BOOK REVIEWS

Book Cover – Militia Myths

Book Cover – Militia Myths

Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921

by James Wood

Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press, 2010.
$90.00 (HC), $32.95 (PB)
ISBN 9780774817653 (HC)
ISBN 9780774817660 (PB)

Reviewed by Matthew Trudgen

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There have been a number of works that have addressed the development of the Canadian Militia and the Permanent Force in the period from Confederation to the First World War. However, these books have generally focused upon the Canadian professional officer corps, as well as the British officers sent to Canada to serve as commanders of the Canadian Militia.1 The result has been that many aspects of this experience, including Canadian ideas of what constituted a citizen soldier, have generally been neglected. This lack of scholarship fortunately has been addressed by James Wood in his new book Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921. Wood, the author of We Move Only Forward: Canada, the United States and the First Special Service Force, 1942-44, 2 examines Canadian popular conceptions of the citizen soldier to understand their role as “… an ideal and symbol by which Canadians ordered their understanding of armed conflict and their notions of a citizens duty to serve.” Wood focuses this study on the beliefs of Canadian militiamen and military enthusiasts in order to understand how they attempted to improve Canada’s defences as well as to create the “societal conditions in which a citizen army could flourish.”

Through an examination of publications, such as the Canadian Military Gazette, he concludes that these individuals had a “… surprising degree of sophistication that attended their thinking on the role and function of the citizen soldier.” For example, he argues that most militiamen of the period did not buy into the myth that Canadians were natural soldiers. They may have disagreed with the officers from the British Army and the Permanent Force on how much and what kind of training was required. Indeed, they generally disliked the emphasis that most British and Canadian professional soldiers placed on drill, but they did recognize that the Canadian citizen solder needed to be prepared for battle. Ironically enough, the focus of these militiamen on practical training had to contend with the reality that, on parade, the militia was expected by most Canadians to be well drilled and to look like British regulars.

As part of this discussion, Wood examines the various debates throughout this period with respect to how to reform the militia. In particular, he focuses upon the influence of various factors such as the use of Switzerland as a model, and developments in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. He details the beliefs of Sir Frederick Borden, who was Laurier’s Minister of Militia, and Borden’s Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes. In addition, he connects the issue of military training with the social reform movement of the period and how programs such as cadet training in Canadian schools were justified by the need to improve the health and fitness of the nation’s youth.

He also describes the impact of various “war scares,” including the one in 1896 over the Venezuela-British Guiana border dispute. He added that, for most of this period, Canadian militiamen, despite the claims of some historians such as C.P. Stacey, were focused upon the defence of Canada from the United States. These individuals even used various historical examples ranging from the Ancient Greeks against the Persians, to the Boers against the British in order to bolster their case.

Wood concludes his work by arguing that the First World War changed this situation dramatically with the result that the untrained civilian volunteer replaced the militiaman as the archetype of the Canadian citizen soldier. He asserts that “… for better or for worse, it was his sacrifices that had won the war and, consequently, his example that became the model by which a citizen’s obligation to serve would be understood in the 1920s and 1930s.” It would be “… his example and sacrifices that became the standard by which Canadian citizen soldiers would again be judged in the Second World War.”

Militia Myths is a well-researched work that offers a convincing argument about Canadian ideas of the citizen soldier. One part I particularly enjoyed was his point that many people in Canada concluded that all what was needed throughout this period to defend the country were lots of good Canadian lads who were trained to shoot rifles. This example illustrates that flawed Canadian thinking with respect to defence issues is nothing new. The book does have some weaknesses, namely that Wood, at times, presents many facts and figures, as well as opinions of various personalities from this period, but does not subject these details to sufficient analysis. One example was that he notes that the rural press often opposed initiatives aimed at increasing Canadian defence preparedness, but does not provide reasons for this reality. Nonetheless, this is a very good study of the development of the Canadian citizen soldier between 1896 and 1921 that makes a significant contribution to the scholarly literature in the field of Canadian military history.

Matthew Trudgen, PhD, is the R.B. Byers Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He defended his Ph.D. Dissertation, The Search for Continental Security: the Development of the North American Air Defence System, 1949-1956 in September 2011.

NOTES

  1. Examples include Desmond Morton, Ministers and Generals: Politics and the Canadian Militia, 1868-1904 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970);  and Stephen Harris, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army, 1860-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).   
  2. James Wood teaches history of the University of Victoria. He is also the author of Army of the West: The Weekly Reports of German Army Group B from Normandy to the West Wall.