Policing Vancouver During the Great War

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

This is a reposting of a popular blog series from 2014 in honour of Remembrance Day and those who nobly served.

August 4th, 2014 marks the 100th* anniversary of Canada’s involvement in one of the most influential events in the world’s history–World War I. In response to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the invasion of Belgium by Germany, Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th, 1914. Proxy also bound the countries of the British Empire, including Canada, to war.

Credits: Archives of Ontario 233-2-0-4-195

In 1914, Vancouver was just 24 years old and had only recently become a matured metropolis. Many established Vancouverites, however, were not long removed from their “homelands,” most having arrived from England and Scotland. It’s no surprise, then, that when Britain declared war, Vancouverites were quick to sign up. In fact, Vancouver sent a higher proportion of soldiers to fight in WWI than any other city in North America.

The Vancouver Police Department (VPD), as it tends to be, was a mirror of the city in its time and place. In 1914, the department had recently grown to 74 officers, most of whom were born in England or Scotland. They were working out of a modern brick and marble police station on Cordova Street (built in 1913). They had recently created a Women’s Division (1912), a full-time Mounted Unit (1910), and purchased their first motorized patrol car (1910) and patrol boat (1911). The Department was at a new stage of maturity and was moving forward with pride.

The VPD in full force in front of the new station on Cordova Street, 1913. VPM Archival Photo P02526

With the call to war, though, change was inevitable. The Great War affected all aspects of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department. Over the next four years, 60 VPD officers would leave to fight in the trenches, creating a constant ebb and flow of policemen and women who were responsible for policing the city. Society in Vancouver shifted during the Great War: the Temperance Movement gained popularity, there were fears of food shortages, and there was suddenly a new “Other” to fear–the Austro-Hungarians.

As is the case when societal views shift, policing organizations must respond with changes in protocol. The VPD was no exception. At the time of its declaration, the War was expected to last until Christmas of 1914 at the latest. As we all know, that was far from reality, and Vancouverites and the VPD found themselves impatiently waiting four years for their brethren to return. Nine of them wouldn’t. When the war was over, the officers who did come back, did so to a changed city, and the VPD began hiring new officers with military training. The effects of the Great War on the Department would be felt for years to come.

VPD Roll of Honour, commemorating the men who fought in WWI. VPM Archival Photo P01076.

The Vancouver Police Museum is dedicated to telling the story of how the Great War affected the Vancouver Police Department and the officers who went to war. It also strives to tell the story of how our city changed due to these events—specifically, how law enforcement responded to the changes brought on by the war.

*This year marks the 105th year since the beginning of World War I, and the 101st year since the Great War ended.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Policing Vancouver During the Great War: The VPD Men Who Went to War

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