Avoiding the War
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Turmoil on the Homefront
Avoiding the War
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Avoiding the War
Canada struggles to enlist more soldiers as causalities mount during the First World War
In the bloodiest war the world had ever known, thousands of young Canadian men fought and died in the killing fields of Europe. On the homefront, the government waged its own battle to replace the soldiers lost overseas.
At the start of the First World War, patriotic enthusiasm and economic hard times kept volunteer recruitment numbers high in Canada. (National Archives of Canada)
At the start of the First World War, patriotic enthusiasm and economic hard times kept volunteer recruitment numbers high in Canada. (National Archives of Canada)

At beginning of the First World War, Canadian volunteers flocked to recruiting offices eager to sign up for what most people thought would be short war. Some of the first recruits were unemployed, single men happy to escape an economic depression at home.

Seventy percent of those who enlisted were recent immigrants from Britain, eager to defend their homeland from the enemy. French Canadians felt little attachment to the British Empire's war in Europe and were more reluctant to enlist.

Patriotic enthusiasm and economic hard times kept volunteer recruitment numbers high in the first part of the war. But as the conflict dragged on, the fervour dwindled. And with a flourishing wartime economy, young men preferred working at home rather than fighting in Europe.

By 1916, Canada had turned up its recruiting efforts. Recruitment rallies were organized throughout the country where returning veterans appealed to fellow citizens to join up. In Ontario, recruitment propaganda urged women to refuse the romantic advances of their lovers and husbands if the men didnt turn up in uniform. If there was a sexual blockade, it didn't have much effect.

Recruits were rare, and the quality had dropped, as recruiting officers occasionally looked to vagrants and the "feeble-minded". In October 1916, a survey concluded that only one recruit in five was in shape for military service. In fact, one soldier had signed up five times in Montreal and made the trans-Atlantic crossing twice, despite a record of alcoholism, fits of violence and obviously reduced mental capacities.

In 1916, Prime Minister Borden increased Canadas military commitment to half a million men. All were to be volunteers, Borden pledged. But as casualties mounted and enrolment continued to drop, he retreated from his promise of no conscription.

Borden's government passed a conscription law on July 24, 1917. Conscription dictated that all able-bodied men between 20 and 45 years of age, who were bachelors or widowers without children, had to sign up.

But conscription did not end the government's enlistment troubles.
Fearing that he would be drafted, Jules Lachapelle sought refuge in the countryside with his wife Anna during the First World War. (Courtesy of Thrse Legault)
Fearing that he would be drafted, Jules Lachapelle sought refuge in the countryside with his wife Anna during the First World War. (Courtesy of Thrse Legault)

Hundreds of thousands of men registered for the draft. But roughly 93% of all eligible men in Canada asked for exemptions from military service. Men from English and French-speaking Canada pleaded that they were the sole support of their families, or were disabled, or students or a member of a profession that was vital to the economy. Courts were set up to adjudicate the flood of exemption requests.

Borden responded by canceling all exemptions in April 1918.

Thousands of conscripts, particularly French-speaking ones, refused to be sent to the front and went into hiding. Federal agents combed the countryside.

In hundreds of Quebec villages, people took desperate measures to escape the sweep.

Fearing that he would be drafted, Jules Lachapelle sought refuge in the countryside with his wife Anna. When Anna learned that enlistment officers were searching the region, she asked her sister-in-law to lend them their 18-month-old girl to pass off their own child. The local priest had said that the government was rounding up married men without children.

"After nineteen days, the detective (federal agent) came round," Anna Lachapelle wrote. "My baby was ready for bed. I had washed her and was rocking her. I told my husband: watch out, there is a man on his way here. My husband told me: 'just keep cool. Rock the baby, dont let anything show.' He came to the house. He knocked. My husband opened the door - Good evening ,Sir - and offered him a chair. He came straight over to me, and said So, you have a lovely little baby. Theres no denying it. She had blond hair just like me. He spoke to us a little while. Then he said: 'I will be on my way.' Then he passed through the doorway and it was over. The sweat was pouring down my back. I couldnt stand it."

Jules did not go to war. Later on, he and Anna would have five children of their own.

While some men successfully hid from the draft, one hundred thousand men were finally called up and put in uniform. Half that number crossed the Atlantic but only 25,000 reached the front before the end of the war on November 11, 1918.


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