Borden’s Great Gift

Legion magazine March/April 2015

On January 1st, 1916 Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden had a New Year’s message. The Globe headline summed it up that day: “CANADA’S GREAT GIFT TO BRITISH EMPIRE’S CAUSE: Dominion Army to be Increased to Half a Million Men.”

It wasn’t Borden’s first commitment of Canadian troops to the war, but was his biggest. Just two months earlier, his order-in-council increased the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) from 150,000 to 250,000 men. Ottawa had little choice: events like the 6,000 Canadian casualties at Ypres in April 1915 were showing the war wasn’t going to end soon.

Half a million volunteers out of a country population of less than eight million wasn’t to prove easy. Enlistments were dropping precipitously: January 1916 had seen 28,185 recruits, but by June had dropped to 10,059. Fortunately, a patriotic public got behind massive efforts to lure more recruits.

But the pool of available men was shrinking. “We are really in a total war effort in late 1915,” says Canadian historian Tim Cook. “We are almost at full employment. The munitions factories are pumping out those shells, the contracts are being distributed to hundreds of industries. There’s work for everybody.” The farms are having bumper crops, “and the government has been telling them that to win this war we need you to grow the food.” All this was a massive drain on available manpower. “There are only about two million adult males between 18 and 45,” says Cook, “and a million of them are in farming.” Moreover, most of those keen to volunteer had already done so. The rest would have to be somehow compelled.

One way was to appeal through the nation’s women. An advertisement in a small town newspaper near Toronto presented some questions and arguments that patriotic citizens could use to pressure women. “Three Questions for the Women of Peel County,” it read. The advertisement appeared in the May 11, 1916 issue of the Streetsville Review and Port Credit Herald, a southern Peel County newspaper. A variation also became a poster for wider appeal—now in the Queen’s University archives—entitled in bold print: “To the Women of Canada.” It asks four questions including “Do you realize that the one word ‘GO’ from you may send another man to fight for your King and country?” and “When the war is over and someone asks your husband or your son what he did in the Great War is he to hang his head in shame because you would not let him go?”

“The public recruiting meeting, long a staple of the voluntary system, was now regarded as useless, for the able-bodied male rarely turned up to be publicly harangued,” writes historian Jonathan Vance in his 2012 book Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars. “When voluntarism slowed, local committees turned increasingly to shaming young men into volunteering. Although militia officials had long condemned the practice as unproductive, citizens and local recruiters continued to use it with a vengeance. Some distributed leaflets asking women to ‘make your son, your husband, your lover, your brother join now…get the apologist, the weakling, the mother’s pet into service’.”

These sorts of strong messages to women were important, because earlier in the war a married man needed his wife’s permission to enlist. Many women had refused to grant it, in part fearing loss of the breadwinner. In attempts to undo that mindset, these types of tools tried to make Canadian women feel guilty for not offering their men to the war effort.

Women were also more proactive in the rallying effort. Reports of Work Done 1916-1917 by the Women’s Canadian Club notes at its mid-day meeting on Connaught Place in Ottawa June 22nd, 1916, “Mrs. Brooke, whose elder son is a POW in Germany and Mrs. S.J. McLean, who has four brothers in the Army; made eloquent pleas for new recruits.”

Imbuing the patriotic spirit, women got together regularly across the country with knitting and sewing bees and held social functions under the banner of such groups as the Homemakers’ Clubs. The IODE (Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire) were reported by one M.A. thesis researcher to have been called “the government’s best recruiting agents.” The group raised vast sums of money for the Red Cross, operated soldiers’ clubs, and produced many soldiers’ needs including first aid supplies.

All of these efforts may not have directly contributed to recruiting, but “if you were a young man and everywhere you turn there is a poster and a speech and a woman and a tea and a fundraiser and this and that, that is the kind of growing pressure that is talked about,” says Cook.

In Toronto, the Boy Scouts pitched in by distributing leaflets designed to shame men into signing up. Lines included “Do you feel happy when you walk along the streets and see other men wearing the King’s uniform? Do you realize that you will have to live with yourself for the rest of your life? What would happen to Canada if every man stayed at home?”

Recruitment efforts aimed at visible minorities saw new policies soon after Borden’s announcement. “Initially it was a white man’s war,” says Cook. “In 1914 there were more than enough people volunteering so they can be choosy—and it is largely Anglo-Saxon white guys.” So few visible minorities were taken. First Peoples were a little different. “Some of them were allowed to enlist because they had different martial skills as hunters and traditional warriors,” he says. “By 1916 when recruitment dips down they begin to loosen restrictions, which is everything from height and people with disabilities and flat feet—more of those who were turned down initially. They begin taking in more ethnic Canadians, Japanese, Ukrainians and Russians because they need the manpower now.” Priests, missionaries and residential school teachers encouraged and influenced First Nations individuals to consider enlisting. Many were driven to sign up to escape reserve poverty or residential schools.

In 1915 the Canadian Japanese Association raised an exclusively Japanese unit, enlisting 227 volunteers at their own expense. In March 1916 the association formally offered the government a full battalion. The offer was rejected. But by the summer of 1916 when minorities were being actively recruited, militia authorities encouraged other battalions to accept the trained Japanese volunteers; the association was pleased.

After rejections early in the war, members of the black community formed the No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916, but weren’t allowed to fight; instead they dug trenches and repaired roads. The all-volunteer unit included Canadians and Americans.

Songwriters and performers joined the fray to attract new volunteers. Joseph Lawson, a Toronto insurance broker who was seconded to the 204th Battalion of the CEF to help at recruitment rallies, wrote the patriotic song Home Sweet Home, For You We’re Fighting. Thompson Publishing released it in 1916. Just a year earlier, in another song aimed at capturing the essence of the citizen-soldier ideal, Canada, Fall In! by Edward Miller included the patriotic line “Close up the ledger and put down the pen, Hark to the trumpet call.”

The Citizen’s Recruiting League early in 1916 initiated an appeal to Americans to come and sign up. One of their Sunday meetings in Toronto was held in conjunction with the American Legion at Loew’s and the Star Theatres. Speakers included Canada’s minister of finance, the Hon. W.T. White, senior Army officers and enlisted men fresh from the front with “some gripping stories to tell.” Topping off the meetings were to be “motion pictures of the fighting in Flanders.” To stoke some fervor, the band of the 92nd Battalion provided rousing military accompaniment.

It all helped with the momentum. Schools got into the act too, using pageants and plays to champion patriotism and civic duty. Vance cites an example of a Nova Scotia schoolgirl recording in her notebook the songs she sang in school during the war, including “Soldiers of Canada.” And the Nova Scotia Council of Public Instruction agreed to proclaim 25th February 1916 as Nova Scotia Schools Recruiting Day, where school children were instructed to use “their influence in this very urgent and important work for the empire and civilization,” and took home letters pleading for volunteers amongst their fathers, brothers and cousins.

While universities were patriotically engaged right from the declaration of war in 1914, efforts sped up after the 1916 half-million commitment. For example in 1914-15 McGill University formed the McGill Regiment and Universities Companies to be used as reinforcements for units like the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry; and provided intensive training courses “imbuing the spirit of service” on the campus.

“Universities stepped up to the plate and did an enormous amount of work for the allied cause for Canadian participation in terms of research and recruitment,” says Paul Stortz, Associate Professor of History at the University of Calgary. “COTC (Canadian Officers Training Corp) for example. They considered themselves to be part of the war machine.” He says some universities abbreviated their degree programs to accommodate service time.

According to a chapter by Barry Moody in Cultures, Communities and Conflict: Histories of Canadian Universities and War, edited by Paul Stortz and E. Lisa Panayotidis, Acadia University was also highly patriotic. In June 1916 its president, the Reverend Dr. George Cutten forewent his traditional academic robes for the Baccalaureate Sunday sermon, instead donned a khaki army uniform. In that convocation address he said “the call [for recruits] has been heard by her men and they could not help responding to it, for the spirit which prompts the response is embodied in Acadia’s teaching.” Earlier that year, a military band led the parade to Acadia’s Baptist Church, and the evening service was capped off with a personal appeal for volunteers.

To bolster recruiting efforts for Borden’s New Year’s call, in February 1916, the universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba formed a special Western Universities Battalion, the 196th. It was intended to enable university men from Western Canada to fight as a unit rather than being spread amongst other units. The Battalion embarked for Europe in fall 1916, when talk of conscription was emerging.

Into 1917, much of the recruiting pressure was eased by conscription. But the citizens’ efforts had clearly proved effective. “What strikes me is we made the 500,000; eventually about 630,000 enlist,” says Cook. “Only about 100,000 are conscripts, so that means about 530,000 enlisted voluntarily.”

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