An Analysis as to Why Conscription Was Introduced in Canada during World War II and Why it Was Less Divisive than Conscription during World War I
Compulsory military service is certainly nothing new in human affairs, and the practice has almost always been met with widespread resistance by those who are most affected. History has shown time and again that those most who are most directly affected by compulsory military service have been the poor and disenfranchised members of a society, with many military conflicts being viewed by such individuals as a "rich man's war" where advantaged individuals are exempted from such obligatory service. It is this perception of the military conflict itself, though, which can have a profound effect on how well-received compulsory military service is viewed by those who will be compelled to fight in it. This was the clearly case with military conscription in Canada during World War I and II, with a veritable crisis resulting from the draft during the former while being met with less resistance during the latter. The purpose of this paper is to determine why construction was introduced in Canada during the World Wars and to identify those factors that contributed to its unpopularity during the First World War compared to the Second. A summary of the research will be provided in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Canadian Conscription in World War I. According to Black's Law Dictionary, "conscription" is "compulsory drafting of persons into military service."
It stands to reason that when people are compelled to do something against their will -- particularly something that might be life-threatening -- there will be serious repercussions. In his essay, "The Politics of War," Jack Mcenany points out that, "If we go way back prior to independence - while the country was under English rule - the American colonists were expected to fight in wars that the British government was fighting with France. There were a number of these in the early and middle eighteenth century. But the colonists rebelled against conscription; they rebelled and attacked the people who were enlisting them forcibly in the wars."
When World War I began, Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Samuel Hughes set aside the existing plans for military mobilization and made a direct appeal to the young men of the country. At the time, Canada was just beginning to recover from a major recession; there were tens of thousands of British-born young men who were unemployed and responded to the call to arms.
An initial contingent of 33,000 men left for England in October 1914 as the basis for the First Canadian Division; by April 1915, the Canadian troops had experienced their first major action in the Second Battle of Ypres, where they were some of the first Allied troops to be gassed.
According to Oscar D. Skelton:
It was in April, 1915 at the second battle of Ypres -- or, as it is more often termed in Canada, St. Julien or Langemarck -- that the quality of the men of the first contingent was blazoned forth. The Germans had launched a determined attack on the junction of the French and Canadian forces, seeking to drive through to Calais. The use, for the first time, of asphyxiating gases drove back in confusion the French colonial troops on the left of the Canadians.
As more volunteers enlisted in the Canadian forces, Prime Minister Robert Borden authorized additional recruitment and by the spring of 1917, the country had fielded four divisions on the battlefields of Europe with an additional division stationed in England.
The Canadian military forces distinguished themselves but at a high cost; out of approximately 625,000 Canadian troops who served in World War I, around 60,000 were killed in action or died in active service, and another 173,000 were wounded; besides these heavy casualties, the Canadian government was experiencing some profound economic and social problems on the home front as well, with high prices and inflation resulting in strikes and lockouts that grew to crisis proportions by the last year of the war.
Increasingly, World War I came to be viewed as by many Canadian citizens -- particularly those who were English Canadians -- as a national war being prosecuted by Canada rather than a British war in which Canadians were simply participating.
Further, by 1917, the Canadian government had imposed strict economic controls that were unpopular (including the introduction of income taxes); in the spring of 1917, the growing manpower shortages resulted in the institution of conscription. According to Bercuson:
Conscription tore Canada apart. French Canada had never been enthusiastic about the war, and many fewer French Canadians volunteered for military service than did English Canadians. To make matters worse, French nationalist feeling had been reawakened by new troubles with respect to the use of the French language in schools in French districts in Ontario and Manitoba. French Canada, led by Laurier, opposed conscription but was overridden by the formation of a Union government -- almost wholly English in personnel -- and in the wartime election of 1917. But Canada was divided as it had not been since 1837 (emphasis added).
Nevertheless, the war plans proceeded and in 1917, the British government under Prime Minister Lloyd George created the Imperial War Cabinet comprised of the prime ministers of the respective dominions. By early 1917, though, is became clear that there were going to be severe manpower shortages because not enough men were volunteering to make up the Canadian army's heavy battlefield losses; in response, the government decided that conscription was an essential step if the Dominion was to effectively prosecute the war. According to Solberg:
This was a momentous step, for the war was not popular in Quebec. The French Canadian enlistment rate was already lower than the national rate, and bitter opposition to the draft mounted in French Canada. On the other hand, prairie farmers, along with most of the rest of English Canada, supported conscription on the premise that the West had contributed men very heavily, and that the manpower burden should be shared nationally. Nonetheless, many voices in the West declared that a 'Union' or Liberal-Conservative coalition government must accompany conscription to ensure that it was free from party politics.
This point is echoed by Lavin, who reports, "The fact was, however, that the united war effort was directed from London. War losses and the Canadian conscription crisis lay behind the declaration of the Imperial War Conference of 1917 that the Dominions were 'autonomous nations of the Imperial Commonwealth.'"
As a result, from March 29 through April 1, 1918, there was a period of violent rioting in Quebec City over the enforcement of the Canadian conscription laws. "The unrest culminated in a massive demonstration on Easter Sunday in which the cavalry beat back the crowds with truncheons and ax-handles. Several civilians were killed. When the government rescinded its exemptions of farmers from the draft, disorders and demonstrations broke out in Ottowa as well."
In his overview of Canadian history, Carl E. Solberg makes the point that conscription in Canada during World War I represented a potential threat to the nation's very survival. For example, this author reports that at the time, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden proposed a Union form of government to the Liberal party, headed by former Prime Minister Laurier, in early 1917; however, Laurier was vehemently opposed to conscription and believed that could actually result in a civil war and rejected Borden's proposal.
"Nonetheless," Solberg adds, "many English-speaking Liberals did not agree with their leader, and when the conscription bill passed Parliament after a series of bitterly debated sessions in the summer of 1917, numerous Liberals voted with the Conservative majority."
Consequently, by the late summer months of 1917, conscription had assumed a predominant position in Canadian public debate. "In the prairies it overshadowed the region's economic grievances and eclipsed the third-party movement. And nationally it marked the beginning of a deep split in the Liberal Party between French Canadians and the many English Canadians who were now ready to support a Union government."
The need for a Union was reinforced among the Western Liberal faction when the Borden Parliament enacted the Wartime Elections Act; this legislation disenfranchised all former citizens of enemy countries who had become naturalized after 1902. A concomitant law enfranchised overseas soldiers and their female relatives, while also granting active duty military troops with the right to vote in any constituency they preferred or even to become a "voter at large" and allow the government apply their individual ballot to any constituency it desired. One pundit suggested that the purpose of these acts was, "To give the vote to those who would support the government" and "to take it away from those who would oppose it."
Taken together, all of these powerful elements contributed to the enormously divisive nature of military conscription in Canada during World War I in contrast to how the institution was viewed during World War II; these issues…