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Conscription Crisis of 1944
Transcript of Conscription Crisis of 1944
The conscription crisis of 1944 which nearly collapsed Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government and almost divided the country into two has been well documented and is a familiar chapter in Canada history and its involvement in the Second World War. During the war, Canada’s government seemed to be in a state of crisis. In the end, King’s government imposed limited conscription, survived a parliamentary vote of confidence and later won the next election. The conscription crisis of 1944 created a conflict between French and English Canadians, but not as major as the one in 1917.
On September 1st, 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland, the Second World War officially began. Britain and France declared war on the Nazi on 3rd September, 1939 and seven days later, on 10th September, 1939, Canada became officially involved in the Second World War. It was the country’s first independent declaration of war and the beginning of Canada’s participation in Canada’s largest nation efforts in its history. When Canada declared war on Germany, it sent one division to Europe which had no chance of contest before France and was overrun by Germany. In 1940, however, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, aware of the opposition of French-speaking Quebec to conscription in the First World War, promised that there would be no conscription for overseas services. Many Canadians supported King’s pledge even though it was obvious that this war was not going to be a short one.
Causes and Consequences of Conscription
There were many causes that could support Mackenzie King’s decision to bring conscription into action. There was a National Resource Mobilization Act (NRMA), adopted by the government in 1940, which conscripted young men and women for war services at the home front but did not allow overseas conscription. However, there was a desperate need of soldiers overseas. Militarism was one of the factors that contributed to the conscription crisis. After the Italian Campaigns and the Normandy invasion, there was a desperate need of soldiers. Canada realized that there were hardly any volunteers willing to sign up to fight and the enrollment was drying up.
Introduction of Conscription
Prime Minister Mackenzie King was against conscription from the beginning, in fact he only wanted limited number of men going overseas. But the pressure from his fellow English conservatives forced him to call for a referendum or a poll which, unsurprisingly, resulted in favor of Conscription. King resented from sending the troops overseas by giving the excuse of training. But eventually, some members of King’s cabinet threatened to resign and bring down the government, so King was forced to send the troops overseas but he limited that number to 17000 conscripts (known as “zombies”) to be sent to Europe in November 1944. Out of these only 2463 actually saw combat in Europe and reached the front lines and fortunately only 79 of them lost their lives (a comparably small number of deaths during a war). This was a successful political gamble for King as he managed to avoid any major crisis and remain in power until his retirement in 1948. The conscription crisis of 1944 was not as significant as the one in 1917 but it still hold some significance. It had an impact on English and French Canadian relationships which to till date are not very strong. But still it was not as disastrous as the one in 1917.
The political shrewdness along with military sensitivity to Quebec volunteers of Prime Minister King resulted into The Conscription Crisis of 1944 which was a minor one compared to that of World War 1, 1917. French-Canadian volunteers were front and center, in their own units, throughout the war. Some of the highlighted actions include the actions at Dieppe (Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal), Italy (Royal 22e Régiment), the Normandy Beaches (Le Régiment de la Chaudière), the thrust into the Netherlands (Le Régiment de Maisonneuve), and in the bombing campaign over Germany (No. 425 Squadron RCAF). Due to the casualties mounting overseas King was forced to introduce conscription but he limited that to the time when soldiers were needed the most.
Similarly to the First World War, young French-Canadians joined the few traditional French-speaking regiments of the Canadian army like the Regular-Army Royal 22e Regiment, and several others. In the rest of the military, however, similar French-speaking units were not created. The units such as the Royal 22e Régiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, the Régiment de la Chaudière and the Régiment de Maisonneuve all had outstanding records during World War II. These units were, however, distributed among the various English-speaking divisions of the Canadian Army overseas. Acceptance of French-speaking units was greater in Canada from the start of the Second World War in comparison to the first. This somewhere, caused the conscription crisis of 1944.
Soldiers in World War 2
Prime Minister Mackenzie King
By 1942 the pressure to bring conscription in and make the war effort total was again rising and King faced a rebellion from his English Cabinet Ministers over the issue. This is when the Prime Minister used his last alternative which was to force conscription. The event caused tensions between the English and the French Canadians, just as it did in 1917, on the other hand it was not as damaging. To pass out conscription Mackenzie King decided to hold a plebiscite and ask the people to vote in favor or against conscription.
Anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square
Plebiscite of 1944
The five overseas divisions had enough volunteers by 1941. But meanwhile the conservatives were pressuring King to instruct that the Governor General introduce conscription. In 1942 a plebiscite was held which asked the general public not to support immediate conscription but allow Mackenzie King to take back his promise made in the 1940 election regarding conscription. The abstruse nature of this plebiscite was reflected by King’s famous words, “not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary.” Predictably, most English Canadians as well as the banned Communist Party of Canada supported the plebiscite. 83% of the English population voted in favor of the conscription with over 63% in favor all across Canada.
However this proposal hardly gained any French supporters. Anti-conscription groups in Quebec convinced 72.9% of the population to oppose the referendum. The government then passed Bill 80 in support of overseas conscription. Even after the poll was held, many Canadians did not support immediate conscription which resulted in few riots in Montreal, not as major as the ones during 1917 conscription crisis. Though the plebiscite was in favor of conscription it still has a major impact on French- English relationships.
Young men from Metcalfe who enlisted in the 77th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force
This helped him win the next elections and remain in power until 1948. The conscription in Canada has always created a conflict between the French and the English Canadians, and so did this one but not as major as the crisis in 1917. There were significantly few casualties out of those who were sent over. The conscription crisis of 1944 certainly holds historical significance when it comes to English and French relationships, which to till date are not very strong. It was a major Canadian involvement during the Second World War.
Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, with children, on the day of the plebiscite concerning the introduction of conscription
Conscription is a forced or compulsory enlistment of people in some sort of national service, most often military service
A poster depicting Anti-Conscription
Anti Conscription Rally
Poster encouraging people to vote in favor of conscription.
Young men against conscription
Prime Minister giving his vote in the 1944 plebiscite
Poster encouraging people to vote in favor of conscription.
A visual depicting different province's response to plebiscite. As shown most of the Canada was in favor of the plebiscite except for Quebec, which voted against Conscription.
Conscripted men getting ready to go overseas