1918: Year of the Conscript
ONCE SEEN AS SHIRKERS OR WORSE, SOLDIERS CONSCRIPTED TO SERVE IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR ARE STARTING TO RECEIVE THE RECOGNITION THEY HAVE LONG BEEN DENIED.
Once seen as shirkers or worse, First World War conscripts are starting to receive the recognition they have long been denied.
Amidst the crowded benches of his Conservative Party colleagues, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden stood up to make a historic announcement. An eerie quiet descended on the packed gallery and across the makeshift parliamentary chamber located in the Victoria Memorial Museum, the temporary home of Canada’s House of Commons since the original Parliament Buildings had been destroyed by fire fifteen months earlier. A young nation held its collective breath. It was late Friday afternoon, May 18, 1917, the thirty-fourth month of the Great War. Canada was about to undergo a national catharsis.
Borden had just returned from a twomonth working trip to England, where he had attended meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet and the Imperial War Conference. Indeed, he had been visiting troops of the newly formed 5th Canadian Division at Camp Witley on Easter Sunday, April 8, 1917, just as the Canadian Corps was preparing to attack at Vimy Ridge. But in the wake of that very costly tactical victory, Borden had been confronted with some new and stark realities, particularly the critical personnel shortfall the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) would soon face.
At the heart of his difficulties was the steep decline in recruitment, stretching back to June of the previous year. That, coupled with 10,602 casualties at Vimy, including 3,598 dead, in what historian Tim Cook has described as “the single bloodiest day of the entire war for the Canadian Corps,” had propelled the military manpower issue to the top of Borden’s agenda.
At the time, the conflict was known as the European War. While the CEF had understandably attracted great numbers of British-born recruits and many who were Canadian-born but of British descent, apparently the majority of Canadian men
aged eighteen to forty-five were not interested in fighting in a European war. Moreover, as the war progressed and casualty lists grew longer, the number of new recruits had diminished even further.
The principal opponents to the war, and later to conscription, were the people of Quebec, along with many other francophones, scattered across the country, who fundamentally rejected the need to fight this European war. But French-speaking Canadians were not alone in this dispute; labour groups across Canada were equally strident in their protests, as were farmers, forestry workers, and fishermen.
Details of this often-fierce opposition have received scholarly attention over the years, most notably in J.L. Granatstein and
J.M. Hitsman’s Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada and Robert Rutherdale’s Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War. Broken Promises has informed virtually every scholarly study on the subject since its publication in 1977. However, there persists to this day a widespread misunderstanding of the crucial role played by Canadian conscripts in the Great War and, by extension, the importance of conscription to the success of the Canadian Corps in 1918.
Drawing on statistical data derived in part from Edward Wigney’s seminal 1996 work, The C.E.F. Roll of Honour, as well as from a comprehensive review of relevant war diaries and official histories and from the nominal rolls of numerous regimental histories, new research confirms that G.W.L. Nicholson was quite correct when he wrote in his Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First
World War that conscription ultimately
“did produce the military results which it was designed to produce.”
As for the besieged prime minister, his options in 1917 were severely limited: Let the Canadian Corps wither from four infantry divisions to three, and perhaps to two, or take the necessary measures required to maintain the corps at full strength. The latter, however, involved stepping gingerly into a political minefield; it likely also meant the implementation of compulsory military service.
For Borden, this was an extraordinary reversal of fortunes. Even before Canadian troops had been blooded on the battlefield at Second Ypres in April 1915, he had promised his constituents that “there has not been, [and] there will not be, compulsion or conscription.” Nonetheless, less than a year later, on December 31, he declared that the strength of the CEF would be doubled from the 250,000 agreed to by the Privy Council on October 30, 1915, to 500,000 — ten times the number requested only thirteen months earlier.
Thus it was during the slow, nine-day return crossing from England aboard the SS Grampian in the spring of 1917 that the prime minister likely experienced his own road to Damascus conversion. Once in Canada, he set off immediately for Ottawa from Quebec City on May 14, his mind made up; he would not forsake the solemn pledges made to the wounded and injured soldiers he had met in England and France, nor would he betray the trust of their families.
Four days later, Borden began his solemn address to the House by providing a detailed overview of the campaign at sea and on land, underscoring the fact that, despite many successes to date, “a great struggle lies before us.” Turning next to the “four Canadian divisions at the front” and to the crucial issue of reinforcement, he acknowledged that “the voluntary system will not yield further substantial results.”
But more dramatically still, for those who were present, and reversing a position on which he had held firm since the start of the war, Borden announced that “the time has come when the authority of the state should be invoked to provide reinforcements necessary to sustain the gallant men at the front….” The supreme sacrifice of thousands of Canadians at Courcelette and at Vimy Ridge must “not be in vain,” he insisted.
Then, in a stunning denouement, Borden gravely concluded that “early proposals will be made on the part of the government to provide by compulsory military enlistment on a selective basis such reinforcements as may be necessary to maintain the Canadian Army in the field as one of the finest fighting forces in the Empire.” Save for most members of the opposition, Borden’s momentous words electrified the audience and were met with tumultuous applause.
Ultimately, however, they would divide a nation as never before.
For the first time in Canada’s young history, plans were set in motion to draft by selective conscription not less than fifty thousand men, and more likely one hundred thousand. The legal instrument invoked to bring these plans to fruition was the
Military Service Act of 1917, which received its first reading in Parliament on Monday, June 11.
One week later, Borden moved the bill’s second reading. For his part, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, leader of the Opposition, was adamantly opposed to conscription. Likewise, he was equally against his Liberal caucus joining any Unionist coalition government. Consequently, in response, Laurier warned of a “deep cleavage” the conscription issue had created, and he made a cogent and passionate plea that the entire matter be put before the Canadian electorate in a national referendum. Nonetheless, after an acrimonious all-night debate, Laurier’s amendment was soundly defeated, and on July 6 the bill passed by 118 votes to 65 before moving on to its third and final reading.
Over the next two weeks, there followed another bitter debate in the House of Commons, as members contested the precise wording of the bill, particularly with respect to the establishment of six classes of men to be called out, along with
several controversial exemption clauses. For example, farmers and munitions workers, whose work was considered to be in the national interest, received widespread exemptions. But, as historian Jonathan Vance observed in his book Death So Noble:
Memory, Meaning and the First World War, “No amount of rationalization could change the fact that serving in field or factory simply could not carry with it the same honour as serving in the trenches.” In time, these exemptions would prove to be the Achilles heel of the legislation.
Finally, Laurier again warned colleagues of the bill’s great potential for national “discord and disunion,” but to no avail. On July 14, 1917, the act was passed, 102 votes to 44, including the support of twenty-two of Laurier’s Liberals.
After a testy debate in the Senate, the bill was signed by the Governor General on August 29. Selective compulsory military service had become the law of the land. In effect, tens of thousands of young men now had a date with destiny on the Western Front.
Public sentiment made it clear that many Canadians felt conscription was long overdue. Starting in late January 1916, Great Britain had twice passed such legislation, expanding conscription to include married men up to age forty-five, while New Zealand had approved conscription that August. In addition, the Americans, who entered the war in April 1917, had passed the Selective Service Act, which would ultimately conscript seventy-two per cent of their army.
Meanwhile, across the country, civilian recruiting leagues, the churches in English Canada, and especially the Englishdominated press had joined forces to strongly support compulsory military service. Indeed, by 1917, the non-volunteer was frequently labelled an isolationist and a pacifist, a slacker and a shirker — in short, a coward. But were these men really cowards? When it came to volunteering, one historian declared “there were no ‘volunteers’ after the fall of 1914,” since most recruits were either shamed or eventually compelled to join up.
To the great dismay of many people, however, Borden did not immediately implement conscription. His focus shifted to establishing a coalition government and to a federal election in the late fall, both of which he saw as essential to achieving national consensus on compulsory service. In addition, his government tabled two more controversial bills in August and September: the Military Voters Act, which, among other things, enfranchised all those on active service, and the Wartime Elections Act, which “enfranchised the immediate female relatives of members of the armed forces” — an electoral first at the federal level — while disenfranchising large groups of voters, including “all new Canadians from enemy countries who had arrived in Canada since [March 31,] 1902.” Each bill was designed to help to guarantee a win in the forthcoming election and to permit full implementation of the Military Service Act. Maybe so, but, as historian Robert Craig Brown once wrote, the Elections Act was simply “a bald, reprehensible gerrymander.”
Immediately after the passage of the two pieces of legislation, Parliament was prorogued, and Borden announced his coalition cabinet on October 13. That same day, a royal proclamation was published in major newspapers and public places across the country, ordering all men in the first class of conscripts — single or widowed men between twenty and thirty-four years old on July 6, 1917, who did not have children — to register for service or obtain an exemption by November 11; otherwise, they would face military discipline and the possibility of up to five years in prison.
Most of the potential draftees did claim such an exemption: 93.7 per cent nationwide, initially totalling 379,629 men. In addition, more than 25,000 reported for service, among them 8,112 who “voluntarily” reported even before being ordered to do so by the military authorities. It was this latter group of men who formed the vanguard of Canada’s first conscripts overseas, some of whom arrived in England before the year was out.
Election day was December 17, 1917. Not surprisingly, Borden’s Union coalition scored an impressive victory, eventually claiming a seventy-one-seat majority. Then, just before heading south for a winter holiday, the prime minister issued instructions to begin calling out the first class of conscripts starting January 3, 1918. Thousands of draftees then reported to one of seventeen depot battalions across the country, after which they made a dangerous crossing of the Atlantic by ship. The dangers of German torpedoes and of rampant sickness and disease were all too real. Arriving at one of several training camps in England, such as Bramshott, Witley, and Seaford, they were put into quarantine, typically lasting ten to fourteen days, before their training started in earnest. Notably, by Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, of the 96,000 conscripts listed on strength with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 47,589 had proceeded overseas, of whom 24,132 had joined units in France.
Critics of conscription would frequently cite this latter number and almost always prefaced it with the diminutive “only” — as in “only 24,132” conscripts made it to the front. In this context, since a total of 619,636 Canadians were enlisted in the CEF, it has long been assumed that, apart from arriving too late, these conscripts constituted insufficient numbers to make any significant difference in the success of the Canadian Corps. In fact, both assumptions are incorrect and are integral to the myths surrounding this part of Canada’s First World War history. Indeed, the training of conscripts, their motivation and loyalty, the timing of their arrival at the front, their performance and sacrifice in battle, and their overall contribution to Canada’s forty-eight infantry battalions and to victory in the war’s final push — the Hundred Days campaign — has been generally ignored. Worse, the contributions of conscripts have often been misrepresented. New research, however, reveals that without these reluctant warriors there would not have been a Hundred Days for the Canadian Corps.
In January 1918, the Canadian Corps was in the process of
rebuilding, having sustained almost nine thousand casualties at the Battle of Hill 70 the previous August and the loss of nearly sixteen thousand men from late October to early November at Passchendaele. Moreover, the Corps’ commander, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, had recently obtained permission to increase the size of each infantry battalion by one hundred men, to create dedicated machine gun battalions for each of his four infantry divisions, and to provide one small brigade of Canadian engineers for each division.
Consequently, the arrival of thousands of conscripts in England that winter and spring was very timely, especially since those men would ultimately provide much of the manpower necessary to fuel Currie’s reorganization. That April, the first of their number joined their infantry battalions in France. And on May 2, 1918, Private Archibald Forbes, 85th Battalion (Nova Scotia Highlanders), a teamster from Stellarton, Nova Scotia, was the first Canadian draftee to be wounded in battle. Then, on June 10, Private George Allsop, 18th Battalion (Western Ontario), a twenty-one-year-old machine operator from Woodslee, Ontario, became the first conscript to be killed in action. Later that month, Private Ernest Hanson, 31st Battalion (Alberta), a British-born labourer from Windsor, Ontario, was captured along with five comrades during a large-scale raid near Neuville-Vitasse, thus becoming Canada’s first conscript prisoner of war.
In the summer of 1918, thousands more conscripts (ninety-seven per cent of whom were infantry) flowed across the English Channel to the Canadian Corps reinforcement camp at Aubin-Saint-Vaast, France. Many were held there until the start of the next great offensive, but thousands of others were quickly sent forward to their units to help to bring these battalions up to fighting strength.
On August 8, the Hundred Days campaign began with a spectacular drive led by the Canadians and Australians at the Battle of Amiens in France. Later, General Eric Ludendorff called it “the black day of the German army”; but 1,036 Canadians died that day as well.
One of the first to fall was Private Albert Mitchell, 19th Battalion (Central Ontario), a sailor from Sault Ste. Marie but born in Johannesburg, South Africa; he was instantly killed by shellfire in the attack at Marcelcave. Over the next two weeks, hundreds of other conscripts also died in action, including Private Reginald Cundy, 20th Battalion (Central Ontario), a Britishborn clerk from Toronto who succumbed to multiple shell wounds on August 9. And on August 11, Private Hector Lahaie, 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers), an auto liveryman from Makinak, Manitoba, was severely wounded by shrapnel while helping to carry an injured comrade out of the line near Hallu. His left leg was amputated, and he died in hospital four days later.
Amiens would witness many other acts of valour by these citizen soldiers. For showing exceptional bravery in the face of enemy machine gun fire at Rosières on August 9, Private William T. Mott (31st Battalion), a draftee and farmer from Merlin, Ontario, would be awarded the Military Medal. Still, the courage of many others would go unrecorded. No one knows, for example, what happened to Private Joseph Bougie, 43rd Battalion (Cameron Highlanders), a draftee and boilermaker from Port Arthur, Ontario; he was initially reported wounded and then missing in action on August 16 in front of Goyencourt. His sacrifice is commemorated at the national Vimy Memorial.
Next up for General Currie and the Canadian Corps was Arras, in northern France, and the latest Battle of the Scarpe. Remarkably, his second and third divisions had relieved the British XVII Corps on August 22, 1918, just three days after departing Amiens. The next day, the 6th Brigade fought several minor engagements, one that involved a patrol by the 29th Battalion (Vancouver) that was nearly wiped out near NeuvilleVitasse. In that action, despite gunshot wounds to the left thigh and shoulder, Private Walter Chisnall, a logger drafted in Vancouver, demonstrated great courage under fire, for which he was later awarded the Military Medal.
The main battle at Arras did not commence until August 26.
Thanks to a steady flow of reinforcements, mostly conscripts who had become the lifeblood of the corps, and despite having sustained 10,783 casualties among other ranks at Amiens, Currie was able to engage in this new offensive. At the time, no other British or Dominion commander enjoyed such a manpower advantage.
Nonetheless, over the next three days the Canadian Corps sustained the loss of another 5,800 men of all ranks — yet another enormous strain on the reinforcement system. As the mother of one soldier wrote, “While we read daily accounts of the victories and the advance of the allies, we are almost speechless when we see the lists of casualties that follow.”
Among the thousands of draftees attacking along the Scarpe was my own paternal grandfather, Hilaire Dennis of (18th Battalion). He was severely wounded by machine gun fire at Vis-en-Artois on August 28, but fate, good fortune, and a much-improved medical system combined to save his life. Although an enemy bullet passed cleanly through his hip and pelvis, the subsequent blood loss was not fatal. And, only a day later, young Hilaire was under expert care at a casualty clearing station thirty miles behind the front.
Many of his comrades, though, were not so fortunate. Private Emile Boyer, 22nd Battalion (Van Doos), an electrician from Montreal, had arrived in France in June and fought at Amiens. But on this fateful day he too suffered multiple wounds from machine gun fire and died during the battalion’s perilous advance at Chérisy.
Currie was a formidable military commander and, up to this point in the war, was well-known for the efforts he had made to keep Canadian casualties to a minimum. On the third day at the Scarpe, however, he committed a crucial tactical error — he overextended the exhausted troops of his 2nd Division in the face of superior German forces who manned virtually impregnable defences. The result was the near annihilation of the fourth and fifth Canadian brigades, and the 2nd Division was put out of the fight for over a month. Yet the availability of a steady stream of reinforcements, mostly conscripts, had provided Currie with the personnel necessary to push the offensive even harder, and especially to take tactical risks that previously, in the words of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, “would have been criminal to incur.”
Forced to take a very brief operational pause, Currie inserted the relatively fresh first and fourth divisions into the fight and prepared to attack the vaunted Drocourt-Quéant (D-Q) Line, “one of the most powerful and well-organized German defence systems.” Beginning on Monday, September 2, this battle quickly became one of the toughest fights of the war for the Canadian Corps.
Among the battalions hardest-hit was the 50th (Calgary); it suffered the loss of 241 men, including 31 dead. One of these was Private Helgi Goodman, an Icelandic-born brewery worker from Calgary. He was among ten conscripts killed at Dury, probably the victim of a German artillery barrage. The 44th Battalion (Manitoba) fared no better. Unable to get much past its jumpingoff point, this unit lost 278 men, including 41 dead — among them 11 draftees.
Private James McLeod, a twenty-one-year-old steam engineer from Derby Junction, New Brunswick, and one of the conscripts, was killed by the same enemy shellfire that claimed about two thirds of his battalion’s trench strength.
Perhaps worst of all, the 87th Battalion (Canadian Grenadier Guards) sustained 320 casualties, including sixty killed in action, of whom fourteen were conscripts. Private Ralph Doonan, a miner from Albert Mines (Sherbrooke), Quebec, was one of the conscripts killed. Only a week earlier, Doonan’s older
brother Fred (5th Canadian Mounted Rifles), also a conscript, had been killed in action at Monchy, east of Arras. Their mother, Annie, would soon receive two telegrams of regret.
In the wake of an additional 5,325 casualties at the D-Q Line, conscripts were more crucial to Currie’s battle strategy than ever before. But successive offensives had taken an enormous toll. Currie was now forced to pause for more than three weeks to prepare for the corps’ biggest challenge yet: Canal du Nord, another daunting part of the Hindenburg Line, was the last and most formidable obstacle among the German defences.
That epic five-day battle began at 5:20 a.m. on Friday, September 27, with an extremely risky assault by just four infantry battalions (elements of three different brigades) across a two-and-a-half-kilometre-wide gap in the unfinished (and dry) portion of the canal. Remarkably, by 8:00 a.m. the canal had been thoroughly breached and, in the titanic struggle that followed, Currie’s forces pushed forward distances ranging from six to nine kilometres. Victory did not come cheap, though. Two Canadian infantry divisions, the first and the fourth, had been thoroughly savaged.
In particular, the 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) had fought its last major engagement of the war, having sustained more than two hundred casualties and twenty-four dead, including eleven conscripts.
Among those draftees was Private Joseph Doyle, a barber from Renfrew, Ontario, who was felled by a shrapnel wound to the chest. He had arrived in France the previous June and had fought at both Amiens and the D-Q Line.
The 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia) suffered almost equally; a third of its thirty-six dead were draftees. Among then was a British-born and college-educated farmhand from Fernie, British Columbia, Private Gordon Mucklow, who was cut down by enemy machine gun fire just west of Haynecourt in his very first action.
Subsequently, in what Currie later described as “five days of the bitterest fighting we ever experienced,” the Canadian Corps drove the Germans even farther back, albeit once more at a very high cost. In fact, attacking on the last day of the battle, October 1, with all four of his divisions already thoroughly exhausted, Currie ran the risk that the German army might turn the tide. In the bitter fighting that followed, Canadian Brigadier General William Griesbach’s 1st Brigade was stopped cold in its advance, while Brigadier General George Tuxford’s 3rd Brigade was nearly overrun — possibly the worst reverse in the splendid history of the 1st Division.
Nowhere, though, was evidence of this debacle more apparent than in the ranks of Lieutenant Colonel Cy Peck’s 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish); it suffered 345 casualties from all ranks, its worst single-day loss of the entire war. More than one hundred of these men were draftees, twenty-eight of whom made the ultimate sacrifice. Among them was Private Ovide Gamache, a Quebec-born clerk from Big River, Saskatchewan, who was killed in action during the attack at Cuvillers. He was twenty years old.
In the six weeks that followed, the German army continued its fighting withdrawal eastward across France, pursued relentlessly by the Canadian Corps and by many other Allied formations. Past Cambrai and into Iwuy, where the 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario) alone sustained 326 casualties (thirty-nine killed, including nineteen conscripts), then through Denain and on to the heavily defended city of Valenciennes, the corps fought its way across the frontier and by November 6 was once again bivouacked in Belgium. Five days later, the guns fell silent. The last Canadian to fall was a conscript, Private George Price, 28th Battalion (Northwest), killed by a sniper moments before the armistice went into effect at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918.
The Hundred Days ended there, but the dying did not stop. Wounded Canadians, many conscripts among them, succumbed to horrible wounds over the next few weeks. Back in England, a more sinister enemy was taking its toll — the Spanish Influenza. Several hundred draftees died there after the war of the flu or other similar bronchopneumonia- related illnesses, while even greater numbers perished later in Canada.
In the aftermath of the Great War, and as Canada counted the immense cost in lives and national treasure, another reality briefly emerged. Conscripts had proven their loyalty and courage on the battlefield. Indeed, in the words of the warrior-poet Siegfried Sassoon, “what stubborn hearted virtues they disguised.”
In time, however, the story of their vital contribution to Canada’s final campaigns of the war was subsumed by the larger and more heroic narrative of the volunteers. Cloaked in myth and obscured in part by the great controversy when conscription once again sharply divided the nation during the Second World War, the sacrifice of these men lay largely buried in archives and personal accounts for nearly a century, their numbers rarely placed in context. But, as historian Desmond Morton once wrote, “evidence has a way of dissolving theories.”
In the case of the 24,132 conscripts who did make it to the front at a defining moment in the history of the Canadian Corps, their legacy is now secure. No longer seen as slackers, shirkers, or cowards, they are simply soldiers who fought valiantly in the Great War. More importantly, the timely movement of these reluctant warriors to the front in 1918 ultimately provided the last essential ingredient for the victory and what General Currie later described as “the unparalleled striking power of our Battalions.”
NO LONGER SEEN AS SLACKERS, SHIRKERS, OR COWARDS, THEY ARE SIMPLY SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT VALIANTLY IN THE GREAT WAR.