Sunday, October 17, 2010

New findings cast more doubt on value of Canada’s 1917 military draft.

The conscription crisis caused lasting rifts in Canada. Now a self-taught expert has found the price paid brought less value than historians thought, writes Randy Boswell, in The Ottawa Citizen. Published: Monday, April 16, 2007.
A roofing salesman who studies Canada's military past in his spare time has prompted the country's professional historians to rethink one of the great controversies of the First World War: the success -- or not -- of the conscription policy that created a deep national divide along French-English lines.
Michel Gravel, a history buff from Cornwall, Ont., has unearthed what appears to be a significant error in the traditional calculation of how many conscripted soldiers were sent into battle before the end of the war. And the find has been hailed as "a great service to scholars" by none other than Jack Granatstein, the dean of Canadian historians.
Generations of war chroniclers -- most notably Mr. Granatstein himself, author of a book on the subject, as well as the conscription entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia -- have accepted the figure of 24,132 compulsory recruits who reached the front lines in Europe.
Mr. Gravel probed the conscription question while researching his recently published biography of Ottawa native Sgt. Hillie Foley, a long-overlooked hero from the First World War. Part-time researcher Gravel discovered evidence that as many as half of the supposed Canadian conscripts were actually British-born Americans who volunteered for overseas duty through a U.S.-based recruitment drive orchestrated by British patriots in North America.
The British-American recruits were sent north to enlist in Canada until mid-1918, when the U.S. military announced its own draft.
"The error came about because both volunteers obtained by the recruiting missions in the U.S.A. and conscripts raised in Canada were assigned regimental numbers from the same block (3,000,000 to 4,000,000)," Mr. Gravel writes in an appendix to his book about Foley.
"This made it impossible to tell the American volunteers apart from the Canadian conscripts ...The contribution to the great Canadian victories of 1918 by these late-war volunteers from the U.S.A. has never been examined."
Mr. Gravel's conclusions about the conscription numbers have impressed Mr. Granatstein.
"Gravel launches a full frontal assault on the standard and accepted numbers of conscripts who went overseas in 1918. I'm one of the people he attacks, and I'm afraid I must agree that he is likely right," Mr. Granatstein writes in the latest edition of Legion magazine.
"I took as fact the number of 24,132 put forth in Col. G.W.L. Nicholson's official history (as did everyone else), but Gravel -- who comes to it all with a fresh, skeptical eye -- has done a great service to scholars by parsing the data with exemplary care.
"By studying regimental numbers, by examining the late war volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force recruited in the U.S., Gravel has forced me to reassess matters. The Military Service Act of 1917 clearly worked less well than the politicians -- and the historians -- believed."
The act was passed in August 1917 by the wartime Conservative government of Robert Borden. Opposition to the plan in French Canada was intense and nearly universal, prompting realignments in Parliament and riots in Quebec in response to a measure that forced thousands of young men to fight in what some Canadians viewed as an essentially "foreign" war.
Borden, who had once pledged not to impose a military draft, had become convinced by the summer of 1917 that the terrible carnage in Europe -- even in victories such as Vimy Ridge, the focus of a landmark 90th anniversary commemoration in France last week -- meant Canada's army would collapse without a faster flow of reinforcements than voluntary recruitment alone could supply.
But recognizing the huge political risks, Borden invited rival Liberals who would back conscription to join his Tories in a bipartisan Union government. Many from English Canada did, but Quebec MPs remained solidly against the policy, crippling the Conservative party in that province and deepening the country's French-English rift.
And what was achieved? Though the policy was intended to raise 100,000 front-line soldiers, the war ended in November 1918 with the number of deployed conscripts still well short of the target. To many historians, including Mr. Granatstein, even the 24,132 figure represented a failure for Borden's policy.
The much lower number suggested by Mr. Gravel's research could erase any lingering doubts about whether conscription was worth the trouble it caused for Canada.
Mr. Gravel, who spent five years and $15,000 to publish his book, says Mr. Granatstein's "gracious" endorsement of his discovery is deeply satisfying -- particularly since "I never went to university, and make my living selling roofing materials."


Richard Laughton said...

Excellent post! I am passing this link along to all our members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group (CEFSG - I had never questioned Nicholson's numbers and I imagine that applies to most of our group. It will be interesting to see what comments are returned.

I have posted the information on our CEFSG Forum at this Tiny URL link:

Richard Laughton
The CEFSG Matrix Project

Richard Laughton said...

The discussion on the CEFSG has brought in a lot of members who are quite knowledgeable on this topic. You will want to follow this to get a better understanding of this matter. I was not aware that this issue was raised some time ago (circa 2007). The CEFSG link is the Tiny URL noted in the previous comment or go directly to this link: