“Noblesse Oblige” is an intimate history of the families of Montreal’s once famous community of wealth and privilege, the “Square Mile”. Using their own words and images, the book seeks to answer the question of why they lost their power and influence so quickly after the Great War.
We first meet our central characters in the summer of 1914. The great days of entrepreneurial adventure in Canada are over. A new generation of young men are taking over the reigns of leadership from their hard-driving new-immigrant fathers. They have inherited their fathers’ businesses and grand mansions. They have installed their wives as chatelaines. It’s a brilliant social life but, underneath the glamour, many of these men and the women want more meaning. Some, at the very top, had tried rebellion. But the powerful forces of conformity squeezed them back into the norms of Edwardian upper middle class life.
This deep sense of pre-war ennui explains the feelings of exultation that the declaration of war brings. The young men sign up. Their women immediately book passage to Europe. 30,000 women, the same number as their menfolk, cross the Atlantic that fall. Their principal concern is not risk or death but that they might miss the adventure. None feel this concern more keenly than the rebels.
By mid May, 1915, everything changes.
At Ypres, on April 21- 23, 1915, the men face their first true test. Knowing nothing of soldiering, facing gas for the first time, the Canadians stand and die. Duty and honour demand this. The First Division, suffering a 40% casualty rate, sets the standard for how all the men of the Square Mile are to behave for the rest of the conflict. On May 7th, the Lusitania is sunk. Many of its victims are women and children of the Square Mile. In a tribal society, there is no greater crime. On May 8th, the men of the PPCLI are effectively wiped out. Only 153 officers and men are left out of the 1,000 that had sailed from Canada. Honour now demands that the men and the women of the Square Mile commit to “Total War”.
In the knowledge that their future was certain death, the younger brothers of the First Contingent continue to sign up for service. Many of their fathers join up. Badly wounded men return again and again to the front. Men, in safe staff jobs, return to their old units to die with their men. Like grim-faced Spartan matrons, the women of the Square Mile send their men off to die with honour. Chatelaines become CEO’s of war service organizations. Mothers return to work the day after they hear of their child’s death. Sisters of the dead drive ambulances at the front. Young women work themselves to death. Like the lairds of old, the men and the women of the Square Mile bring their servants to war. Master and servant give their lives for each other.
Love replaces adventure as the primary motivation. This love is not a romantic love. Nor can it be explained as friendship. It is the same primeval love that drives a mother to die for her child. The Greeks called this love ‘Philia’. It is this love that, in the face of death, can make a man feel overwhelmingly alive. This love is why some men discover that they love war itself, it’s addictive. Philia also sustains the women. As mothers lose their own children, they expand their concept of family, and so their hearts, to include all the children of the tribe.
Ultimately, at the front and at home, the heart can only take so much. The exceptionally close ties of the Square Mile mean that every individual family loss is felt as everyone’s loss. There is no limit to the pain. The few who survive the conflict lose most of their friends and they lose most of their family. They freeze inside and dare not love again.
By 1919, the finite capacity of love met the infinite capacity of industrial war to inflict pain. Other elites lost many sons. Other elites lost much of their wealth. The Square Mile’s tight social structure, and its implacable honour code, meant that it had also lost its spirit. Only ghosts remained.
Principal Characters – Linked by Blood, Friendship and by Sacrifice
At the core of Montreal society are the Allans of Ravenscrag, Sir Montagu and Marguerite, Lady Allan. Their youngest daughters, Gwen and Anna, are killed on May 7, 1915. when the Lusitania is sunk. Marguerite survives the sinking and goes on to finance and to run a large hospital in England. Montagu sets up the pension scheme that becomes Veterans Affairs. Their only son, Hugh Allan, is killed on his first mission with the RNAS on July 7, 1917. Their eldest daughter, Martha Allan, dies, aged 47, in 1942 of pneumonia that she first contracted in 1916 while nursing her father’s best friend, Henry Yates. Henry Yates, 2nd in command of The McGill Hospital, dies in January, 1916. His wife, Alice Yates, comes to England and works with Marguerite Allan and Julia Drummond. In 1918, Martha Allan and Emily Yates join their mothers as nurses.
Dr. John McCrae, friend of Lady Allan and veteran of the Boer War, signs up in September 1914, as second in command of a battery. He writes In Flanders Fields after the death of a friend at the second battle of Ypres in 1915. He is transferred to the Medical Corps where he works at the McGill Hospital. Weakened by PTSD and overwork, he dies from pneumonia in January 1918.
Guy Drummond, Julia, Lady Drummond’s only son, is killed April 22, 1915 at Ypres. Trum Warren, his best friend is killed the day before. They are married to two sisters. Dorothy Braithwaite, their younger sister, is drowned on May 7 as she travels with Lady Allan to comfort them. Going back to work the day after receiving the news of Guy’s death, Julia Drummond organizes The Information Service and the Maple Leaf Clubs, organizations that look after the personal needs of all Canadian soldiers at war in Europe.
Hamilton Gault, personally finances the establishment of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. In the fall of 1914, he travels to Europe with the regiment and with his wife, Marguerite Stephens Gault. Her mother, Frances Stephens, travelling with Lady Allan, dies on the Lusitania with Marguerite Stephens Gault’s 18 month old nephew, baby John Stephens. Chattan Stephens, the father of baby John, broken-hearted and weakened by trench fever, dies in the flu epidemic in 1918. Lonely and afraid, Marguerite Stephens Gault betrays Hamilton Gault with a fellow officer. Their divorce is the scandal of the time.
Hartland Paterson, double first cousin of the Allans, loses a leg in 1918. His older brother Alex Paterson serves at the front from February 1915 until September 1918, when he is badly gassed. He is involved in every action of the CEF and is awarded the DSO and a bar. Suffering from PTSD, he kills himself in 1956.
George Slingsby, a valet, is a protege of Lady Allan. As the Lusitania sinks, George, who cannot swim, gives his life jacket to his friend, Lady Allan. Ray Appleton, Gault’s peacetime butler and wartime batman, carries badly wounded Gault for three miles back from the front and so saves Gault’s life. Herbert Cruikshank, McCrae’s batman and William Dodge, his replacement, defend McRae’s beloved horse, Bonfire, from his enemy, General Guy Carleton Jones. Caroline Milne, nurse, dies with her charge, baby John Stephens
McGill University sends the largest Canadian hospital of the war to France and provides the PPLCI, via Percival Molson, with their replacements. The Bank of Montreal in London serves all Canadian officers in Europe. 50% of BMO’s staff enlisted.