Patrick Dennis, Reluctant Warriors – Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017).
Editor’s Note – This is the second review of Reluctant Warriors; the first, by Andrew Theobald, can be found here.
In this work, Patrick Dennis tells, for the first time, the story of the Canadian conscripts who served at the front. It is a detailed re-examination of accepted wisdom on the subject – that the men forced into service by the Military Service Act of 1917 had a negligible impact, especially during the Hundred Days campaign of August to November 1918.
One of the more interesting sections is “The First Canadian Conscripts in Combat” (Chapter 3, pp.52-70) as it discusses the logistics of training conscripts in the spring and summer of 1918. Dennis traces the conscripts’ voyage to England, and once there, gives an overview of their time in segregation and briefly describes their training syllabus. He shows that the German Spring offensives of 1918 (Operation MICHAEL) put pressure on the training of Canadian reinforcements, pressure that seems to have had a negative impact on training. Half the book is dedicated to summarizing the Hundred Days, the series of battles that ultimately concluded the war, which helps put the conscripts into context. And finally, the list of recipients of bravery decorations in Appendix 2 (pp. 238-39) is useful. There were more medals awarded to conscripted soldiers than one would have guessed.
The section beginning on page 19 states there were “no ‘volunteers’ after 1914”. This is a curious judgement as, for statistical purposes, all recruits were volunteers until 1917. Dennis accepts the 1944 statistic extracted from G.W.L Nicholson’s 1962 official history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War that 24,132 conscripts served in France before the Armistice. He states on page 225 that this figure has “long been a matter of some dispute.” It has not. It seems that most historians who have quoted it since 1962 have taken the statistic for granted. There was likely a serious oversight in how the number 24,132 was calculated. In November 1944, according to Nicholson’s history, when an estimate of the number of conscripts who served at the front in 1918 was required by the director of staff duties (for the minister of national defence), it was assumed that men with regimental numbers (serial numbers) in the 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 block were conscripts, with some “exceptions”. How they came to this decision to target these blocks of numbers is unknown, and individual service records were not consulted. The men with these service numbers were counted in an earlier study in 1923 and 1924 and totaled 24,132. This is the estimate that the director of staff duties presented to the minister of national defence. (Dennis is correct in stating on page 225 that the number was considered “only an approximation” at the time.) According to Nicholson, the director knew that there were “instances” of volunteers being assigned regimental numbers in the 3,000,000 block. There were likely more than just instances of this happening as a sizable number of British and Canadian volunteers from the United States, recruited at the British Canadian Recruiting Missions (BCRM) installed throughout the U.S., were assigned regimental numbers in the 3,000,000 range. If the director of staff duties did not consider the BCRM volunteers (there is no mention of the BCRM in Nicholson’s book and I found no mention of them in any book until Fred Gaffen’s Cross-Border Warriors (Dundurn, 1996)), it puts the 24,132 estimate into question. Dennis quotes, on page 277, historian Richard Holt’s figure of 17,000 soldiers recruited at the BCRM, but concludes that this “latter figure is one separate and distinct from the 24,132 conscripts”, as if to say that none of the BCRM volunteers were included in the 24,132 figure, which is incorrect.
If we rely on Holt’s figure of 17,000, and knowing that many BCRM volunteers were issued regimental numbers in the 3,000,000 range, it is quite possible that an important minority of the men originally counted in the 24,132 statistic are then actually volunteers. A detailed investigation, however, has still not been made. One thing that is certain is the 1944 estimate of 24,132 as quoted by Nicholson includes an important minority of BCRM volunteers; therefore, it should no longer be cited as a conscription statistic.
That estimate was further muddled by the fact that conscripts were also issued regimental numbers in other blocks of numbers not counted in the estimate; a fact known to the director of staff duties who nevertheless concluded at the time that the exceptions tended to cancel each other out. This remains to be seen as the number of conscripts issued with regimental numbers outside of the 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 blocks has never been counted, so it is unknown if they cancel out the BCRM volunteers. In any case, Dennis accepts the 1944 estimate and states on page 226 that “Nicholson’s figure of 24,132 MSA men who ‘served in the field’ is still fairly accurate – if anything it is a bit low.” It might turn out that 24,000 is a close approximation of the actual number of conscripts who served at the front, as many, as we have seen, were not counted in 1944. That being said, it seems that a reliable estimate of how many conscripts served at the front has yet to be determined.
Dennis tends to question the motivation of the BCRM men in his account. In his 2009 article “A Canadian Conscript Goes to War”, he refers to the BCRM volunteers as “so-called volunteers”, implying they were somehow not really volunteers even though they clearly were labelled as such. British subjects in the U.S. were not liable to the draft, were out of reach of the Dominion Police and were attested on the volunteer form (as opposed to a separate form for conscripts). He continues this theme in Reluctant Warriors that, somehow, these volunteers were coerced into enlisting. He claims on page 30 that the “BCRM sought to take advantage of considerable social pressures being brought to bear in the United States by the Selective Service AHis attempt to portray these men as somehow coerced by “social pressure” into volunteering is misleading by the simple fact that British subjects residing in the United States were not under the authority of the Selective Service Act until 30 July 1918, a date on which they became eligible for the draft. (On this date, the BCRM went out of business!). Therefore, the fact remains that these late-war volunteers were a significant source of volunteer reinforcements for the Canadian Corps in the field in 1918. We owe them a great debt.
Moreover, Dennis does not “qualify” the conscripts and does not deal with the enforcement of the MSA, nor does he deal with the apprehended defaulters who served at the front. Other research has shown that probably a great number of the conscripts who served at the front reported for duty after waiving their right to an exemption. (Nicholson’s history states that most of the men registered for the MSA applied for exemption). These men were what could be called “easy conscripts”. A case can be made that these men were as “good” and motivated as any volunteer. In fact, Dennis makes the case on page 64 where he tells the story of his relative, Hilaire Dennis, a conscript who waived his right to apply for an exemption and reported for duty as ordered on 8 January 1918. Dennis states, “His attitude, overall, contrasts sharply with the perceived lack of dedication typically ascribed then and afterwards to conscripts. Evidence of his remarkable conversion from a skeptical citizen who objected to fighting in this ‘European War’, to a trained soldier keen on doing his duty, was even more apparent when he wrote: ‘I am qualified for a machine gunner and bomber, and believe me Uncle if they ever give me a chance at those Germans I will cut them down like hay. I am a good bayonet fighter – also I don’t think that I will be afraid to use the cold steel because I can use it.’” It is possible to challenge Dennis’ statement that the “skeptical” Hilaire needed “converting” in the first place. In any case, he does not explore how many of these “easy conscripts” made up the ranks of the total number of conscripts who served at the front. It would be interesting to have seen what would have happened to the effectiveness of the MSA, and the quality of the conscripted soldier, after the pool of “easy conscripts” was depleted.
In addition, Dennis does not discuss the hundreds of men who registered for the MSA but failed to report as ordered. Depot Battalion records in Canada show columns of men who were taken on strength effective 10 November 1917 (the date the MSA came into force) and listed as absent. No study has shown whether or not these un-apprehended defaulters are included in the MSA statistics quoted in Nicholson’s book. This is significant as these men probably inflated the actual number of MSA men taken on strength in Canada during the war. These men were only recruits “on paper”. Occasionally, defaulters were apprehended by the Dominion Police and forcibly compelled to enlist. When this happened, they were given an enlistment date of 10 November, their attestation was marked “brought in by Dominion Police” and they were often issued a regimental number in the 4,000,000 block. (This block might have been reserved for apprehended defaulters and might have been done to identify potential troublemakers, but this remains to be confirmed.) It is possible that comparatively few of these potential troublemakers saw service at the front. But, it is also possible that, as exemptions were suspended and the war dragged on, “apprehended defaulters” would have started to swell the ranks of the conscripts at the front, probably affecting the quality of the reinforcement drafts to the Corps.
Dennis’ book demonstrates that the performance of the conscripts during the Hundred Days campaign was good, thanks in part to the thousands of men who reported for duty immediately and waived their right for a possible exemption. Had the war lasted into 1919 and 1920, however, would the quality of reinforcements provided by the MSA have deteriorated after the abolition of exemptions? We will never know. Overall, Reluctant Warriors is a solid start to studying the men of the Military Service Act of 1917, but it is, unfortunately, incomplete.
2 Pierre Berton cited the 24,132 figure in Marching as to War: Canada’s Turbulent Years in 2001; J.L. Granatstein also quoted it without reservation in the chapter ‘Conscription in the Great War’ published as part of Canada and the First World War, Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown in 2005; Serge Durflinger rounds the figure down to 24,000 in the undated essay ‘Purs Canayens – French Canada and Recruitment During the First World War’, published on the Canadian War Museum website that seems to accept it as fact; Tim Cook also rounds the figure down to 24,000 in his monumental 2008 work Shock Troops; in his 2018 article “1918, the Year of the Conscript”, published in Canada’s History magazine, Patrick Dennis also cites the 24,132 figure.
3 Gravel, Michel, Tough As Nails: The Epic Story of Story Hillie Foley, DCM and bar, MM, C de G (Nepean: CEF Books, 2006).
4 Ibid., p. 162.
5 Patrick Dennis, “A Canadian Conscript Goes to War—August 1918: Old Myths Re-examined”, Canadian Military History 18, no. 1 (2009): 21-36.
Michel Gravel is the author of Tough As Nails: The Epic Story of Story Hillie Foley, DCM and bar, MM, C de G (Nepean: CEF Books, 2006).