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[Copyright Sidney Allinson 2010. May be re-printed on condition attribution is stated along with a URL link
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 thegrim combat for the HochwaldForest, 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.