National Unity and Conscription in Canada

November 14, 2018 § 2 Comments

The First World War has a complicated legacy in Canada.  When the war broke out in 1914, Canada was by and large still a colony of the United Kingdom, despite Confederation in 1867.  The young Dominion’s foreign policy was still controlled in London (as was the case for all of the Dominions: South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia in addition to Canada).  Thus, the UK went to war, so, too, did Canada.  As our historians tell us, by the time the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada had arrived on the global stage.

Men_of_the_CEF_10th_Alberta_Battalion_pass_Stonehenge_1914The Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War had performed more than admirably.  The tenacity and valour of Canadian troops became legendary.  For example, despite the lack of complete and formal training, the CEF quickly established itself as a forward-leading trench invading force.  The performance of the CEF was made all the more impressive, I argue, given the fact that they were not all that well-equipped (this seems to be a constant for the Canadian military).  For example, they were saddled with the underperforming and quick-to-jam Ross rifle (due to graft and corruption in Ottawa, of course), and malfunctioning machine guns.  And then there was the Canadian knock-off of British webbing that tended to breakdown and disintegrate in trench warfare.

The combination of the performance of the CEF, along with the the diplomacy and leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden, the international community, and most importantly, the British, realized that the small country across the Atlantic had arrived (South Africa was similarly spoken of).  This, ultimately, led to the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 which finally gave control over their foreign affairs to the Dominions, an important step on the road to independence on Canada’s part.


But.  The other side of this argument, and one that seems to be in retreat finally, is that the First World War was the glue that brought Canada together.  Canada was comprised initially of four colonies at Confederation in 1867, Canada (modern-day Québec and Ontario), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.  At the outset, the Nova Scotians wanted out.  Three of those four were Anglo-Protestant colonies/provinces. The fourth was French Catholic.  And then the impact of immigration brought people from all around Europe and Asia as the country spread across the Prairies and British Columbia, an old British colony, joined up in 1871. Prince Edward Island finally joined in 1873.  And the Prairie Provinces  were brought in in 1905.  But, this was not a united nation.  No, it was a regional one, with local concerns mattering more than national ones.

This is part of what made then-Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Policy so important, as it re-oriented the economies of the new provinces from a north-south axis to an east-west one.  This was also the importance of the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1886, from Montréal to Vancouver.  Another, older line connected Montréal with Halifax, but it’s worth noting that a few decades before Confederation, Montreal merchants built a railway to connect them to Portland, ME, for a year-round port, rather than Halifax.  But even still, old habits were hard to break and Canadians tended to remain local, rather than national.

Hence the narrative that the First World War brought us together.  The problem is, of course, that this story is either only a partial truth or a complete untruth, depending on how you look at it.

The partially true version is that the war did unite Anglo Canada, that the concerted war effort across Anglo Canada did work to foster a sort of unity and common cause from Halifax to Vancouver (Newfoundland did not join Canada until 1949).  This includes, to a large degree, the Anglo population of Montréal because, of course, the Canadian economy was run from there a century ago.

But, if we flip the view, this narrative is a myth (but, to be fair, countries do need myths, and Canada is a fine example is what happens when there aren’t any, or at least not many).  The reason this is a myth is because of Québec.

As noted, Québec is a charter member of Canada and it is the oldest European colony in what became Canada.  Québec was and remains a predominately French-speaking culture, heavily influenced by Catholicism historically.  And this put it at odds with Anglo-Protestant Canada.

The First World War was perhaps the first time that the rest of the country even noticed something looking like French Canadian nationalism.  The editor of the influential Montréal newspaper, Le Devoir, Henri Bourassa, dismissed the First World War as a European and British problem.  He spoke for many, both French- and English- speaking Quebecers at the time.

When the 199th Battalion of the Irish-Canadian Rangers began to recruit in the spring of 1916, the commanders found it a tough slog.  The Irish of Montréal, both Protestant and Catholic, were becoming increasingly reluctant to sign up (you can read all about this in my book, Griffintown, of course).

But it’s when conscription was enacted in Canada that public anger in Québec boiled over.  As Bourassa had continually argued since the onset of war in 1914, French Canadians had no loyalties to either the British or the French (the UK’s ally in WWI, of course).  No, he argued, their sole loyalty was to Canada.  And this war was a war of imperialism that had nothing to do with Québec.

Nonetheless, through a combination of a crooked election and the political will of Borden, conscription came to Canada and was enacted on 1 January 1918.  Of 404,000 men who were considered to be eligible for military service, 385,000 sought exemptions.  And in Québec, tensions boiled over.

In Montréal, anti-conscription sentiment was very real.  And whilst the traditional narrative tells us that it was French Canadians who were opposed to conscription, that’s only part of the story, as a large number of Irish in Montréal were also opposed. This boiled over in a massive anti-conscription parade and rally on 17 May 1918 in Montréal.Anti-conscription_parade_at_Victoria_Square

Anti-Conscription Rally, Montréal, May 1917

From 28 March to 1 April 1918, rioting occurred in Québec City, sparked by the arrest of a French Canadian man for failing to present his draft-exemption papers (he was quickly released).  The rioting ultimately led to the Canadian military being called in from Ontario, along with the invocation of the War Measures Act.  On the final day of rioting, when the protesters allegedly opened fire on the 1200-strong military force, the soldiers returned fire, which caused the crowds to disperse and ending the riots.  In the end, over 150 people were hurt and over $300,000 in 1918 money was caused in damage.

And, in the aftermath, it became increasingly clear to the rest of Canada that perhaps French-speaking, Catholic Québec may have different views on issues than the wider nation.

Having said that, the dead-set opposition to Conscription in Québec was a precursor to the rest of Canada.  Given the number of exemptions and the on-going problems at getting men in uniform, Borden’s government changed the rules of conscription in the spring of 1918 to end exemptions.  Not surprisingly, the rest of the country came to oppose conscription.

Conscription, though, more or less killed the Conservative Party in Québec.  In the fifty years after 1918, conservatives were virtually shut out at the federal level in Québec.  And in the fifty years from then, conservatives have continued to have difficulty in Québec; only Brian Mulroney and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, have been able to win support in Québec as conservative leaders.


The Great War and Monuments in Canada

November 11, 2018 § 2 Comments

Across Canada, the cenotaph is a central component of the central square of villages, towns, and cities.  Erected in the wake of the First World War, these cenotaphs faithfully record those who gave their lives in the first global conflict.  The First World War was the ‘war to end all wars.’  While not nearly as massive or bloody as the Second World War, it is the First World War that is remembered as The Great War.

These cenotaphs recording the war dead are deeply embedded on the landscape.  And, unlike so many memorials, they are not invisible.  Growing up, I was always aware of them and what they meant.  They were solemn and dignified, almost always identical, obelisk shapes.  I remember reading the names of the dead on them, and not just on Remembrance Day.

The dead of the First World War seemed so faraway from me, growing up in the 1980s, beyond living memory for me.  My grandparents served in the Second World War.  And whilst my grandfather’s service as a tailgunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force held a certain romance, it was nothing compared to the First World War.

As a boy in Canada, I didn’t know a lot about the conditions of the War.  I learned these in university and the romance of the war dropped away quickly.  And I learned more and more about the status of Canada during this period.  Even still, the First World War has maintained a certain mystique.  Part of this is driven by the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier (and victim of the war) John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

And so the First World War maintained this mystique.  Even if the veterans handing out the poppies in return for a donation to the Royal Canadian Legion were from the Second World War when I was younger, it was a symbol of the First World War they pinned to my lapel.

Last month, I was in Ottawa and visited the National War Memorial located at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington streets, kitty corner to Parliament.   The Monument, somewhat ironically, was dedicated in May 1939 to honour the war dead of Canada.  Ironic, of course, because the Second World War broke out in Europe barely three-and-a-half months later.


It was whilst staring at this monument that something really struck me about our cenotaphs and war memorials: they tend to date from the First World War.   In this case the artillery is that of the First World War, down to the cavalry on horses.  These monuments may include the names of Canadian soldiers who served in conflagrations before that one, of course, such as the Boer War.  But it is the First World War dead who appear in great number.  And the war dead of later wars, including the Second World War were added to the original monument.  They were not the original soldiers, and whilst their sacrifices are the obvious equivalent, these memorials date not from their war(s), but the Great War.

And so these original soldiers, those who fought and died in the First World War were the baseline for the Canadian military and, even if this wasn’t the first time that war was made real for Canadians, it was the first time it was made real on a national scale.  And even if the First World War left a complicated legacy on Canada, it remains that it was perhaps the first great crisis the country faced.  And it gave rise to a series of stories, some true, some mythical, about the import of the war on the still young Dominion at the time.

The Political Economy of Shell Shock

January 30, 2017 § 2 Comments

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was not officially recognized until DSM-III, published in 1980.  But that, of course, does not mean it does not have a long history.  In the First World War, symptoms that look a lot like PTSD were called ‘shell shock.’  We have all heard of shell shock.  When I played hockey, I was a goalie.  It was not uncommon for me to come out of the net after a game where I was peppered by shots to have my teammates joke about me experiencing shell shock (I played for a string of really bad teams).  In other words, shell shock has become part of our lexicon.

One of the jobs of historians is to complicate matters and what we think we know about the past (my other job as an historian is to explore what we know about the past and why and to what uses such knowledge gets used).  I joke with my students that historians can ruin anything in this manner.  And so, shell shock.

The British were the first to diagnose and name shell shock, in the fall of 1914, right after the war started.  The name itself actually came from the soldiers themselves.  There was not, however, much in the way of agreement over what shell shock actually was; it became a catch-all phrase. It could be physical.  It could be psychological.  It could even be a lack of moral fortitude.

But shell shock was also complicating for the British Expeditionary Force (as the British Army in Europe was called in the First World War) and its attached colonial expeditionary forces (most notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, the Dominions).  In particular, it was demoralizing.  So, the British High Command did what you would expect: it banned shell shock.  In June 1917, the order came down: the term was no longer to be used in any reports, any diagnoses, in any conversation.  It simply no longer existed.

This echoed the German response to shell shock, which the Germany Army dismissed simply as a lack of moral fortitude.  So it punished shell shocked soldiers.

By 1922, the British government was adamant that shell shock would never exist ever again.  The Southborough Report of that year recommended that the symptoms of shell shock should be regarded as nothing greater or lesser than any other battlefield injury.  The government and the army came to the conclusion that troops who were well-trained and properly led would not suffer the fate of the malingerers of World War I.

The reasons for denying the existence of shell shock differed between 1917 and 1922.  In 1917, it was a question of morale and defeating the Germans.  In 1922, it was a question of finances, as the United Kingdom was nearly broke.  Shell shock diagnoses from World War I cost money, in the form of compensation to affected veterans.  The government simply didn’t want to pay anymore casualties in any future wars.


Lest We Forget

November 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

One thing I have learned teaching history, of all varieties (World, Western Civ, American, Irish) is that human beings have long held a fascination with killing each other.  Human beings have developed all kinds of methodologies and technologies dedicated to making murder easier and faster, from crucifixion, to Dr. Guillotine’s invention, to machine guns, tanks, bombers, etc.  I may be a cynic, but I believe that a world without war is impossible, based on history.  I’m reading Njal’s Saga, a Norse saga set in Iceland, amongst the Vikings, in the late 10th century.  The violence just goes around in cycles, as a feud develops between two good friends, Njal and Gunnar.

And yet, today is Remembrance Day (or Veteran’s Day in the United States).  On 11 November, every year, I think of several things.  First, I think of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the sad, lonely death of Paul Bäumer, killed on the morning of 11 November 1918, amongst the last casualties of the Great War.  I think of the Treaty of Versailles, and all the damage caused by France’s very understandable desire to punish Germany.  I think of how the Germans were complicit in Hitler’s rise to power.  I think of the Japanese imperial mandate and the horrors of its empire, and I think of the butchery of both World Wars.  The Somme.  The trenches.  Dresden.  The Blitz.  Hiroshima.  Nagasaki.

I also think of Dr. John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders’ Field”:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

When I was a kid in school back home in Canada, and I had to memorise this poem every November; it depressed me.  It made me want to cry (I probably did cry a couple of times when I was really young).  McCrae wrote this poem on 3 May 1915 after he presided over the funeral of his friend, Alexis Helmer, after the Second Battle of Ypres.  McCrae himself met his end in the First World War, on 28 January 1918, of pneumonia, at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne.

I also think of my own grandparents, Rodney Rupert Browne (1925-98) and Eleanor Shipman Browne (1918-2003).  Rod and Eleanor, who didn’t yet know each other, served in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  I don’t know when Eleanor joined, but I know that Rod enlisted when he was 17 in 1943, just before his 18th birthday.  He served as a tail gunner.  He never talked about what he saw or what he did during the war.  And I knew better than to ask him.  Same with Eleanor.  Whilst she was obviously based in England, I know she saw horrors, of injured men, of German bombing blitzes.  Rod came back to Montreal and married another woman, who bore him three children (two of whom, including my mother Carole Anne, and her brother, Russell, survived), and Eleanor went back to Ontario and married another man.  Both ended up divorced, and they met in the 1960s and married. They remained together until Rod died of cancer on Christmas Day, 1998.  Eleanor, who was a feisty old gal, held on until 2003, when she died that summer.

Rod is the reason I became an historian.  One day in 1992, he met me in Montreal (I lived in Ottawa; he and Eleanor had retired to Gananoque, Ontario), and for some reason, he took me on a tour of his Montreal, showing me my family’s past, he inculcated in me that day a sense of my own history, my own past.  And he and Eleanor nurtured it in me until the end of their lives.  And they loved me and supported me unconditionally.

But the Second World War profoundly marked them.  They both came home scarred by what they had seen.  They both wandered in the wilderness for a couple of decades after 1945.

So, for them, I wore poppies every year in Canada, something I can no longer do in the United States.  But, it is them I will be thinking of today (though I still miss them both every day), and all their comrades-in-arms, all those who did not come back (including the wars since 1945), those who came home troubled, damaged, and who have had to struggle to regain an equilibrium.

Lest we forget.

The Re-Writing of History: The Second Battle of Ypres

February 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

Ypres was a hotspot in the First World War.  No fewer than five  major battles took place around this Flemish town between 1914 and 1918.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April-May 1915, the Germans wafted a cloud of chlorine gas at the Allied troops across No Man’s Land.  The other side was occupied by Moroccan and Algerian troops, flanked by Canadians.  In other words, the main targets were French African colonial troops.  The Germans didn’t dare set the gas towards Europeans.

The Moroccans and Algerians died on the spot and/or broke ranks and ran.  This left a massive gap, 4 miles long, in the Allied lines, which the Germans were rather hesitant to rush into, for obvious reasons.  That meant the 13th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was left to counter the German attack, on its own.  It was reinforced by the 10th Battalion of the 2nd Canadian Brigade, as well as the 16th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Brigade the next day.  It’s worth noting that the Canadians became the first colonials to defeat a major European power at Ypres.

In short, the Allied lines when the Germans used chlorine gas on them were manned by colonial troops: Moroccans and Algerians who took the brunt of the gas, and then Canadians who also got hit with gas, but to a lesser extent (they urinated on handkerchiefs and then put them to their faces to survive the attack).

This is the version I was taught in school and university in Canada.  And it was also the version I saw in pop culture, films, literature, history books, at least until recently.  In the past year or two, this story has been simplified: French and British troops were gassed by the Germans.  And while that is technically true, it is massively mis-leading.

In the case of Canada, our national mythology says that our country came to age on the battlefields of the First World War.  It led to Canada demanding and gaining the ear of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George with the creation of the Imperial War Council (along with the other Dominions). And Canada (as well as the other Dominions) were seated at the Versailles conference.  Eventually, in 1931, Canada (and the other Dominions) gained control of their own foreign affairs in 1931 with the passing of the Statute of Westminster.  And, as I argue myself in my own forthcoming book, The House of the Irish: History & Memory in Griffintown, Montreal, 1900-2013, Canadians were consciously fighting for their own nation, they fought in their own army, the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  And even if the CEF was appended to the British Expeditionary Force, Canada was coming of age as a nation of its own right.  So, to state that the British and French were the victims of the German gas attack is disingenuous.  And yet, there it is in our culture, everywhere from writers who should know better to Downton Abbey.

Imagine my surprise, then, to be reading a quick review of Graeme Kent’s new book, On The Run: Deserters Through the Ages, (which has yet to be published in North America) in The Times Literary Supplement, that states that the gas attack “fell four square on the French and to a lesser extent on the Canadian First Division.”  I quickly flipped to the back to see who the reviewer, Nathan M. Greenfield, was.  A Canadian military historian.  So that sort of doesn’t count.  And, there is also the fact that while Greenfield did wave the Canadian flag, he also denied the Moroccan and Algerian troops their due.

Niall Ferguson Almost Gets It Right

February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Niall Ferguson likes attention.  There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements.  Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown.  Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay.  Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument.  Ugh.  So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.

The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account.  Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914.  He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms.  He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage.  In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.

And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war.  It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918.  It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).

There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization.  At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war.  An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war.  The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture.  It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.

Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire.  This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.

As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not.  But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914.  From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies.  Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.

Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement.  There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war.  One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians.  The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route.  At least at this point.  I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.

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