1918: Year of the Con­script


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Pa­trick M. Den­nis

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.”


An anti- con­scrip­tion pa­rade at Vic­to­ria Square, Mon­treal, on May 24, 1917.

As the war dragged on, re­cruit­ing ef­forts be­came less flow­ery and more blunt.

A Cana­dian bat­tal­ion marches past Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den and Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Arthur Cur­rie in July 1918.

A group of wounded sol­diers stands in front of graf­fiti con­demn­ing able-bod­ied men who had not en­listed to serve in the war, circa 1917–18.

A pro- con­scrip­tion poster from the bit­ter 1917 elec­tion.

Leg­is­la­tion passed be­fore the 1917 elec­tion en­sured sup­port for con­scrip­tion by en­fran­chis­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel and their fe­male rel­a­tives back home.

Prime Min­is­ter Sir Robert Bor­den.

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