Patrick Dennis, Reluctant Warriors – Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017).

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Editor’s Note – This is the third (and last) review of Reluctant Warriors; the first, by Andrew Theobald, can be found here, and the second, by Michel Gravel, can be found here.

Setting the Record Straight

I enjoyed Reluctant Warriors very much and found it most informative. It tells the long-neglected story of the Canadian conscripts who were drafted late in the First World War when voluntary recruiting had dried up. The book is about those conscripted soldiers, significant in numbers, and the crucial role that they played in the Canadian Corps and its singular tactical and strategic achievements in the final months of the war. This is a first-rate book, well written and coherent. It is very readable and I recommend it to both serious scholars of the war and to the casual historian.

Conscription was very controversial when it was implemented in 1917. Up until that point, Canada was one of only two major combatants not to conscript soldiers for service at the front – the other was Australia. The story of the domestic conscription controversy – how it split the country along linguistic, cultural and philosophical lines – and the controversial election of December 1917 are all stories that are well told in Canadian history.[1] The story of the conscripts themselves, however, has long been neglected. A number of myths about the conscripts developed in the wake of the First World War that were remarkably persistent – that they were somehow inherently inferior as soldiers to the earlier volunteers, that they were ‘slackers’ or lacked patriotism, and that they did not arrive at the front in time or in sufficient numbers to make a difference.

Dennis comprehensively discredits each of these myths. As he documents in his book, the conscripts were the key factor in the reinforcement chain that allowed the Canadian Corps to maintain offensive operations for 86 of the final 100 days of the First World War. A significant number of those conscripts were decorated for gallantry and many were promoted to leadership positions in their infantry battalions. Dennis clearly shows that, by the Armistice, approximately 25,000 conscripts had reached their fighting units in the Canadian Corps and made up at least a quarter of the fighting strength of the Corps’ infantry battalions. Personally, I think that that figure is a low estimate. If only half of the conscripts who made it to their fighting units were still with their battalions at the end of the war, that would be as many as 260 soldiers per battalion – the better part of the trench strength of two infantry companies.

Dennis makes a convincing case that the Canadian Corps could only have sustained continuous offensive operations from August to November 1918 because it had a steady and reliable stream of infantry reinforcements – the vast majority of them conscripts – coming through the system. It is telling that the Australian Corps, which also undertook sustained offensive operations from 8 August 1918 onward (though not at the same intensity as the Canadians) had to be removed from the front line in early October because its infantry battalions were so depleted in numbers. Without the conscripts, the Canadian Corps would have undoubtedly suffered the same fate.

This book is a great story well told. The best part is the account of the conscripted soldiers in the field and their individual and collective experiences as soldiers fighting on the battlefield. The stories are as interesting and varied as the soldiers themselves – this book is about the people who made the history.

Another thing that I really liked about the book is how the final chapters, “The Equal of the Best” and “Conclusions”, bring the book together. In those chapters, Dennis puts the deeds of the conscripts into context, explains how they affected the strategic thinking and operational planning of the commanders, and why the figures the official historian used to estimate the number of conscripts who fought at the front hold up under scrutiny.

If I have any quibble at all with the book, it is Dennis’ criticism of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie’s decision to continue the attack with 2ndand 3rdCanadian Divisions for a third consecutive day on 28 August 1918 during the Battle of the Scarpe. Dennis suggests that Currie, rather than continuing the attack with depleted battalions, should have ordered an operational pause for twenty-four hours to allow fresh troops to conduct a relief in place. Currie’s whole aim during this battle, however, was to keep the pressure on the German defenders and not give them an opportunity to rest or reinforce. Were the casualties an acceptable price for doing that? That is, perhaps, an easier call in retrospect than it was at the time in the heat of battle, muddled by the fog of war. Currie is not above criticism, but I would give him a pass in this case.

From at least one quarter, Dennis’ scholarship has been rather rashly called into question. In that context, it is important to note that this book was peer reviewed by accomplished academic scholars and was scrutinized all the way through the writing and publication process for its academic integrity, as are all books published by a university press. This is particularly so for those books included in a prestigious series like the Canadian War Museum’s “Studies in Canadian Military History.” Clearly, the scholarship in this book meets a very high standard. It is worth mentioning that Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s most accomplished and well-respected military historians, wrote the Foreword to Reluctant Warriors. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a recipient of the CDA Institute’s prestigious Vimy Award. He concludes his very complimentary remarks with the words, “Dennis’ important book definitely sets the record straight.” I’m with Jack on this!

Overall, this is an excellent book, rich in detail and well researched. It is very readable and tells an important and interesting story. I commend it to anyone interested in the full story of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. Congratulations to Dennis and to UBC Press for publishing this excellent work.

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[1] Editor’s note – A recent book – Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie, Embattled Nation: Canada’s Wartime Election of 1917 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2017) – explores this most divisive, hard-fought and indeed important election in Canadian history.

 

Colonel (Ret’d) Keith Maxwell, OMM, CD served with the Canadian Army and Air Force for 30 years, followed by a decade with the NATO International Staff. He lived in Europe for 16 years and made an extensive study of the Canadian Corps’ battlefields and history on the ground. He lives in Sechelt, BC.

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