Vimy Ridge and Conscription,
January – November 1917
The Crisis Manifest,
December 1917 – November 1918
“Une loi extraordinaire: New Brunswick Acadians and the Conscription Crisis of the First World War,” Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region 34 (Autumn 2004): 80-95.
“Divided Once More: Social Memory and the Canadian Conscription Crisis of the First World War,” Past Imperfect 12 (2006): 1-19.
The author is grateful to both Acadiensis: Journal of the History of the Atlantic Region and Past Imperfect for their permission to reprint relevant sections in this work.
Saint John was the focal point of military activity in New Brunswick during the Great War, and it started early: the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion marches down King Street in column of companies just prior to going overseas in June 1915. PANB P98/16
In the early morning gloom of Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, men of the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion of the Canadian Corps surged out of their trenches and stumbled forward over shell-torn ground. The deafening roar of artillery and clatter of machine-gun fire surrounded them, but they were not alone. To their left and right along eight kilometres of front, 100,000 other Canadian soldiers — thousands more New Brunswickers among them — moved in unison. Among them were men who had fought their way through the gas of Ypres and the dreary battles of Festubert and Givenchy in 1915, the defensive victory at Mont Sorrel and the slaughter of the Somme in 1916. Weighed down by their heavy packs and weapons, and surprised by the snow in the crisp dawn air, the Canadians had every confidence that this battle would go much better. Above them lay Vimy Ridge and its imposing network of German tunnels and interlocking defensive positions, which had defied the best efforts of the French and British armies for two years. If the New Brunswickers advancing on that fateful day had been at home they might have been enjoying a morning’s walk in the woods — where the snow would hardly have been a surprise — fishing for smelts or preparing for church. Instead, they were spearheading the most important Canadian victory of the First World War.
Many years later, Gregory Clark, who had served as a lieutenant with the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles at Vimy, recalled with pride the victory on that cold April Monday: “As far as I could see, south, north along the miles of the ridge, there were the Canadians. And I experienced my first full sense of nationhood.” New Brunswickers shared in this pride. The 26th Battalion, part of the 5th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Division, were in the first wave. On their part of the front and that of the 1st Canadian Division to the south, the ridge was little more than a gentle rise across a long flat crest, which then dropped away suddenly. In the 26th Battalion’s sector, it was only two kilometres to the edge of the escarpment, with the village of Vimy just below. The New Brunswickers’ task, along with four other battalions on the 2nd Division front, was to overrun the German front line and push forward to a depth of fifteen hundred metres. In the horrific trench combat of the First World War, these distances seemed much greater. The 26th Battalion, and the rest of the 5th Brigade, accomplished their task in under two hours, consolidating on the Black Line where the second wave passed through, over the escarpment and deep into the German positions. All along the line that day the attack succeeded beyond expectation, as the Canadian Corps drove the Germans off the most impregnable position on the Western Front. It proved to be Canada’s defining moment and the place, historians say, Canada came of age as a nation.
But the cost was horrendous. In just three days of bitter fighting, 11,000 Canadians became casualties, with nearly 4,000 dead: another butcher’s bill to add to the nearly 30,000 Canadians already killed in the war. New Brunswick’s only infantry battalion lost two hundred men at Vimy, and for weeks afterwards local newspapers were full of the lists of the dead, the wounded and those who had simply disappeared. The New Brunswickers were as proud of their central role in the victory as any of their comrades, but where would the reinforcements needed to replace the thousands of casualties come from?
The Battle of Vimy Ridge perfectly encapsulates the paradox of the First World War: both a great Canadian triumph and a costly victory in a brutal war that fractured the basic fabric of the country. For Vimy was fought by an all-volunteer force, but losses on that scale could no longer be sustained by voluntary enlistment. In searching desperately for those badly needed reinforcements, Canadians decided in 1917 to adopt compulsory military service. This action led to political skullduggery, racist propaganda, battles in the streets and desperate searches to round up equally desperate deserters. Such was the cost of victory in the First World War, a wound to both Canada and New Brunswick so jagged that its scar is still visible today.
Conscription did not come until late in the protracted and bloody conflict that contemporaries called the Great War. When the war began in August 1914, Canadians unequivocally declared their support for Great Britain, France and the other Allied nations in the struggle against the German-led Central Powers. This patriotic response resulted in the prompt raising of a contingent of soldiers for service in a war that most thought would be over by Christmas. Events soon demonstrated, however, that no one had any idea how long the war would last or how many casualties it would inflict. Importantly, most Canadians supported the war in principle — it was a bad thing that Germany had invaded its neighbours — and they understood that Canada was involved because it was a member of the British Empire. But Europe was distant, and some key components of the Canadian people — especially Quebec’s French speakers, who had little empathy for either the anglais of Britain or the godless republicans of France — had little interest in the conflict. A booming wartime economy also allowed farmers, fishermen and labourers to benefit from supporting the overseas effort.
Nevertheless, a tremendous surge of volunteer enlistment in 1914 and 1915 created a Canadian army virtually from scratch, and the First Contingent, 30,000 men of the 1st Canadian Division, sailed for Europe on October 3, 1914. In April 1915, they fought their initial significant action, doggedly holding the line against the first major gas attack in the history of warfare at the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, and suffering 6,000 casualties in the process. Second Ypres proved a grim foreshadow of even grimmer days ahead. The 2nd Canadian Division, including the 26th Battalion, entered the fray in September 1915. Its baptism of fire, also at Ypres, came in the dismal Battle of St. Eloi Craters in April 1916 and in the defeat of the German attack at Mont Sorrel in the early summer. The Canadians then moved south, into France again, and suffered especially heavily in the latter stages of the Somme battle. There, on September 15, 1916, the 2nd Division attacked toward the little village of Courcelette, with the 5th Brigade’s 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion, 24th (Victoria Rifles of Canada) Battalion, 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion and the 26th Battalion supported — again for the first time in the history of warfare — by a new invention called the tank. Weeks of intense fighting over the open, rolling countryside around Courcelette followed. When it ground to a halt in November — after an attack by the newly arrived 4th Canadian Division on yet another blasted line of enemy trenches — it had cost Canada 24,000 casualties.
Pipes and Drums Band of the 236th Battalion in Saint John. New Brunswick raised nine infantry battalions for overseas service; eight of them, like the 236th (New Brunswick Kilties) Battalion, also known as “Sir Sam’s Own” in honour of the minister of militia and defence, were broken up to provide reinforcements for the front. CFB Gagetown Military Museum
Volunteers still came forward in smaller numbers in 1916 to replace those who had been killed and to fill new units: there were now five Canadian divisions totalling 100,000 men. By the April 1917 victory at Vimy Ridge, however, Canadians — though prosperous from the increased economic activity the war had spurred — were weary, and the prolonged fighting, high casualties and growing division over the country’s role in the war brought an end to large-scale voluntary enlistment. Following Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Borden’s visit to the Western Front in early 1917, Parliament decided that conscription was necessary to maintain Canada’s prominent role in the fighting.
That role became more prominent just as the Allied situation became more perilous. In March, Russia, fighting virtually single-handedly against the Germans and their allies on the Eastern and Turkish Fronts, descended into rebellion. Although Alexander Kerensky’s new socialist government pledged to stay in the war, most doubted the battered and deeply divided Russians could actually do so. It was some compensation that the United States declared war on Germany in April, but the Americans had no army to speak of and it would take years to harness the country’s military potential and industrial might to the Allied cause. Worse yet, in May the French army, the pillar of the Allies, mutinied. The French continued to defend the vast majority of the Western Front from German attacks, but the remnants of a force that had already suffered one million dead out of a male military population of twenty million refused to engage in offensive action. Even Britain’s domination of the sea was in peril from German U-boats, whose sinkings of merchant shipping threatened to paralyze the empire and take the island nation out of the war.
It was in this climate of grim determination to hold on and find a way to win that the Canadian government proposed conscription for overseas service. The action split the country. Farmers, fishermen, francophones and supporters of the Liberal party — all groups well represented in New Brunswick — led the opposition to compulsory military service. Regardless, Prime Minister Borden, backed by a Unionist coalition from all political parties, fought a pitched political and propaganda battle to gain support for the Military Service Act. The victory of the Unionists in the December 1917 federal election demonstrated the majority’s support for compulsory military service, but its adoption in 1918 exacerbated the most serious crisis in Canadian history, especially straining the relationship between the country’s two largest and most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec.
This much historians have long known, and they traditionally have portrayed the struggle over conscription as between pro-British Ontario and anti-war Quebec, between anglophone and francophone. But this view is too narrowly conceived, too focused on the politics of central Canada and unrepresentative of the complexity of the nation’s other regions, especially the long-settled and mixed anglophone-francophone province of New Brunswick. Indeed, New Brunswick’s response to enlistment and the conscription crisis of 1917 exposed complex tensions between rural and urban, liberal and conservative, north and south, Protestant and Catholic, as well as across the linguistic divide. Tragically, though many public figures in New Brunswick protested that Unionist attacks on French-Canadian “slackers” were deliberately inflammatory and inappropriate to the situation in their province, they went unheard. Eventually, the bitterness of the larger national debate divided New Brunswick as well — the Great War’s most enduring legacy to the province.
Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Guthrie, wounded at Festubert in May 1915. After being invalided back to New Brunswick, he led numerous provincial recruiting drives and returned to active service to command the 236th (New Brunswick Kilties — Sir Sam’s Own) Battalion. PANB P37/354
The Lessons of World War, 1914-1916
A huge bonfire illuminated the faces of the crowd standing before a group of uniformed speakers and the large posters that decorated the stage. Suddenly, a lit torch was thrown from one man to another and just as quickly passed from hand to hand on the stage. Cheers rose up from the assembly. The Carleton county village of Woodstock had seen preachers and circuses, frauds and temperance advocates and virtually every other public display imaginable, but this meeting in September 1916 was different.
A visitor from Fredericton was speaking, and the farmers and merchants and their families hung on every word. Colonel Percy Guthrie urged his listeners to enlist in the army and help finish off the German “Hun,” punctuating his appeal by passing the still-flaming torch to a soldier on horseback, who rode off gallantly toward the site of the next recruiting meeting. Canada’s soldiers, including New Brunswick’s own 26th Battalion, had already been covered in honour by their heroic actions at Second Ypres, where Guthrie himself had been wounded, and on the Somme: only one last push was needed to ensure victory. Didn’t the listeners wish to join up? Didn’t they remember the heritage of the Glorious Twelfth, their Loyalist forefathers and their membership in the British Empire? They did, but the people of Carleton county had other pressing concerns.
The First World War was a momentous period in Canadian history. The young country was unprepared for the scale and nature of the conflict or for the social and political upheaval it brought. More than 60,000 Canadians died and more than a quarter of a million were seriously wounded on active service, and the human wreckage of the war shaped the decades that followed. The war also brought employment, inflation, population movements, women’s suffrage, prohibition, new political organizations and closer ties with the United States, and thrust English-French, Protestant-Catholic and other majority-minority relations into the mainstream. New Brunswick’s experience illustrates the complex social impact of the war on the homefront; it also presents a different focus on the conscription crisis than that of the Ontario-Quebec battle that so dominates accounts of the period.
Canadian histories of the First World War focus on the military accomplishments of the Canadian Corps, on the growth of Canada from “colony to country” on the world stage and on conscription. Since conscription so openly divided French and English Canada, the issue remains relevant to Canadian problems today. The history of conscription in the Great War, however, has been shaped by the debate over Quebec nationalism and has focused almost exclusively on how conscription was viewed in francophone Quebec and anglophone Ontario. But the war had a profound impact on all regions of Canada: few communities in this vast land escaped unscathed.