Introduction

Critical evaluations of Canada’s military contribution to the First World War generally deal with three major themes. The first is that in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire a greater voice in imperial affairs, the Canadian government promised to raise an expeditionary force too large to be maintained by voluntary enlistment. Conscription for overseas service was the inevitable outcome, and this caused lasting damage to national unity. The second is that too few Canadian-born men enlisted, and the third is that the failure of voluntary enlistment to fill the need was largely the fault of the province of Quebec. The following paper addresses these themes.

The Commitment

On 1 August 1914, the Governor-General of Canada promised the British government that "if unhappily war should ensue, the Canadian people will be united in a common resolve to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire".[1] The country did make sacrifices, but there was no common resolve. A Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was authorized on 6 August 1914 with a proposed strength of 25,000 men. Less than two months later, 31,200 Canadian soldiers and nursing sisters, the largest military force that had ever crossed the Atlantic as a unit, set sail from Quebec.[2] By January 1917 the authorized strength of the CEF had been increased to 500,000, although the government had no clear idea where the men were to be found or how they were to be enticed to enlist. Sir Thomas White (1866-1955), the Minister of Finance, explained that “we simply went on faith, feeling instinctively that means could be found to carry it out”.[3] Means were found, but they left an enduring and bitter legacy. The pressure to “redeem the pledge” of raising and maintaining a force of half a million armed men inevitably led to conscription.[4]

The Resources

In 1914 Canada had a regular army of only 3,110 men and a volunteer militia of 74,213, which was more of a social than a military institution. An army could have been raised under the 1904 Act Respecting the Militia and Defence of Canada, which stipulated that:

All male inhabitants of Canada, of the age 18 years and upwards, and under 60, not exempt or disqualified by law, and being British subjects, shall be liable to service in the Militia; the Governor General may require all the male inhabitants of Canada, capable of bearing arms, to serve in the case of a levée en masse.[5]

However, the Act was not called into play and the existing militia structure was bypassed: the CEF was assembled, organized and outfitted amidst the chaos of a newly-constructed base at Valcartier, Quebec under the personal supervision of the controversial minister of militia and defence, Colonel (later Sir) Sam Hughes (1853-1921).

The war had different effects on the various parts of the country. One must consider its impact on, and the contribution of, its provinces, at the time totalling nine.[6] A total of 619,636 men and women enlisted in the CEF. This included the men who enlisted voluntarily, those conscripted under the Military Service Act of 1917, and the volunteer Nursing Sisters. Tables 1 and 2 show the distribution, by birthplace, of the potential recruits (men aged eighteen to forty-five) in 1911, the last pre-war census. Table 3 shows the pattern of enlistments by birthplace.

Canada
Britain
Foreign
Prince Edward Island
98.4
0.9
0.7
Nova Scotia
87.2
8.6
4.2
New Brunswick
93.4
3.5
3.4
Quebec
87.4
5.9
6.7
Ontario
70.6
18.4
11.1
Manitoba
40.6
32.4
27.0
Saskatchewan
38.5
24.5
37.0
Alberta
30.5
25.8
43.5
British Columbia
26.2
34.6
39.2
Canada
64.5
17.8
17.7

Table 1: Composition of the male population aged eighteen to forty-five years, by place of birth and province of residence in 1911[7]


Canadian British Foreign
Prince Edward Island 1.5 0.05 0.03
Nova Scotia 7.7 2.8 1.4
New Brunswick 5.8 0.8 0.7
Quebec 30.8 7.5 8.6
Ontario 37.0 34.9 21.2
Manitoba 4.5 13.0 10.9
Saskatchewan 5.5 12.7 19.3
Alberta 3.3 10.4 17.6
British Columbia 3.7 17.9 20.4
Canada 100.0 100.0 100.0

Table 2: Percentage distribution, by Province, of the Canadian-born, British-born and Foreign-born male population aged eighteen to forty-five in 1911[8]


Place of Birth
Number enlisted
% of total enlistments
% of
Canadian-born enlistments
PEI
7,168
1.2
2.2
Nova Scotia
32,580
5.3
10.2
New Brunswick
24,430
3.9
7.7
Quebec
67,892
11.0
21.3
Ontario
153,029
24.7
48.0
Manitoba
18,364
3.0
5.8
Saskatchewan
4,763
0.8
1.5
Alberta
3,330
0.5
1.0
British Columbia
7,110
1.1
2.2
NWT
62
0.0
CANADA
318,728
51.4
100.0
Britain and possessions
237,586
38.3
USA
35,599
5.7
Other
23,906
3.9
Unknown
3,817
0.6
Total
619,636
100.0

Table 3: Enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force by place of birth[9]


The number of CEF members born in the three prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) is low, but one had to have been born in 1896 or earlier to be eligible to enlist, and this part of Canada wasn’t heavily populated prior to the turn of the century. The number of men who enlisted in these provinces indicates how much growth had occurred as a result of westward migration and immigration (Table 4).

  Eligible Males[10] % of Eligible Total Enlistment Voluntary Enlistment Conscription Conscripted Men

Attested
Number % Number % Number % Number %
PEI 16,824 1.1 3696 22.0         777 4.6
N.S. 95,760 6.2 35,723 37.0         4,665 4.9
PEI/N.S. 112,854 7.3 39,151 35.0 60,533 27.1 8,886 7.9 5,442 4.8
N.B. 68,097 4.4 27,061 39.7 20,132 29.6 6,929 10.2 5,157 7.6
P.Q. 376,232 24.5 87,480 23.4 58,252 15.5 29,800 7.9 19,050 5.1
ONT 536,169 34.9 241,540 45.3 202,786 37.8 39,869 19.7 27,087 5.1
MAN 108,336 7.0 66,069 61.1 54,677 50.5 11,563 10.7 6,787 6.3
SASK 130,250 8.5 41,619 32.0 31,067 23.9 10,622 8.2 8,204 6.3
ALB 93,375 6.1 48,762 52.4 39,752 42.6 9,133 9.8 5,987 6.4
B.C. 109,448 7.1 55,427 50.8 47,784 43.7 7,786 7.1 5,641 5.2
NWT 2,681 0.2  
 
Canada 1,537,172 100.0 609,571* 31.6 484,983 19.7 124,588 8.1 83,355 5.4

Table 4: Manpower by Province of Enlistment

* There were 10,065 additional enlistments outside Canada, bringing the total to 619,636.

Several factors are responsible for the low enlistment numbers in Quebec. In general, married, Canadian-born men tied to the land, whether English- or French-speaking, did not enlist. The argument that enlistments were generally lower in predominately rural provinces, where farmers believed that food production was a more important contribution to the war effort than military service, holds true in the cases of Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but not Quebec, where the level of urbanization was second only to Ontario. Only New Brunswick had a higher proportion of Canadian-born males of military age, and the proportion of married men aged eighteen to forty-five in Quebec (60 percent) was the highest in Canada. Finally, the anti-enlistment views of many local priests in a predominately Roman-Catholic province cannot be ignored. The question facing most Canadian men contemplating enlistment was "why not?"; for those in Quebec, it was generally "why?".

Difficult economic conditions also influenced rates of enlistment. There was nationwide unemployment by 1914 and summer drought seriously reduced prairie farm income. Railway construction had slowed and the urban construction industry was stagnant.[11] The war led to a cutback in public works spending by all levels of government. Widespread unemployment undoubtedly contributed to the initial rush of volunteers, but became so serious by the summer of 1915 that there was talk of sending unemployed munitions workers to Britain where jobs existed.[12]

The complaint that Quebec didn’t "do its share" in terms of enlistments was heard as early as 1916. A quarter of the nation’s eligible men lived in Quebec, and the enlistments in the province made up 23 percent of the Canadian-born men in the CEF – almost a proportional share – but only 11 percent were Quebec-born. The crucial question is: how many were French-speaking? The question will never be answered. In 1935, the deputy minister of national defence said, “There is not, nor ever can be, any precise, accurate or authentic statement as to the number of French Canadians who served in the Canadian forces in the World War 1914-1919.”[13] A table showing that French-speaking men represented just over 3 percent of the 36,267 men in the First Contingent is of dubious quality because the mother tongue of recruits was not recorded on their Attestation Form.[14]

It has been suggested that the enlistment rate among the Canadian-born was lowest among groups with the longest history in the country. This would certainly include the French-Canadians. A classic argument is that their response to the war can be understood only if one distinguishes between active and passive nationalism, where the latter is demonstrated by people prepared to defend their country only when it is actually threatened. Many French-Canadians were in this group and believed that Canada should concentrate on solving its own internal problems – which included fierce debates over language rights – rather than trying to shape Europe’s destiny.[15]

Many critics of French-Canadian enlistment fail to give the school question the importance it deserves. Ontario’s Regulation 17 of 1912 effectively prohibited the use of French as a language of instruction beyond the first two years of school. Coupled with earlier restrictions on French-language instruction in the Prairies, this led many French-Canadians, who made up 10 percent of the Ontario population, to believe that the first line of defence of what they considered their inalienable rights was not in Flanders, but in Canadian schools.[16]

Many British-born men enlisted in the CEF. Why was there not a similar French-Canadian commitment to their "mother country"? Perhaps there was no longer a sentimental tie to France strong enough to justify dying for her. More than a century of neglect and separation had broken any remaining bonds of intimacy,[17] so that neither Britain nor France was a "mother country" for French-Canadians.[18] Finally, it should be remembered that the CEF was an English-speaking force. At a time when many in Quebec were unilingual, this posed a significant deterrent to enlistment.[19]

The Failure of Voluntary Enlistment and the Introduction of Conscription

By August 1916, the Canadian Corps, four divisions strong, was in France, and a fifth division was being trained in Britain. To this point voluntary recruitment had provided sufficient reserves to maintain unit strength in the field. However, the successful attack against Vimy Ridge on Easter Sunday 1917 exposed the weakness of the voluntary recruiting system. Taking the ridge cost the Corps 10,602 casualties, almost half the month’s total of 23,939. Enlistment brought in only 4,761 men. The government now faced a serious problem. In December 1914 Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden (1854-1937) had categorically assured the country that "there has not been, there will not be compulsion or conscription". He reiterated this promise in January 1916. But with voluntary enlistment now insufficient to replace the losses, he had to choose from three alternatives: reduce the size of each division; disband one or more of the four combat-hardened divisions and redistribute the men; or introduce selective conscription (Figure 1).


Figure 1 Male Enlistments and Casualties CEF IMG.png


Figure 1: Male Enlistments and Casualties, Canadian Expeditionary Force, August 1914 – May 1920.[20]


Because the government never seriously considered the option of reducing the overall size of the CEF, the Prime Minister was left with only one choice. Buoyed by a groundswell of public support for conscription, he announced on 18 May 1917 that conscription would be imposed. The refusal of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie (1875-1933), the commanding officer of the Canadian Corps from June 1917 to the end of the war, to yield to War Office pressure in early 1918 and remove four of the battalions from each division maintained the effectiveness of Canadian units, but ensured that conscription was necessary.

The Military Service Act (MSA) was signed into law on 29 August 1917 and on 13 October 1917, all unmarried men or widowers aged twenty to twenty-four years were ordered to report "for the defence and security of Canada, the preservation of our Empire and of human liberty". However, 94 percent of those called immediately applied for an exemption. The requests for exemption came from men from all walks of life and all parts of the country. By the end of the year 404,395 men had registered, but 380,510 had sought exemption. In Ontario,118,000 of 125,000 sought exemption; in Quebec, 115,000 of 117,000.[21]

The local tribunals rejected anywhere from a few to many of the requests; furthermore, many of the exemptions already granted were cancelled on 19 April 1918. Consequently the MSA provided 124,588 men for the CEF, surpassing its planned objective of 100,000 (Table 5) but leading to what has been characterized as one of the great tragedies of Canadian history.

Status of Men
Number
Class I Registrations
401,822
Granted exemption
221,949
Liable for Military Service
Unapprehended defaulters24,139
Available but not called26,225
179,933
Reported for Military Service
129,569
Permitted to enlist in Imperial forces*
8,445
Taken on strength CEF
124,588
Performed no military service and struck off strength upon being found medially unfit, eligible for exemption or liable for non-combatant service only
16,300
Available for service with CEF units
108,288
Discharged prior to 11 November 1918
637
On strength CEF, 11 November 1918
99,651**
Proceeded overseas
47,509
Taken on strength units in France
24,132

Table 5: Men Raised Under the Military Service Act, 1917[22]

* RAF, Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport and other units.

** The most commonly-reported number is 83,355 which appeared in European War Memorandum #6 (Sessional Paper 179, tabled 28 May, 1920). However, an important statement following the table containing this number is generally overlooked or ignored. In addition to the 83,355 “there were also 24,933 on leave without pay under the Orders in Council relating to compassionate leave and hardship cases, or subsequently discharged, making a total of 108,288”. Furthermore, the Report of the Director of the Military Service Branch notes that none of the reported figures included 26,225 men whose applications for exemption had finally been refused, and who were, therefore, available for call-up at the time of the Armistice.


The Great War could have been a powerful nation-building force, as it was in other Dominions, but conscription fractured the relations between English and French Canada.[23] To most Quebecers, conscription represented English Canadians’ ruthless determination to order young French-Canadian men to die for an exclusively English Canadian cause.[24] To many in English-speaking Canada, conscription was seen as a vengeance that would fall primarily on Quebec.[25]

Critics argue that conscription was a pointless tragedy which divided the country along language, class, occupational and regional lines; destroyed the unity of both the Conservative and Liberal parties; and provided too few additional men to have any significant effect on the outcome of the war.[26] The opposing argument is that it was necessary because the country had an obligation to the men in the trenches. Men in understaffed units were at much greater risk in both attack and defence than in those at full-strength, and devastating losses could occur suddenly and capriciously.[27] For example, between 15 and 18 September 1916, the 22nd Battalion lost a third of its men in the battle for Courcelette. Two weeks later it lost another third at Regina Trench. Replacing so many lost men would have been difficult for any unit, but was especially so for the only French-language battalion in the line of battle. Conscription was the only means of providing the necessary reinforcements.

In 1917 nobody could have predicted when the war would end. Nor could anyone have imagined the scale of the casualties that Canadian forces would suffer during the last hundred days between the start of the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 and the Armistice. During this period the Canadian Corps suffered 45,835 casualties, nearly 20 percent of the total number of CEF casualties and still the highest casualty rate in the nation’s history.[28] The 24,132 conscripted men who reached the front lines by the time of the Armistice helped the Corps achieve its greatest successes of the war. Had the war continued into 1919, as everybody expected it would, the conscripts would have been sufficient to keep the Corps up to strength.

Where were all the "Real" Canadians?

The criticism that too few Canadian-born men had enlisted was already being heard by the time the First Contingent sailed in October 1914 (Table 6).

First Contingent[29]
Conscripts[30]
Total Canadian Expeditionary Force[31]
Place of Birth
Service in Canada
Service Overseas
Total
No.
%
No.
%
No.
%
No.
%
No.
%
Canada
10,880
30.0
92,302
75.6
119,076
61.0
199,652
47.0
318,728
54.4
Anglophone
9,635
26.6
Francophone
1,245
3.4
Newfoundland
1,008
0.5
2,288
0.5
3,296
0.5
England
15,232
42.0
9,106
7.5
29,126
14.9
127,571
30.0
156,697
25.3
Scotland
5,440
15.0
3,519
2.9
7,879
4.0
39,548
9.3
47,427
7.7
Ireland
2,176
6.0
1,756
1.4
4,791
2.5
14,536
3.4
19,327
3.1
Wales
363
1.0
339
0.2
946
0.4
3,773
0.9
4,719
0.8
Total Br. Isles
32,211
64.0
12.1
42,742
21.9
185,428
43.6
228,170
36.8
Other British
1,091
0.9
1,467
0.8
4,653
1.1
6,120
1.0
U.S.A.
130
0.4
8,139
6.7
15,633
8.0
19,966
4.7
35,599
5.7
Other
36
--
5,894
4.8
11,391
5.8
12,515
2.9
23,906
3.9
Not stated
2,010
5.6
3,730
1.9
87
3,817
.06
Total
36,267
100.0
122,146
100.0
195,047
100.0
424,589
100.0
619,636
100.0

Table 6: Composition of the CEF by Place of Birth


Critics didn’t distinguish between British-born immigrants who had arrived as adults, and those who had been brought to Canada as children, but the fact that a volunteer’s place of birth was considered important from the very beginning of the war indicates that Canadians believed that the distinction mattered.[32]

The national distress over the perceived failure of the Canadian-born to "do their duty" may be rooted in the myth of the invincible "citizen-soldier" and the alleged superiority of the rugged Canadian lumberjack, farmer or fisherman over the effete subjects of autocratic, militaristic European nations. The British readily seized the image of Canadians as robust, free-spirited pioneers in spite of the fact that the image of the rugged outdoorsman as the backbone of the country’s army was false.[33] Only about 6 percent of the men who fought at Vimy were farmers or ranchers, 19 percent were clerical workers, and 65 percent manual workers. By war’s end, because of conscription, farmers, fishermen, hunters and lumbermen comprised 22 percent of the CEF and industrial workers 36 percent. Morton noted that "even white collar workers (126,387) outnumbered the 123,060 farmers", although this is misleading since he included 15,023 students in the former number.[34]

British-born men made a much greater proportional contribution to the CEF than any other group. Of the roughly 300,000 men born in Great Britain and British possessions, 72 percent volunteered their services, and 63 percent were posted overseas. The comparable figures for the eligible Canadian-born male population were 20 and 18 percent, respectively.

Eligible
First Contingent
Total
Volunteers
Conscripts
CEF Overseas
Total CEF
Canadian
1,113,244
1.0
20.3
8.3
17.9
28.6
British*
307,419
7.6
72.1
5.1
62.6
77.3
Other
116,509
1.9
42.3
12.0
28.0
51.1
total
1,537,172
2.3
32.6
7.9
27.6
40.3

Table 7: Components of the CEF as a percent of eligible male population by place of birth

* Including the British Isles and colonies


By the time of the Armistice, conscription had redressed the balance in favour of the Canadian-born. Just over half of the total enlistments in the CEF were Canadians, and they made up the largest national group of both the volunteers and the Overseas Force (Table 8), although their proportional representation in the overseas force was overshadowed by men from Newfoundland, England, Scotland and Wales (Table 9).

Number of enlistments
First Contingent
Total Volunteers
Conscripts
CEF Overseas
Total CEF
Canada
318,728
34.0
45.5
75.6
47.0
51.4
Britain*
237,586
64.0
44.6
12.9
44.8
37.8
Other
63,322
6.0
9.9
11.5
7.7
10.8
619,636
36,267
497,490
122,146
424,589
100.0

Table 8: Components of the CEF as a percent of men by place of birth

* Including the British Isles and colonies


Nationality
Total CEF
Overseas
service
Home
service
% of group overseas
Canadian
318,728
199,652
119,076
62.6
Newfoundland
3,296
2,288
3,296
69.4
English
156,697
127,571
29, 126
81.4
Scottish
47,427
39,548
7,879
83.4
Welsh
4,719
3,773
946
80.0
Irish
19,327
14,536
4,791
52.2
Other British
6,120
4,653
1,467
76.0
Total British
237,586
192,369
47,505
81.0
American
35,599
19,966
15,633
56.1
Other foreign
23,906
12,575
11,391
52.4
Total foreign
59,505
32,481
27,024
54.6
Not stated
3,817
87
3,730
2.3
Total
619,636
424,589
195,047
68.5

Table 9: CEF by Nationality and Area of Service[35]

Conclusion

Most of the men who flocked to the newly built armouries to enlist in 1914, and those who followed, were neither militiamen nor Canadians.[36] A century on, that hardly matters. The men and women who participated in the First World War were not concerned with how later generations would perceive them. They could no more foresee the future than we can. They made critical decisions in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, based on the information available at the time and their own personal assessments of what mattered.[37] Their actions cannot be properly assessed through the lens of a world removed from their daily reality. As one prominent Canadian historian remarked, “Canadians, as an immigrant people, wisely put more stock in commitment than birthplace”.[38] There is no shame in the fact that the CEF, one of the country’s first great national institutions, was dominated by the foreign-born. Wherever they were born, whatever their reasons for enlistment might have been, all the men and women in the CEF wore Canadian insignia and the headstones of those who died bear a maple leaf. Whatever they may have been before they joined the CEF, they were Canadians ever after, and their service and sacrifice is inextricably woven into the historical fabric of the country. It forms the foundation for the belief that their commitment enabled Canada to come of age and, for the first time, stand proudly in its own right on the world stage.[39]


Christopher Sharpe, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Section Editor: Tim Cook