Book Reviews

Book Cover: Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War

Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War

by Patrick M. Dennis
Vancouver, UBC Press, 2017
312 pages, $39.95 (HC)
ISBN: 9780774835978

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Reviewed by Terry Loveridge

This is an important book. The Great War has been often recalibrated in its historical presentation and Patrick Dennis has succeeded in doing it again. Many readers might be aware of the big trends: the Blackadder Goes Forth and the Oh What a Lovely War School of “lions led by donkeys” giving way to “the Learning Curve to Victory in the last Hundred Days” school are the most prominent. Australians and Canadians, too, are moving on from considerations of the mythos of nascent nationalism born at Gallipoli and Vimy, to a similar focus upon the climax of the war: that last Hundred Days. Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie was a strong proponent of this emphasis. For him, the Canadian Corps reached its apogee of effectiveness and contribution beginning on 26 August 1918. Yet, even Currie seemed less than fully aware of what this meant. Retired RCAF Colonel Patrick Dennis explains what this means, and he does it in such a convincing way that it is hard to imagine any book on Canadian land operations in the First World War not including Reluctant Warriors in its bibliography. Furthermore, it is just as difficult to imagine any teacher or academic not rushing to his or her lecture notes to change significant aspects of what is going to be taught hereafter.

The story of Canadian conscription has focused traditionally upon its divisive aspects at home, and its minimal impact overseas. In the end, there was little military necessity for Canadian conscription. The Military Service Act (MSA) material was inadequate, untrained, unmotivated, unreliable, and not enough of it arrived at the front to have an impact. Until now... Dennis demolishes these myths of conscription in detail and he does so in a literate and convincing fashion.

First and foremost, Dennis demonstrates, through records, letters, and statistics, that the conscripts were necessary, absolutely necessary, to the Canadian effort. Contrary to official versions of the story, the MSAs began arriving before the stunning success at Amiens and they kept arriving in a steady stream until war’s end, three months later. The steady stream, naturally, went straight to the front to replace losses (97% of conscripts were infantry). Conscripts supplanted the volunteers ‘at the sharp end,’ so by the time the Corps reached Mons, the MSA boys composed about 25% of the strength of the infantry. Without them, the Canadians, like their Australian brethren, would have required replacement or reinforcement long before November 1918.

The reliable flow of replacements enabled the intense pace of Currie’s Hundred Days, but Currie seems not to have appreciated that his tempo relied upon a stream of conscripts. The final phase remains controversial: the Corps performed at a superhuman level, but Currie, supported by most of his subordinate commanders, stands accused of pushing the Corps too hard. The MSA stream allowed him to keep pushing. Victory came too abruptly to analyse the impact of the late-comers. “Late-comers” was apparently enough judgment…

The MSA men, it turns out, were just as conscientious and trained as other replacements. Given the advances in training techniques and expertise, they were likely better prepared than were their 1916 or 1917 predecessors, but they were accorded a little something extra: blame. When victory produced its series of nationally embarrassing and violent incidents at holding for repatriation camps in Britain, and refusals to parade in fighting formations of the magnificent Corps, the generals, especially Currie, were quick to assume that the troublemakers were the reluctant MSAs. The miscalculated ‘demob’ policy, the rush to move the superannuated into command positions, and the demoralizing insistence upon keeping idle hands busy with full pack route marches and painting rocks, were not appreciated as contributing factors. No one noticed, or chose not to notice, that many of the incidents centred around the old soldiers, and not on the new mob. The war was over and everything was wrapping up. It was quicker for Currie, Canada, official histories, and regimental histories to intuit rather than to analyse.

Dennis does not assert. He lets the MSA men, with their records, take on the mythology for themselves. He has struggled through a myriad of letters, casualty cards, and files to tease out the big narrative, but he pauses often enough to underline key points with individual stories. Thus, among the letters and records quoted, Dennis exposes the reader to specific examples, such as that of 20-year-old law student and conscript Private William Johnson of Bracebridge, Ontario. Johnson was shot in the head while capturing Orange Hill, just west of Monchy-le-Preux, on 26 August 1918. He had been in France for two weeks. His memorial reads “Faithful Unto Death,” and this can be taken as an inscription for the 3000 other MSAs who died in the war (16% of NCM casualties in the Hundred Days), and that number includes the 1500 non-battle deaths.

Their stories refute ideas of malingering, of sketchy training, and lack of dedication. Their letters, for the most part, are as enthusiastic, as proud, and as fatalistic as those written in 1916. Few, if any, reflect an impression of being dragooned into service. They just did not come until it was clear they were needed. They were, indeed, “reluctant heroes.”

Many an important book deserves to be read, and, too often, this requires focused effort. Dennis’ book is not one of those. It is a military analysis and it is a history, but it flows well. If bits seem repetitive, it is because the men’s stories have many common elements and Dennis minimizes these as best as he can. He tells the story chronologically, but manages to weave his themes throughout it almost invisibly. The final chapter summarizes the myths and anti-myths that emerge, but by then, he is ‘preaching to the choir,’ for his reluctant heroes have already convinced the reader that a new narrative has already shaped the story of Canada’s Great War. Dennis and UBC Press had done an excellent, even classy job of supplementing the text with sufficient and supportive maps and appendices and spread relevant illustrations throughout the text. The introduction by none other than the distinguished Canadian historian J.L. Granatstein gives the book the weight it deserves, especially since it contains his mea culpa on conscripts, “I am now forced to admit that I was flatly wrong to argue as I did.” It seems we all were.

Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Terry Loveridge, PPCLI, CD, is a former infantry officer who occasionally continues to teach History at the Royal Military College of Canada.