drill.  Groves states:

In giving this number at your Sunday School, or Young People’s Entertainment, bring all the fun out of it that is possible, for we all know that just at present this world has troubles enough of its own, and any one who can make an audience laugh with genuine, wholesome fun is doing the world a service. (Groves 1)

Groves shows her clear objective in the opening statements so that teachers are well aware that this is to be an uplifting exercise for the students.

Edith L. Groves’ in her other exercise, Saluting the Canadian Flag, focuses on another aspect of the war, patriotism.  Groves assures the teachers that the students must not be lifelessly going through the motions.  Instead, the students are expected to take on the responsibility their role entails.  They are expected to mean the words they speak, they are expected to relate to their part in the drill.  If they truly mean what they are acting out, the expectation is that this will feed their national pride.  Groves states that “As Canadians we have done far too little of this” (Groves 3).

Duties at the Homefront

“Canada entered the war quite unprepared militarily and economically” (“The Homefront”).  Not only was Canada lacking soldiers, but they were also lacking workers when their men travelled overseas.  In order for Canadians to compensate, volunteers were essential towards the Allies success in World War I.  Many organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A., and a variety of Woman institutions made it possible for Canada to recover for their lack of preparation.  The volunteers were able to offer their time and energy to raise money, provide food, or produce any necessities the troops needed overseas. (“The Homefront”)

On July 1915, Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Borden, increased the Canadian Expeditionary Force to 150,000 men.  Noticing the military commitment was increasing, Borden raised it again to 500,000 men by July 1916.  (“The Homefront”)  As the conscription numbers increased, the age of those being conscripted decreased.  By the year 1917, workers began to debate against conscription.  Workers pleaded that Borden exempt their sons from conscription due to the high demand for supplies during wartime.  Borden, who was desperate for worker’s (more specifically farmers) votes in the next election, obliged to their request (“Life at Home During the War”).

Soldiers of the Soil Badge
Soldiers of the Soil Badge

With the success of the conscription debate, the young sons were able to assist with the labour shortages.  The most deprived were farmers.  “Soldiers of the Soil” (SOS) was a national initiative run by the Canadian Food Board.  This project compelled children to become involved in the food production that was sent to the Canadian troops overseas.  As oppose to “soldiers” who would fight in the trenches, the SOS would contribute to the war effort through their manual labour in the fields.  Edith Groves perfectly portrays this in Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmerettes by having the children sing:

We cannot fight in a trench.  Canadian children can’t handle Bayonet, musket, or gun.  What can we do in this struggle to help to conquer the Hun? … we can do our best to keep up the food supplies for the Allied armies and our own dear boys overseas.  And we are doing it by planting our gardens and helping our farms. (Groves 15)

These “soldiers” were typically young adults, aged thirteen to eighteen, who were now assigned greater responsibilities in their household.  Just fewer than 22,400 young men across Canada accepted the responsibility of “Soldiers of the Soil”.  Most these boys came from urban schools to live on rural farms for three months or more.  These “soldiers” were rewarded for their efforts.  Rewards included money, exemption from classes, in addition to a “Soldiers of the Soil” badge recognizing their services (Life at Home During the War).

A horse-drawn cart carries Farmerettes during 1918 Victory Loan and Bonds Parade in Montreal

However, the most prominent of these volunteers were women.  By 1917, 30,000 women were involved in factory jobs.  Those in the farm fields were known as the “Farmerettes”.  Similar to the “Soldiers of the Soil” campaign, the Farmerettes were responsible to replace the men lost in military service and assist in farm work.  The Farmerettes were initiated by the Farm Service Corps and created labour never before experienced by women in Canada.  The efforts by the SOS and the “Farmettes” are what led to the overall Canadian success in World War I (“Life at Home During the War”).

Edith L. Groves was obviously inspired by these two initiatives.  Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmettes is a drill meant to recognize the Canadian volunteers, as well as, encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

“Rest no more my laddie, for food we must supply to the boys “over there” who are driving back the Hun Who are ready both to dare and die.” (Groves 15)

Attitudes at Home

As the war years dragged on, Canadians recognized that the nurturing of their children would prove to become important.  The children were growing up in a period of war, and their teachings must be altered to address this.  Canadian exercises at home consisted of day-to-day military driven behaviors.  Children were not only expected to be on their best behavior, but were also expected to view their mother as a ‘commanding officer’.  As the commanding officer, the children were required to follow their mothers command as well as salute her.  These standard military-like references immersed the children in an environment motivated by soldier-like customs.  This nurtured a soldier even though they were far removed from the battlefield. (Fisher 6)
Saluting girl during WWI

The saluting didn’t only stop at home.  Edith L. Groves’ Saluting the Canadian Flag demonstrates patriotic practices weren’t limited to the household.  “I call upon you boys and girls of Canada to step out each in turn and salute the Canada Flag” (Groves 7).  In doing this, students collectively identify Canadians “have good cause to honor and love [Canada]. As you come forward, tell us why this Flag, above all others, is the one you salute” (Groves 7).  After this, the students state their love for the Canada, explicitly spelling out why they love this country.

J.S. Gordon, a school inspector in Vancouver, states that students within the public school system have high spirits and a desire for service.  Gordon assumes that the explanation is superior teaching.  He compliments their desire to encourage patriotism and considers it to be truly heroic.  Susan Fisher, the author of, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, adds that during World War I at that time, the children did not find these war efforts as “onerous or burdensome” (Fisher 37).  But, in fact, they “were exciting social occasions” (Fisher 37).  Thus, Gordon and Fisher praise teachers like Edith L. Groves.  Through her drills, Groves was able to properly cultivate patriotism within the school community.  Teachers were able to make patriotism appealingly enough so the children weren’t just ‘going through the motions’.  They actually supported the lessons being taught.  Gordon and Fisher conclude that the children genuinely enjoy the drills and acknowledges the teachers for their efforts. However, there was no teacher more influential and dedicated to this endeavour than Edith L. Groves.

Work Cited

“Cause Of Education Loses Firm Friend As Mrs. Groves Dies: First Woman Chairman of Toronto School Board Passes Known Also For Poetry Trustee Dies.” Globe and Mail [Toronto] 19 Oct 1931, n. pag. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. <>.

“Farming and Food.” Canadian War Museum. Canadian Culture Online of Canadian Heritage. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“The Children’s War.” Canadian War Museum. Canadian Culture Online of Canadian Heritage. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

“The Home Front.” Where Duty Leads: Canada in the First World War (2008): n.p. University of Toronto Library. Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

“The Western School Journal” Western School Journal Co. 13.2 (1918): 52. Web. Feb 20, 2014.

Cherry, Zena. “Publishers celebrate 75 years.” Globe and Mail [Toronto] 10 Jul 1981, n. pag. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.

Fisher, Susan. Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land: English-Canadian Children and the First World War . Toronto: University of Toronto Press , 2011. eBook.

Gerson, Dr. Carole. “Canada’s Early Women Writers :: Edith Lelean Groves .” Simon Fraser University Library . N.p.. Web. 15 Feb. 2014. <>.

Groves, Edith Lelean.  Saluting the Canadian Flag (A Patriotic Exercise).  Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917. The All Canadian Entertainment Series. Print.

Groves, Edith Lelean. The Soldiers of the Soil and the Farmettes.  Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918. The All Canadian Entertainment Series. Print.

Smyth, Jamie. “Towering Symbols of First World War’s Contribution to National Identity.” Irish Times: 11. May 29 2007. ProQuest. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.