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


Figure 1.--With the outbreak of war in Europe, Canada rushed soldiers to Britain which became the First Canadian Division. Conscription proved, however, to be a very contentious issue in Canada. A Canadian reader tells us that here early in the war a boy 6 or 7 yeas-old walking with his father who is probably about to depart for Britain. He may have been involved in the Dieppe Raid (1942) or the D-Day landings. The photograph was taken in Quebec. The boy wears a dark shirt, short pants longer than usual, and long stocking rolled on his ankles. We of course are left with the question, did the little by here get his daddy back after the War.

Canada entered World War II reluctantly to support Britain (1939). Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted that Canada control its war effort, in contrast to its World war I experience. King at first believed that the French would prove a bulwark to the Germans and that hoped that Canada might only have to train aircrews and manufacture arms for the Allies. King and his important ally in Québec, Ernest Lapointe, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service as had been introduced in World War I. The collapse of France and NAZI victories elsewhere in Europe meant that a huge Allied army would have to be raised. As a result the issue of conscription rose again. King did not dare introduce conscription without overwealming public support. King called for a national plebiscite on conscription (April 24, 1942). The Canadians by a ratio of 3 to 1 voted for conscription (April 27). The English-speaking majority voted ovewealming for conscription. The French-Canadians in Québec rejected it. This was an interesting vote as the primary use of the Canadian Army was to be in Europe to liberate France. We suspect the vote was more of French-Canadian attitudes toward the British than attitudes toward the French. Evven after the plebecite, however, King did not immediatedly introduce national conscription. In fact he dismissed his pro-conscription defense minister, Colonel J. L. Ralston. As a result, the Canadian Army which stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944) was a voluntary force. King did not introduce conscription until late in the War (late 1944). King remained popular even in Qué in part because he was clearly reluctant on the concscription issue. Few Canadian conscripts served overseas.

Conscription in World War I

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 (19217). 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. 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 drafgooning 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).

War Erupts in Europe (September 1939)

The British and French backed down to Hitler and the NAZIs at Munich. Hitler pledged to make no more terrtorial claims in Europe. He broke that pledge within months and began a campaugn against Poland. He felt he had been cheated out of his war at Munich. This time he did not deal with the Allies, but with Poland directly, knowing that would not back down. The NAZis invaded Poland with Blitzkrieg (September 1, 1939). The British and French honored their ciommitments to Poland and declared war (September 3).

Canada Joins Britain (September 1939)

Canada entered World War II reluctantly to support Britain (1939). Canada and the other Dominions entered Workd War I as dependencies of Britain. The situation was differentv in World war II. The status of Canada had changed with the Treaty of Westminster (1927). Canada was now an independent country within the Commonwealth, but dutilfully declared war on Germany. Canada rushed soldiers to Britain which became the First Canadian Division. When the British Expeditionary Force was deployed to France, the First Canadian Division which subsequently arrived remained in Britain. After Dunkirk (May 1940), it was the only fully equipped division in Britain facing a possible German invasion.

Canadian Plans

Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted that Canadian participation in World War I would be different than Workd War I. He was determined that Cabada control its war effort, in sharp contrast to its World War I experience. King at first believed that the French would prove a bulwark to the Germans and that hoped that Canada might only have to train aircrews and manufacture arms for the Allies. To avoid a contentous national debate, Prime Minister King assured Canadians that connscription would not be necessary (1917). King's important ally in Québec, Ernest Lapointe, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas service as had been introduced in World War I.

Fall of France (May-June 1940)

The German Western Offensive launched May 10, 1940 smashed the British Exdpeditionary Force (BEF) abnd the French Army in only a few weeks. It was a starling development. The world including President Roosevelt in American and Primne Minister King in Canada were shocked. The First Canadian Division was not deployed with the BEF to France. Most of the BEF made in back to Britain as part of the Dunkirk evacuation (May 1940). They had to leave their weapons, including artillery and vehicles behind. Thus for several weeks, the First Canaduan Division was few units fully equipped and prepared to repel the expected German cross-channel invasion.

Conscription Debate

The collapse of France and NAZI victories elsewhere in Europe meant that a huge Allied army would have to be raised. The French army had been the allied bulwark in World War I. Even saving Britain was in question in 1940. If the allies were to reenter the Continent, a massive army would bevneeded. Even America which was neutral for 2 years initiated a draft in the face of intense opposition from isolationists organized by the American First Committee. This was the first peace-time conscription in American history. The conscription issue had divided Canadians in World war I. French Canadians resisted cinscription. The issue rose again in Canada. It was the most difficult political issue Canada faced during the War, far more serious thgan the decesion to join Britain in the war. And Primeminister Mackenzie King faced more problems over conscription in his Liberal Party than with the political Opposition. French Canadians in particular volunteered in much smaller numbers than English speaking Canaians. French Canadians tended to see the war as England's war and were for the most part by France's plight. The conscription issue was temoprarily settled by a general election (March 26, 1940). It was the first election since the onset of the War, but it took place before the fall of France. King achieved a substantial paralimentary majority. The results were interpreted as approving the decesion to go gto war, but also supporting a limited war effort. The Quebecois lack of lack of enthusiasm for the war was evident. As was the strong opposition to conscription. This was a continuation of World War I trends. Voluntary emlistments in Quebec were about 4 percent of the population, compared to about 10 percent in other areas of Canada. (The actual percentage of Quebecois was probably even smaller thn this ujects. Many enlistments in Quebec were probably Anglos living there.

Plebecite (April 1942)

The pace of the War increased after the general election (March 1940). First France fell (June 1940), but Britain held on in the Battle of Britain (July-September 1940). hen the German invasion of the Soviet Union failed to destroy the Red Army and finally America enterd the War (December 1941). The Allies had to build a massive army to renter the Continent and defeat the Germans and for this, conscription was needed. Primeminister King did not dare, however, introduce conscription without overwealming public support. Public support fpr conscription increased throughout Canad, except in Quebec. King decided to hold a national plebecite to release releasing the government from its pledge onconscription (April 24, 1942). The Canadians by a ratio of 3 to 1 voted for conscription (April 27). The English-speaking majority voted ovewealming for conscription. The French-Canadians in Québec rejected it, the only province to do sp. This was an interesting vote as the primary use of the Canadian Army was to be in Europe to liberate France. We suspect the vote was more of French-Canadian attitudes toward the British than attitudes toward the French, although we are not entirely sure how the Quebecois viewed the French. .

French Canadians

French Canadians did volunteer. We do not at this time have statistics on the relative rate of volunteering in English and French speaking Canada. We have the impression that French-speaking Canadians did not volunteer in the same proportionsl numbers as English speaking Canadians, but we do not yet have precise data. And as Canadians have mentioned to us, there were differences within the French Canadian community, primarily between the Quebecois and the French in the Maritime Provinces and other areas of Canada.

Maritime provinces

National issues during the War sometimes overshadowed the normaly prevalent provincial ones. An English speaker in Quebec tells us,"There is a difference even then between the French living in English Canada and the French who lived in Quebec. Most of the French who live in Canada outside of Quebec especially then were almost 100 percent Canadian in thought and heart. They grew up with different ideologies and beliefs then the French did here in Quebec. It is hard to explain it but there always was a difference that even exists today except the percentage would be lower because there are many French who were born and raised and schooled in Quebec who decided for job reasons to leave Quebec territory but not Quebec ideology." The Acadian (French speakers in the Maritime provinces) was generally similar to their respomse during World War I. They volunteered in rouhhly the same proportion as Anglophones in the Maritimes and other provinces. The Acadian MPs in Parliament were all Liberal and supported the Government, voting in favour of conscription (July 34, 1942).

Quebec

The lack of support for the War and resistance to conscription still affects attitudes in Quebec toward the War. A Quebec reader writes, "Many French Canadians did volunteer. Many French Canadians were among the dead and captured at Dieppe (1942). When I was a student, I worked at the Molson Brewery in Montreal and my boss was one of those taken prisonners by the Germans at Dieppe. Would you be interested to join the army when you know that, as a minority, you will be exploited like Blacks in dirty battles? I will give you the exact number of soldiers who died for 'Liberty'. The sacrifices of Americans at Omaha Beach on D-Day resulted in great benefits for America. America became the most wealty country in the world. It was not the same with Canada. And to be sure French Canadians didn't want to fight for this atheist and revolutionary country called France. Québec, the 'priests province' was far from France and even today, we are suspicious against this country. You have no idea how Québec and France are against each other in French speaking countries in Africa, mainly in Education." [HBC note: We like to include comments from readers as they not only include a great deal of useful information as well as reveal the outlook of readers around the world. This of course does not always mean that we agree with the comments. We diasgarre with our reader here in it was World War II that made America a great power. America was a very reluctant participant in the War. What has made America a great power is the strenth of its economy and the ingenuity and energy of its people. Of course these attributes were to make America a fearsome adversary once it was forced into the War. Also while Blacks were discriminated against in World War II, they were not exploited. In fact they were largely kept out of combat. And it is also not true that Canada (both French and Englidh) did not benefit from the War. Our reader should mull over just what would have happened if the Germans had won the War.] Another Canadian reader writes, "This issue has been a lingering topic here in Canada. It is not that the Quebecois did not want to help liberate France; they did not want to help the British because to many French Canadians the British was still the enemy of the French here. It has been pervasive in our Federal and Provincial politics for many years. And it is brought up every time the talk of Quebec separation is on the books."

Conscription (June 1944)

Even after the plebecite, however, King did not immediatedly introduce national conscription. In fact he dismissed his pro-conscription defense minister, Colonel J.L. Ralston. As a result, the Canadian Army which stormed ashore at Juno Beach on D-Day (June 6, 1944) was a voluntary force. King did not introduce conscription until late in the War (late 1944). King remained popular even in Québec in part because he was clearly reluctant on the concscription issue. Few Canadian conscripts served overseas.

General de Gualle (1967)

The symbol of a Free France during World war II became general Charles de Gaulle. Candaian soldiers played an important role in both D-Day and the resulting liberation of France. De Gualle later became President of France. He made an official visit to Canada (1967). On the balcony of the Montréal City Hall, he was impressed by the crowd shouting "VIVE LE QUEBEC LIBRE". So he responded with what seemed to be heresy in Canada He shouted "VIVE LE QUEBEC LIBRE" He endorsed the proclamation of an independant state in North America. From that time, Independance is a recurrent theme in any election in Québec. We wonder if De Gaulle knew that the Canadian soldiers who were responsible for liberating his country were mostly English speaking Canadians and the Quebecois generally opposed overseas service. Hopefully readers will have some insight here. These issues are not widely known outside of Canada. A Canadian reader writes, "I do not know if De Gualle ws aware of the resistabce in Quebec to the draft and overseas service which meant participation in the liberation of France. He might have just been trying to woo the crowd with a political speech for the audience in front of him and not caring about the rest of Canada."







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Created: 1:49 AM 12/5/2004
Last updated: 8:38 AM 6/12/2015