ANC-C68841 | "Off to War", Alberta
"Off to War", Alberta
1914-1918, 20th century
This artefact belongs to : © National Archives of Canada
Keys to History
A million Canadian men volunteered for the C.E.F. during the First World War, and half were accepted. Why did so many volunteer? Few could ever identify a single reason. In 1914 one Canadian worker in six was unemployed: some volunteers needed a job. Others craved excitement or escape. Many felt a sense of duty. Joining seemed the proper thing to do after what young men had learned in school, at church and from newspapers. Though most of them volunteered after the First Contingent had lost over 6,000 dead and wounded at Ypres in April 1915, they believed that, somehow, they would come home knowing that they had done their duty for King and Country. If they did not volunteer, they might always feel ashamed of themselves. Others might consider them cowards.
Recruiting standards required a man aged 18 to 45, physically fit, and at least 5 feet, 3 inches tall, with a chest measurement of 331/2 inches. Volunteers who were rejected had usually failed the physical, a sad commentary on the fitness of Canadian men. During the first year of the war a married recruit needed his wife's permission to enlist: some men were sent home when they could not get their spouse's approval. Although fitness standards were low, many unfit recruits were accepted. During the first three years of the war more disability pensions were paid to men who should not have been enlisted than were given to soldiers wounded at the Front.
Canada's Militia Department left recruiting to militia regiments or to prominent men who hoped to become colonels by recruiting their own battalions. The fact that a volunteer would serve with pals from his home town or county constituted a powerful recruiting tool.
C.E.F. battalions recruited in 1915 and 1916 spent the best part of a year in Canada training and adding volunteers. In winter, because Canada had few barracks, they were often allowed to live at home, but in summer they lived in tented camps.
Though half the potential recruits enlisted, another half did not. They too had reasons, from deep family commitments to a distaste for the brand of patriotism that attracted many other Canadians. For many French Canadians and for immigrants from central and eastern Europe, it was simply not their war. In French-speaking Quebec anti-war feelings were so strong that relatively few chose to volunteer. Men from countries at war with the British Empire were soon forbidden to enlist.