New Brunswick

'Zombies' of WWII: Poem reveals how volunteer soldier felt about the conscripted

A poem written by a Canadian soldier has a family member wondering why he wrote about a particularly puzzling subject matter during the Second World War.

A poem about 'zombies' was found in the journal of Gerald DeMerchant of the Carleton & York Regiment

Reid DeMerchant, left, and his brother Gerald DeMerchant volunteered for service in the Second World War. Reid died fighting in France. (Submitted by David Hughes)

A poem written by a Canadian soldier has a family member wondering why he wrote about a particularly puzzling subject matter during the Second World War. 

Norman DeMerchant, a self-described family historian, found a poem dedicated to "zombies" in a journal that belonged to his cousin, Lance Corporal Gerald DeMerchant of the Carleton & York Regiment. 

During the Second World War, the word "zombie" was a derogatory term used to describe soldiers who were enlisted for home defence under the National Resources Mobilization Act instead of for service overseas.  

The term was often used by soldiers who volunteered to fight, according to David Hughes, the regimental historian of the Royal New Brunswick Regiment. 

"You can imagine the attitudes of the soldiers that had volunteered to fight and were overseas fighting at the time … the attitudes toward soldiers that had been conscripted but then didn't want to go overseas to fight," said Hughes.

The poem was written in the journal of Lance Corporal Gerald DeMerchant, likely between August and December 1944. (Submitted by David Hughes)

It wasn't until 1944, after the federal act was amended and less than a year before the war ended, that Canada sent conscripted soldiers overseas.

The poem describes how some volunteer servicemen felt about soldiers who were drafted, calling them "rotten zombie swine" and explaining that they'd rather fight without them. 

The middle two stanzas of the six-stanza poem read: 

Now we've got them, 1600,
Out to reinforce the line,
We don't want them, we'd be happy,
If they left them all behind.

If by chance we are so lucky,
As to safely reach the Rhine,
We would rather fight the zombies,
Than the Jerry's any time.

Despite the dark subject matter, the poem is supposedly to be read to the tune of My Darling Clementine. The term "Jerry" refers to soldiers of the German forces.

Norman suspects his late cousin was in a dark place at the time he jotted the lines down in his book.

"I get the sense from reading it, that [Gerald] really felt … he had given everything that he could and that his brothers gave all that they could to the war effort," DeMerchant said. 

"And that all the people that were forced into it, it probably didn't make any sense. It was like, 'Why would you have to be forced into something that we gave so willingly for?'"

I feel like it really might have had something to do with him losing his brother.- Norman DeMerchant

About 12,900 Canadians were conscripted to fight overseas during the Second World War. Hughes said they were valuable, whether they volunteered or not, because later in the war, reinforcements were desperately needed. 

"So where they couldn't generate enough volunteers to go overseas, I'm sure that even though they were kind of there reluctantly, the [National Resources Mobilization Act] men were still needed there as reinforcements," he said.

"I'm sure that the soldiers in the unit that needed these reinforcements were glad to have the reinforcements coming in."

Despite the help from the conscripted soldiers, Gerald decided to write the poem in his journal, but Norman isn't sure if his lyrics are original or if he copied it from someone else.

Hughes thinks Gerald may have copied the poem but changed some of the lyrics.

"There are other versions of a poem or song of the same cadence, but the words are slightly different from any that I've ever seen in the particular version from Gerald's notebook," he said.

Gerald, who was from Perth-Andover, was close with his brothers. All four had volunteered for service. Hughes and DeMerchant both suspect he wrote the poem after the death of his younger brother, Reid. 

In the third page of the poem, Gerald DeMerchant writes about the prime minister at the time, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had resisted bringing in conscription for overseas service. (Submitted by David Hughes)

On Aug. 29, 1944, Reid died while fighting in France. That same day, his daughter was born.

Gerald "must have felt that his sacrifice was great and that there were other people that weren't willing to sacrifice," Norman said. "So I really think it must've bothered him, either for him to come up with the poem or for him to copy down the poem."

Gerald was shot in the arm in December 1944, but he survived the war. He died in 2001.

Gerald DeMerchant's version of the poem, dedicated to 'zombies' serving during the Second World War. It's supposedly to be read to the tune of "My Darling Clementine". (Submitted by David Hughes)

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