Sunday, August 21, 2005


Canadian troops at Vernon Camp in 1944 demonstrating
their resistance to compulsory service overseas.


The Canadian soldiers who refused to fight

by Sidney Allinson.

Each year on November 11th, Canadians gather to observe Remembrance Day ceremonies honouring the past sacrifices of our servicemen and women. These solemn events make it difficult to realize today that a large proportion of Canadians at the time did not support our country's participation in the two world wars.
Not only pacifists and politically driven civilians felt that way. Strange to relate, many actual Canadian soldiers refused to serve overseas after they were conscripted during the Second World War. Eventually, these resisters in uniform numbered over 100,000, and though most were from Quebec, they also included men from other regions of Canada. Derided as “Zombies, the walking dead,” they became the focus of an intense political controversy, and were individually scorned by a population that was mainly dedicated to the war effort. Sixty years ago, every so-called Zombie was reviled for staying safe at home when more than half a million other Canadians were serving overseas, 45,000 of whom were killed during WWII.
When Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced on September 10, 1939, that Canada had joined Britain in declaring war on Nazi Germany, he also took care to say, “The present government believes conscription of men for overseas service will not be a necessary or effective step. No such conscription measure will be introduced by the present administration.”
There was an initial surge of volunteers; within six months, over 80,000 men had joined the Canadian Active Service Force, and the First Division embarked for Britain to aid its defence. A few months later, in May, 1940, the Nazi blitzkrieg conquered most of continental Europe, and there was a real possibility Britain would also be overwhelmed. A public outcry demanded that Ottawa should demonstrate a fuller wartime commitment.
But imposing military conscription would create serious domestic problems for the Liberal Party. It had been newly re-elected in 1940, mainly because King had promised Quebec voters that Canada would never compel soldiers to go overseas to fight. Any conscription laws could bring down his government.
Canada was the only country in the world that did not conscript its population for combat service, and relied solely on volunteers. The same policy had built a huge army during the First World War, while violent opposition to conscription had also created a huge political problem. King knew something had to be devised that would both address the concerns of patriotic English-speaking Canadians and mollify Quebec’s reluctance to be involved in overseas military operations.
Always a shrewd compromiser, he personally drafted the National Resources Mobilization Act for 'special emergency powers to mobilize all human and material resources for the defence of Canada.' He made a dramatic speech to the Commons when introducing the bill on 18 June, 1940, saying, "This legislation will relate solely and exclusively to the defence of Canada on our own soil and in our own territorial waters...” King added that national service registration would be held in the near future. “Let me emphasize that this registration will have nothing to do with recruiting citizens for overseas service.”
About 100,000 draftees were summoned for training in camps all across the country. Deliberately mixed with soldiers who had volunteered for overseas service, the idea was to influence NRMA men to change their minds and "go active."
However, despite their bitter social stigma, few Zombies ever did later opt for overseas service.
In 1942, after Japan entered the war, PM King called a national plebicite, asking Canadians to relieve him of his previous promise to never send NMRA men overseas. English-speaking Canada voted 80% in favour, while 90% in Quebec refused to let King change his mind. Though this majority vote gave him clear permission to order Zombies off to join the fighting, he was still reluctant to alienate Quebec voters, and simply did nothing. It was then King delivered his famous devious line: “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
This did not sit well with the patriotic folk of Victoria. Mr. C. A. Gill, president of the Pro Patria Branch of the Canadian Legion fumed, "One law for one man and a different law for another is ridiculous! Our Allies have total conscription, so why should Canada be an exception?"
Our troops stationed abroad felt the same resentment about the lack of conscription. So much so, Prime Minister King was embarrassed to be actually booed by thousands of Canadian soldiers when he made an official visit to them at Aldershot Camp in England.
In 1943, United States forces began clearing Japanese invaders from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. As the territory was part of North America, within the designated "home defence area," a contingent of NMRA soldiers were directed to support ‘Operation Greenlight’ – the American re-occupation task-force headed for Kiska.
The Canadian units selected to go were composed of both English-speaking and Quebecois soldiers, stationed handily in British Columbia. Though there were scores of temporary desertions, most NMRA troops embarked on ships at Nanaimo without incident in August, 1943, bound for a combat zone after all.
The Americans who previously fought for Attu island had suffered over 5000 dead, so the Canadians expected to be facing a bloodbath on Kiska. As it turned out, the Japanese garrison quietly abandoned the place, and it was taken without resistance, though four Zombies were killed by enemy booby-traps. NMRA troops occupied cold tents on Kiska for six uncomfortable months before returning to their safe bases in BC.
By late 1944, during final stages of the war, Canadian volunteers fighting in Europe felt a severe lack of trained replacements for their heavy casualties. Complaints in Canada by relatives of serving soldiers and senior officers abroad mounted increasing demands that Zombies be sent into combat.
On September 18, 1944, the simmering conscription problem boiled over when Major Conn Smythe, a pre-war NHL star player, made a widely-quoted statement to the press. “Relatives of the lads in the fighting zone should ensure no further casualties are caused by the failure to send overseas reinforcements now available in large numbers in Canada.”
The uproar he provoked sent the Defence Minister, Colonel J.L. Ralston, on a fact-finding mission to Europe, where he confirmed there was a desperate shortage of troops. When Cabinet refused to change the terms of the NRMA, he was forced by King to resign, and Gen. A.G. McNaughton was appointed in his place. After studying the facts, McNaughton publicly reported the army desperately needed 15,000 additional fighting men.
Mackenzie King at long last reluctantly decided to order 12,000 NMRA conscripts overseas. When NMRA troops in British Columbia were informed they were to be sent into combat, they rioted in protest. They put up signs: “Down with conscription,” and “We don’t intend to go overseas!” Camps at Terrace and Vernon erupted into open mutiny. Desperate Zombies armed themselves with loaded rifles, and even aimed Bofors anti-aircraft guns at troop-trains, defying efforts to transport them to embarkation ports back east. But after three tense days, their commander General George Pearkes VC defused the situation by granting amnesty to the mutineers and sending everyone home for two weeks leave.
The first conscript infantrymen sent overseas arrived in Europe on February 23, 1945. About 2,500 of them took part in the grim combat for the Hochwald Forest, and acquitted themselves well by all accounts. Sixty-nine NMRA were killed in action before the European war came to a victorious end on May 8, 1945.
Prime Minister King adroitly stayed in power despite the conscription crisis, but earned the life-long resentment of many veterans and their families. Also, the Zombies' issue highlighted the nation's serious reservations about Canadians being involved in foreign conflicts, and sparked anti-war sentiments that echo to this day.

Sidney Allinson is Chairman of
the Pacific Coast Branch,
Western Front Association.
"Through the Hitler Line: Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain,"
Laurence F. Wilmot, MC, Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Reviewed by Sidney Allinson.

This is a rather good military memoir. The late Canon Laurence Wilmot's book provides rare insights into front-line combat conditions through the eyes of a Second World War army chaplain. His memory remained remarkably keen even when recalled 50 years later, considering the author was aged 91 years old when he wrote his book. In 1942, he was already past the usual age of army service, an Anglican priest far from harms way. He had to first insist that his church allow him to enlist, and then pester the Canadian army until they accepted him as a chaplain.
He was also equally determined to serve where he was most needed – in combat. Soon, he was attached to the West Nova Scotia Regiment and served with it throughout its bloody campaign in Italy. His compassionate depiction of courage and self-sacrifice by so-called ordinary Canadians – while neither glorifying war nor belittling warriors – documents the price of the freedom we enjoy to this day.
Wilmott's description of infantry fighting in Italy is as good as it gets. He is particularly vivid when describing a little-known battle at the Arielli. He served in the thick of things there, working as a frontline stretcher-bearer, helping to bring in scores of wounded men while under heavy enemy fire himself. He conveys his compassion and devotion to the soldiers, without a flicker of self-aggrandizement. The book jacket blurb is the only way you would know he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in 1944. During his long career later, Canon Laurence Wilmott became Warden Emeritus of St. John's College, Winnipeg, then passed away recently, at the venerable age of 96.

-- Sidney Allinson.

The Only Victoria Cross Awarded in Canada.

Pte. Timothy O'Hea, VC


by Sidney Allinson.

St. Patrick's Day is an apt time to recall that the only Victoria Cross medal to be awarded for bravery on Canadian soil was won by an Irishman. Timothy O'Hea was born in the scenic village of Schull, County Cork, Ireland, in 1843, but left home as soon as he became 18, old enough to join the British Army. Six feet tall and blue-eyed, he made a fine-looking soldier in a crack regiment, The Prince Consort's Own Rifle Brigade.
Two years later, in 1866, O'Hea found himself on duty in Quebec, helping guard Canada from possible attack from south of the border. At that time, the Canadian provinces were still mainly defended by small units of the British Army, as the bulk of Imperial forces had been withdrawn a decade earlier, sent to fight the Russian Czar during the Crimean War. Their departure drew attention to the colonies' vulnerability and stirred action to form volunteer Canadian militia regiments for their own defence. The end of the US Civil War in 1864 increased fears that the powerful Union Army might then march north to conquest.
As it turned out, though, the real threat of invasion that did develop was by an unofficial army calling itself the Fenian Brotherhood, composed of about 1000 Irish-American war veterans. Their optimistic if farfetched goal was to capture and occupy the Canadian colonies so as to force the British to abandon its government of Ireland.
After an abortive raid on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, the Fenians began to menace Quebec and Ontario. At dawn on June 1, 1866, a force of about 800 well-armed Irishmen and sympathizers, led by a self-styled 'General' John O'Neill, stormed ashore at Fort Erie, Ontario. Their invasion brought hurried response from local militia, who were poorly equipped with muzzle-loading muskets and had virtually no military experience compared to the battle-hardened Irish ex-soldiers.
A short sharp battle near the village of Ridgeway ended in a rout for the Canadians who lost 10 men dead, then fled the field when falsely told of a pending attack by cavalry. A couple of other skirmishes took place along the frontier, more successfully when British regulars became involved, and the Fenians retreated to Buffalo, New York. Would-be General O'Neill and his followers were arrested by American authorities for violating US neutrality laws, but were soon released when Britain made no move to demand their extradition.
However, the atmosphere was still tense along the entire border three weeks later when Private O'Hea was detailed to form part of an armed escort of a Grand Trunk Railway train moving ammunition from Montreal to Fort Erie. On June 19, 1866, he and three other privates under orders of a Sergeant Hill took charge of a munitions van loaded with 95 barrels of gunpowder and 2000 pounds of ammunition. To disguise the cargo, it was hitched at the rear of several passenger-cars carrying 800 German immigrants. This somewhat dangerous arrangement was compounded by locking the civilians in their carriages, to prevent any infiltration by Fenian agents.
When the train stopped at Danville station, about halfway to its destination, smoke was seen billowing from the ammunition car. Railroad workers and the soldiers quickly disconnected it, but were unable to move it away to a safe distance. When the flames gained strength and word spread about the dangerous cargo, it was realized an explosion could obliterate most of the village, and panic set in among the bystanders who stampeded away. Soldiers made a hurried attempt to open the passenger doors and release the German men, women, and children locked inside and still unaware of their dangerous plight. But a frantic call for the keys revealed that the railwayman who carried the passenger door keys had already scampered away and could not be found.
For reasons unknown, Sgt. Hall apparently stood frozen with indecision, ammo key in hand. Realizing that the gunpowder could blow up at any moment, Private O'Hea snatched the key, found a ladder, and climbed inside the smoking box-car. Seeing the flames were mainly on tarpaulins over the powder-barrels, he threw the burning covers outside, then he leaped down, grabbed a bucket, and raced to fill it from a nearby creek. Without any assistance from others, Timothy ran back and forth 19 times to throw water on the burning woodwork, while the locked-in immigrants cheered happily, not realizing their lives depended on him. Finally, after almost an hour of hot work in the face of almost certain death and without regard for his own safety, he single-handedly quenched the flames and the trapped civilians were out of danger at last.
The doused box-car was re-coupled to the immigrant train, and proceeded on its way to Montreal. After his superiors received reports of O'Hea's outstanding courage, they recommended the young soldier be awarded a Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military medal. When originally introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856, the VC was intended as recognition "For conspicuous bravery in the face of the enemy." However, this definition was soon amended to also include "bravery under circumstances of great danger," and it was this clause that allowed Pte. O'Hea to be presented with a much-honoured VC in January, 1867.
Though he could have continued military service with considerable prestige, O'Hea for his own reasons left the army the year after receiving his medal. Restless for new challenges, he sailed to New Zealand in 1872, and joined a mounted constabulary unit fighting in the last Maori War. Two years later, he sailed to Sydney, Australia, where he met Andrew Hume and an English ex-soldier, Lewis Thompson. The pair were about to set out to solve the mysterious fate of Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichardt who had disappeared in the Simpson Desert of northern Australia 25 years before. Their intended quest intrigued O'Hea, who maybe was also struck by another German connection with his own search for excitement.
So, in December, 1874, he set out with them into the trackless Outback, hoping to locate a lone survivor of the Leichardt party, rumoured to be living with an aboriginal tribe in western Queensland. Before long, though, the three companions became hopelessly lost in the blazing hot desert, out of food and desperately short of water. Tough as he was, O'Hea finally collapsed, and Hume was also exhausted. Promising to return, Thompson left them and set off to find water. But when he came back with filled canteens three days later, he found Hume and O'Hea lying dead. The Irish VC's adventurous short life had ended at the age of just 28, and he was buried in an un-marked grave at Noccundria Station, Queensland.
Feeding the modern hunger for conspiracies, O'Hea's saga has recently been clouded with complicated theories of mistaken identity and dotty speculation it was his brother instead who died. The real mystery of the disappearance of his medal itself was solved in 1950, when it was found forgotten in a drawer of an art gallery in New South Wales. He had left it as security for a loan by a financial backer, who later presented it to the gallery. Today, Timothy O'Hea's Victoria Cross is proudly displayed by his old regiment in the Royal Green Jackets Museum, Winchester, England.

Sidney Allinson is a Canadian military historian, author of
"The BANTAMS: The Untold Story Of World War One."

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Warriors' Day Parade Recognizes Canada's Military Service

TORONTO, ONTARIO-- (CCNMatthews - Aug. 20, 2005) - The Minister of Veterans Affairs, the Honourable Albina Guarnieri, joined thousands of spectators to mark the 84th anniversary of the Warriors' Day Parade and recognize the efforts of all service men and women.

The Warriors' Day Parade, held annually on the first Saturday of the Canadian National Exhibition, is the oldest continuous military parade of its type, with approximately 2,500 participants and over 10,000 spectators. Initially held to recognize the importance of allocating a specific day to pay tribute to Veterans of the Great War of 1914-1918, the parade has evolved to pay tribute to all service men and women.

"A public display of the sacrifices made for peace and freedom, the Warriors' Day Parade serves as a special reminder of the valour of many Canadians, and is a real testament to Canada's military history," said Minister Guarnieri. "I was especially pleased to see so many people out at the parade, during the Year of the Veteran, to collectively remember Canada's heroes, retell Canada's history and inspire Canada's youth."

This year's parade featured cadets, and, in honour of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, all allied military Veterans of the war. For more information on this event, or to find out more about Canada's efforts to honour those who served for our nation in Canada's military history, visit

2005 is the Year of the Veteran: Celebrate. Honour. Remember. Teach. Thank.

Book Review - "The Sojourn."

The Sojourn
by Alan Cumyn

Sixty-four thousand Canadian servicemen were killed during the First World War, mostly while fighting along the Western Front in Flanders. Canada sent an army of half a million volunteers to serve in that apocalyptic "war to end all wars," so it is odd that very few novels have been written since about their experiences. Only four come to mind – Generals Die In Bed by Charles Harrison, All Else Is Folly, by Peregrine Acland, Why Stay We Here by George Godwin, and The Wars by Timothy Findley. But now we can read a new one that is probably the finest of the lot, The Sojourn, by prize-winning Ottawa author Alan Cumyn.
Already named as a Globe & Mail Notable Book of the Year, The Sojourn follows the adventures of Ramsay Crome, a young private soldier from Victoria, BC, serving with the 7th Canadian Pioneers in the Ypres Salient in 1916. We follow him though mortal danger, constant shellfire, occasional black humour, memories of an idyllic Vancouver Island childhood, and his final anguished recognition that continuing to fight has become a matter of personal honour. The novel covers only a period of three weeks during the Great War, portraying Crome's experiences amid brutal warfare relieved by his 10-day sojourn from the battlefield, on leave in London.
Cumyn presents it all in a matter-of-fact way, using spare clear language whose understatedness emphasizes the horrors it depicts. He writes his story in the present tense, a style that gives a sort of rushing you-are-there immediacy to the narrative. The author obviously did his homework about the vile conditions in the trenches. He describes "The fields of France and Belgium, where all the trees are shattered stumps, and the air is choked with smoke and fire a million times blacker than London on its worst winter's day, and the stench of bodies makes the factory smell like apple blossoms, and the gas hangs low in trenches and turns them into swamps of death."
This nightmare is interrupted by notification of some home leave, which makes Crome look at himself and his comrades differently. "Just before I leave, a section of new recruits comes through for their showers. I know they're new because of how clean, bright-eyed, undamaged they look. They stand too straight, laugh too loud, take over the place as if it's their private party. How cocky and stupid they seem."
Within a few hours, Crome is whisked by train and Channel ferry from the hellish trenches to the peaceful gaiety of London. He is welcomed into the home of his aunt and uncle and their two flibberty-gibbet young daughters. His kindly aunt is squeamish about niceties, while his uncle is a blustering super-patriot, seemingly oblivious to the appalling daily casualties that eventually consumed 800,000 British lives. Crome is attracted to one of his cousins; an outspoken pacifist who cannot comprehend the front-line troops did not have the option of laying aside their weapons to negotiate peace.
'"The war is swallowing everything,' Margaret says to me.' "It's like a great omnivorous beast from which nothing is safe. It affects what we eat, what we talk about, what we dream at night, our first thoughts in the morning. I'm sick of it!"'
'"We'll win it," I say quietly, '"We're going to win it soon."'
A hot bath and breakfast of scrambled eggs seems miraculous, and he finds it hard to adapt to other simple comforts. His relatives take him out on merry sight-seeing tours, but the sudden contrast between the muddy trenches in Flanders and ordinary daily routine in London shocks Crome deeply. He finds it hard to comprehend the taken-for-granted lack of fear and casual enjoyments, bright lights, and music-halls. Even Zeppelin air-raids do not seem to much dent Londoners' sense of security. Grateful as he is for his family's kindness, he finds their home-front attitudes to be stifling and alien. Comrades had told him how London was "a public brothel" with easy women available everywhere. Yet he finds no interest in pursuing them, and deals with an unexpected sexual offer only with embarrassment.
On his last day's leave, Crome arises early, somehow compelled to return to the dreaded front without delay. There, he is plunged again into brutal combat, scenes vividly told with still greater intensity. Alan Cumyn's The Sojourn is a uniquely splendid novel that enables us to grasp the enormous void of perception of war experiences that can never be bridged between soldier and civilian.

Victoria author Sidney Allinson is Branch Chairman of
Pacific Coast Branch, The Western Front Association.