World War I: Canada--Conscription and Age of Soldiers


Figure 1.--Here we see an English-speaking Toronto family in 1918. The father may be about to leave for France. Conscription proved to be very controversial in Canada. Ironically French-Canadians had little interest in saving France from the Germans. Most of the Canadians who fought and died in France were English Canadians. Here the adults are dressed up, but the children wear more formal clothing. Click on the image for a more detailed discussion.

Canada sought to create a 0.5 million man army through voluntary recruitment, but this effort failed. Support for conscription to build this army grew. Prime Minister Robert Borden spoke out and insisted that conscription was a military necessity (1917). German successes on the Eastern Front made it clear that the Germans would have substantial forces to deploy on the Western front that could resolve the War in 1918. British officials appealed for more help from the Dominions. Borden saw the military necessity and he also wanted to strengthen Canada's voice within the Empire. Borden crossed the Atlantic to see the situation of the Canadian troops in France. Contrary to what might have been expected, there was no special connection of French Canadians with France during World war I. Brorden and the Government were not popular among French Canadians. There were no separate French Canadian units. Nor were their Frech Canadian officers among the senior commanders. Ethnic tensions in Canada worsened during the War. Especially troubling fror French Canadians was that guarantees for French language schools in Manitoba and Quebec were ressinded. This was part of the reason that recruitment in Quebec was especially disappoingting. Quebec was about a third of Canada, but contributed only about 5 percent of enlistments. As the war situation worsened even fewer French Canadians volunteered. Candian units sustained more than 20,000 casualties during Spring 1917. During that same period, fewer than 100 men volunteered in Quebec. Borden pushed a consprition law through Parliament--the Military Service Act, believing it necessary to support the army in France. The Act made all Canaian men 20-45 years of age eligible for military service. French Canadians saw this as the English dragooning them into the War. There were draft riots in Montreal and in Quebec City. Borden attempted to form a coalition Government. He asked iberal leader Laurier to join the Conservatives to form a Government. Laurier refused, in part because of the conscription issues as well as other political concerns, but some Liberals did join the Union (Coalition) Government. Bordem introduced two new laws (the Military Votors Act and the War Time Elections Act). These two acts were highly controversial, but produced a massive majority for the Union Goivernment (1918).

Voluteer Army

Canada sought to create a 0.5 million man army through voluntary recruitment, but this effort failed. Battlefiekd losses reduced the army that Canada deployed in France. And it became increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers back home. Many of the men who felt strongest had volunteered in 1914 and 15.

Conscription Debte (1917)

Pressure for conscription to build this army grew. Prime Minister Robert Borden spoke out and insisted that conscription was a military necessity (1917). German successes on the Eastern Front made it clear that the Germans would have substantial forces to deploy on the Western front that could resolve the War in 1918. British officials appealed for more help from the Dominions. Borden saw the military necessity and he also wanted to strengthen Canada's voice within the Empire. Borden crossed the Atlantic to see the situation of the Canadian troops in France. The ensuing debate was one of the most empasioned and divisive political issue in Canadian history. There was considerable opposition. The French-Canadians in nparticular were opposed. There was also opposition from farmers, many of whom were of German ancestry. Not only did they not want to fight the Germans, but ther was considerble pacifist feeling. Avoiding conscription and Prussian militarism were some of the reasons their ancestors had left Germany in the first place. The same phenomenon was observanle inthe merican Midwest. There was also opposition from unionized workers and non-British immigrants. Support came from English-speaking Canadians, British immigrants, the families of soldiers, and older Canadians. The debate evolved into bitter charges on boh sides. The opponents were ccused of disloyalty, cowardice, and immorality . The supporters were accused of imperialism, stupidity, war-mongering, and bloodlust.

French Canadians

Contrary to what might have been expected, French Canadians felt no special connection with France during World war I. French Canadians felt no compulsion to save France. They were more likely to see the War as a British war of no concern to them. Most of the volunteers recruited were Anglo, not French Canadians. Prime Minister Brorden and the Government were not popular among French Canadians. There were no separate French Canadian units. Nor were their Frech Canadian officers among the senior commanders. Ethnic tensions in Canada worsened during the War. Especially troubling fror French Canadians was that guarantees for French language schools in Manitoba and Quebec were ressinded. This was part of the reason that recruitment in Quebec was especially disappoingting. Quebec was about a third of Canada, but contributed only about 5 percent of enlistments. As the war situation worsened even fewer French Canadians volunteered. Candian units sustained more than 20,000 casualties during Spring 1917. During that same period, fewer than 100 men volunteered in Quebec.

Military Service Act (1917)

The bitter conscription debate raged through most of 1917 and continued into 1918. As he debate raged, The legislation, the Military Service Act, slowly made its way through the federal Parliament (summer 1917). Prime Minister Borden finally suceeded in pushing the consprition law through, believing it was necessary to support the army in France. The bill was finlly passed by a badly divided Parliament (late-August). This occurred while the Canadian Corps, was involved in its most infamous battle of the War--Passchendaele (July-November 1917). The Act made all Canadian men 20-45 years of age eligible for military service. French Canadians saw this as the English dragooning them into the War. There were, however, provision foe many exemptions.

Coalition Government and Election Laws

Borden attempted to form a coalition Government. He asked iberal leader Laurier to join the Conservatives to form a Government. Laurier refused, in part because of the conscription issues as well as other political concerns, but some Liberals did join the Union (Coalition) Government. Bordem introduced two new laws (the Military Voters Act and the War Time Elections Act). These two acts were highly controversial, but essentially stacked the deck for the upcoming Federal election. hegoal was to enfranchised likely pro-conscription voters and disenfranchise anti-conscription voters. The Military Voters Act extended the franchise to all military personnel and nurses. This included women, regardless of their length of residence. The Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to the wives, mothers, and sisters of soldiers. These like the nurses were first women permitted to vote in Canadian federal elections. All of these groups tended to strongly favor conscription because reinforcements would aid their men on the Western Front. The Act also denied the franchise to recent immigrants from enemy countries (enemy aliens) who were not yet subjects (citizens). An exception was made for enemy aliens with a family member in the service.

Federal Elections (December 1917)

Conscription dominated the Federal elections (December 1917). It was on of the most bitter election in Canadian. The opposing leaders were Conservative / Unionist Sir Robert Borden and Liberal Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Borden campaigning on a Unionist (coalition) ticket suceeded attracted many English-speaking Liberals. He won a decisive victory, but lost heavily in the Francophone areas, especially the important province of Quebec. While this did not affct the1918 lection, it would viyally estroy th Conservtive Party in Quebec, affecting selections for some 50 years. Borden's Unionist margin of victory was larger than the votes gained by these controversial measures, but each helped pad the vUnionist margins. More than 90 percent of military votes as expected were were Unionist.

Easter Anti-Conscription Riots (March-April 1918)

The Unionist Government began to apply the Military Service Act (Januzry 1, 1918). The Act made 404,385 men eligible for military service. Most (some 385,510 men applid for exemption. The Military Service Act was vaguely writtn and offered many exemptions. Virtually all who applied suceeded in avoiding military service. The intensity of the conscription debate sparked violent protests in Quebec. Anti-war and anti-conscription feeling mixd with French-Canadian nationalism caused a weekend of rioting (March 28 - April 1, 1918). The spark was Dominion Police detained a French-Canadian man who had not presented his draft exemption papers. Even though he a released, an ensensed mob of some 200 men besiged the St. Roch District Police Station where the man had been brieflyndetained. By the evening of th next day (Good Friday) ome 15,000 rioters [estimtes vary] sacked the conscription registration office and two pro-conscription newspapers in Quebec City.

Impact

Conscription although approved, in the end had a minimal impact on the Allied war effort. At the time of the Armistice ending th War (November 1918), only 48,000 of the new conscripts had been sent overseas. And only half of wthem actually served at the front. Some 50,000 conscripts remained in Canada. They old havevbeen sent to France had the war continued into 1919. Although conscription had little impact on the War effort, it had a huge impct on Canadian politics. Conscription was a sholy polarizing issue. It cut across provinces, ethnic and linguistic groups, communities, and even families. Supporters saw it as a needed boost to a faltering, but vital war effort, Opponents believd it was an oppressive act passed illegally by a government rpresenting Britain rather than Canada. Farmers sought agricultural exemptions. There was good reason for this. The German and Austran drafting of farm labor resulted in food shortahes that unddrmined the War effort. The Borden's government, uneasy about the farm vote, agreed to limited exemptions, primarilyn for farmers' sons, but then renegged on the promise after the election. The resullting outrage among farmers, many in the West, led to the appearance of new federal and provincial parties. French-speaking Canadians were the largest and most vocal opposition group. Tens of thousands men refusing to register for conscription. Effort to arrest draft dodgers met resistance in Quebec.







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Created: 12:54 AM 12/5/2004
Last updated: 1:15 AM 5/28/2014