Conscription Crisis of 1944
The Conscription Crisis of 1944 was a political and military crisis following the introduction of forced military service for men in Canada during World War II. It was similar to the Conscription Crisis of 1917, but was not as politically damaging.
Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had been haunted by the way the Conscription Crisis of 1917 had fractured the Liberal Party between its English-Canadian and French-Canadian members. King, who experienced the split first-hand was determined to avoid another such split. In 1922, during the Chanak Crisis, when Britain almost went to war with Turkey, King had first asserted that Canada would not automatically go to war as part of the British empire if Britain did, saying he would consult the Canadian parliament first and presumably declare neutrality if the House of Commons were unwilling to go to war with Turkey. Though there were several reasons for King's reluctance to go to war with Turkey, but at least one of which was the memory of how the First World War had badly strained Canadian domestic unity. During the 1930s, Mackenzie King had displayed what the Canadian historian Colonel John A. English called "an abiding aversion to conscription" and "an apparently unshakable conviction in the efficacy of appeasement" as he regarded another world war as "the ultimate catastrophe" for which no price was too high to avoid. In 1935, King had been opposed to sanctions on Italy for invading Ethiopia, in 1936 he had stated that Canada would not take part if Britain decided to take military action in response to the German remilitarization of the Rhineland and in 1938 he had warmly supported the Munich Agreement as the necessary price for peace. King had laid down defence spending priorities in April 1939 that declared the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was to be the main service, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) the secondary service and the Militia the last on the list as he wanted to avoid fighting a war on land again, which was likely to cause heavy losses.
Canada declared war on Germany on September 10, 1939, and sent one division to Europe, which did not have an opportunity to engage in combat before France was defeated by Germany. King's heart was not in the war as he wrote in his diary that if Hitler did not win the war, then Stalin certainly would as he believed that another world war would lead to revolutionary upheaval all around the world, and it would had been much better if the war had been avoided. A sign of King's true feeling about the war came in April 1943, when the mass grave of the Polish officers massacred by the NKVD in Katyn Wood was discovered, which led King to write in his diary that it was the Poles who caused the outbreak of the war in 1939 by refusing to give in to Hitler's demand that the Free City of Danzig be allowed to rejoin Germany, and as such it was the Poles' own fault for the Katyn Wood massacre and everything else they had suffered since 1939. The British historian Victor Rothwell wrote that King's "spiteful" remarks about the Poles causing the war reflected his own resentment at having to declare war on Germany because of public pressure despite his own inclinations towards neutrality.
As a war leader, King sought to avoid repeating what he regarded as the mistakes of his Conservative predecessor, Sir Robert Borden, in the First World War, which meant avoiding a situation where conscription might be necessary, and initially attempted to limit Canada's participation in the war solely to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). King had described the BCATP in a statement as "Canada's most effective contribution to the war effort", and privately complained that the British should not had asked for a division for Europe before approaching him with the BCATP as he would never sent the 1st Canadian Division to Britain if he could had settled only for the BCATP. As King saw it, "a big RCAF could never lead to conscription".
Fearing the civil and political unrest that had occurred during World War I, as well as hoping to defeat the nationalist Premier Maurice Duplessis in Quebec who called a snap election in September 1939 to seek a mandate to oppose the war, King pledged in September 1939 to not introduce overseas conscription for the duration of the war. Duplessis's decision to dissolve the assembly on 25 September 1939 to seek a mandate to oppose the war created panic in Ottawa with King calling Duplessis in his diary "diabolic" and a "little Hitler", believing Duplessis's aim was to provoke such a crisis between French-Canada and English-Canada that Quebec would leave the Confederation.
During the 1939 Quebec election campaign, the Dominion government made an unprecedented intervention in a provincial election in order to defeat the Union Nationale government and ensure the victory of the pro-war Quebec Liberals under Adélard Godbout with all the resources of the Dominion government being thrown behind the provincial Liberals. All of the Dominion cabinet ministers representing ridings in Quebec threatened to resign if Duplessis was re-elected, with the threat that there would be nobody to stand up for Quebec in the cabinet if conscription become an issue again. Duplessis was a charismatic, colourful demagogue who preached a mixture of Catholic conservatism and Quebec nationalism who was one of Quebec's ablest politicians, a man King feared so much that in the 1939 election the Prime Minister used the powers of censorship under the War Measures Act to keep Duplessis from speaking on the radio.
It soon became evident that Duplessis's alcoholism was out of control, and he ran an inept campaign, being clearly drunk at numerous campaign rallies as he delivered rambling speeches denouncing the war, which were most notable for his slurred words and lack of lucidity. By electing Godbout as Premier on 25 October 1939, there was an understanding in Quebec that the reward for voting out Duplessis would be no overseas conscription. Many Canadians supported Mackenzie King's pledge, even as it became obvious the war would not end quickly.
As in the First World War, young French-Canadians joined the few traditional French-speaking regiments of the Canadian army, such as the Regular-Army Royal 22e Régiment, and several Militia regiments that were mobilized. In the infantry, barracks life and most training was in French and only the command and radio language was in English.
In the rest of the military, however, similar French-speaking units were not created. Among the justifications for this policy were the predominance of the radio, and the fact that the technical instruction was only available in English. The 12th Armoured Regiment (Three Rivers Regiment), originally mobilized by the francophone militia unit the Three Rivers Regiment (Tank), was reorganized and fought as an English-speaking unit. Many French-speaking soldiers were sidetracked in this process. One of the most famous was Jean-Victor Allard, who demanded a transfer from the Three Rivers Regiment to the Infantry; he went on to become a brigade commander in Northwest Europe and then in Korea, command a British division in NATO and subsequently become Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces, where he took pleasure in creating the first French-speaking brigade.
While 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, some feel that if they had been concentrated into the same brigade (as French-Canadians requested and as currently exists in the Canadian Armed Forces), it could have become a focus of pride for French-Canada, encouraging the war effort and political support in Quebec. These units were, however, distributed among the various English-speaking divisions of the Canadian Army overseas. Jack Granatstein in his book The Generals, suggests that a shortage of French-speaking staff trained officers meant that any attempt to create an entire Francophone brigade would have likely ended in failure.
Acceptance of French-speaking units was greater in Canada from the start of the Second World War in comparison to the first. While the creation of the 22nd Infantry Battalion (French-Canadian) required large rallies of French-Canadians in 1914 accompanied by political pressure to overcome Minister Sam Hughes' abhorrence of the idea, this greater acceptance of French-Canadian units as well as informal use of their language diminished the ferocity of Quebec's resistance to the war effort. Opposition to conscription was not limited to Quebec. In British Columbia, where the fear of the "Yellow Peril" was a major issue, many were opposed to conscription as conscripting Chinese-Canadians and Japanese-Canadians would lead to the demand for Asian-Canadians to be given the right to vote, which the white population of British Columbia were adamantly opposed to. From another perspective, many on the political left in Canada had profound doubts about the justice of the war, and the approach of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to the war has been described as "ambivalent".
In June 1940, the government adopted conscription for home service in The National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940 (NRMA), which allowed the government to register men and women and move them into jobs considered necessary for wartime production, and allowed for conscription for the defence of Canada, but did not allow conscripts to be deployed for overseas service. The French-Canadian nationalist mayor of Montreal Camillien Houde in a speech urged all French-Canadian men not to register under the NRMA, which led the Dominion government to use the suspension of habeas corpus under the War Measures Act to send the RCMP in to arrest Houde, who was held without charge until 1944. From 1940 onward, the Defence Minister James Ralston and the Navy minister Angus MacDonald were seen as the advocates of the armoured forces in the cabinet, favouring winning the war even at the price of domestic disunity vs. King who argued that domestic unity could not be fractured as the price for victory.
The NRMA men who refused to "go active" were derisively called "zombies" both in Canada and overseas. The "Zombies" were so-called because they were soldiers who could not fight in the war, making them like the reanimated corpses from Haitian mythology who were neither alive nor dead, but rather somewhere in-between. The "Zombies" were widely hated by the men who had volunteered for overseas service and were referred to as cowards. The Canadian military was divided into classes: the A men who volunteered to go overseas and the R men who were the Zombies. At training camps, officers and NCOs constantly belittled, insulted and humiliated the Zombies to pressure them to "go active", making for a tense relationship at the best of times.
The fact that King kept the Army out of action for as long as possible to avoid another conscription crisis like the crisis of 1917 caused much dismay among the more hawkish Canadians anxious to see Canada get into action. The Royal Canadian Legion issued its manifesto "A Call for Total War" that was endorsed by some 500 other civic groups across English Canada. Mitchell Hepburn, the Premier of Ontario and John B. McNair, the Premier of New Brunswick both demanded overseas conscription in speeches attacking King. A Gallup poll in November 1941 showed 61% of Canadians satisfied with the war effort, but 60% wanted overseas conscription. On 13 November 1941, King's old nemesis from the 1920s, the former Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen became leader of the Conservative Party. Unlike his predecessor, "Fighting Bob" Manion who had supported King's conscription policies, Meighen made a call for "total war" including sending the Zombies overseas the central-piece of his criticism of King. Meighen and King had one of the most famous political rivalries in Canadian history as both men passionately hated one another, and Meighen travelled across the country, accusing King of not doing everything within his power to win the war. After the disaster of the Battle of Hong Kong in December 1941 where two Canadian battalions were lost, a storm broke out in Canada with George A. Drew, the leader of the Ontario Conservative Party urging the Canadian people to "face the shameful truth" that two battalions of badly trained men had been sent to Hong Kong, which was a sign of the failure of King's policies, and of the need for conscription for overseas service. By the end of 1941, the armies of Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union and other allies were all fighting in various theatres of war while the Canadian Army did nothing, guarding Britain against the not very likely threat of a German invasion. By the end of December 1941, the Royal Canadian Air Force which first went into action in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 had lost 1199 men while the Royal Canadian Navy had lost 439 men. At Hong Kong, the Canadian Army had lost 290 men, with 487 men wounded and the rest taken prisoner, to be held under horrific conditions by the Japanese and most did not survive their captivity. }
The Plebiscite of 1942
By 1941 there were enough volunteers for five overseas divisions. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were pressuring King to advise that the Governor General introduce overseas conscription. The loss of two battalions at Hong Kong had shocked Canadian public opinion and there was a demand for Canada to do more to win the war. Meighen's attacks on King started to resonate, and in January 1942 Meighen resigned his seat in the Senate to enter the House of Commons via a by-election in the Toronto riding of York South, backed by the anti-King Liberal Premier of Ontario Mitchell Hepburn and a "Committee of 200" representing 200 of Toronto's most influential citizens. The Liberals did not run a candidate due to a convention that the Leader of the Opposition be permitted entry to the House, however, tacit support was given to CCF candidate Joseph W. Noseworthy with the historian Frank Underhill, who normally worked for the Liberals, writing the speeches for Noseworthy. As the acerbic, sharp-tongued Meighen tended to get the better of King in debates, the Prime Minister feared the return of his archenemy to the Commons, and to rob Meighen of his signature issue, announced that he was calling a referendum to release him from his promise made in September 1939 that there would be no overseas conscription. Arthur Meighen was defeated in the February 9, 1942 by-election to the CCF's Noseworthy.
In an "off-the-record" interview with two journalists from The Winnipeg Free Press in February 1942, King stated that the purpose of the Canadian expeditionary force then training in the United Kingdom was only to defend Britain in the event of a German invasion, and he would not sending the five divisions of the expeditionary force to the Middle East as the British were requesting. King told Grant Dexter of The Winnipeg Free Press on 28 February 1942 stated the purpose of the Canadian Army in Britain was "to defend the heart of the Empire", and criticized Ralston for saying in the House of Commons that he wanted "to build up a strong striking force in Britain because we would ultimately use Britain as the springboard for our thrust on the continent". King told Dexter "the trouble was with Ralston and the general staff. Ralston stood up for the generals, fought the cabinet on their behalf". King expressed the view that Ralson was too much under the influence of the generals and that "Generals are almost invariably wrong". In the same interview, King stated his belief that Japanese would invade British Columbia "just as soon as the Japs could muster the men and material".
The successes of the Japanese in the Asia-Pacific theatre led to widespread fears in early 1942 that soon the Japanese would be landing in British Columbia. The Japanese planned to annex British Columbia once the war was won, but in the spring of 1942 the Japanese were largely preoccupied with plans for the invasion of Australia and Hawaii, and the continuing war with China. Responding to a racist hysteria that Japanese-Canadians were a "fifth column" loyal to Japan who would soon be waging a campaign of terrorism against whites, the King government interned all Japanese-Canadians; the RCMP had in fact reported to the government that most Japanese-Canadians were loyal to Canada, and there was no need for internment. The same fears of a Japanese invasion led King to create two divisions, the 6th and the 8th, largely composed of Zombies, that were stationed to guard the Pacific coast while another Zombie division, the 7th, was created to guard the Atlantic coast against a German invasion, just to show that the government was not indifferent to the Maritime provinces, through the military had advised the government there was little danger of a Japanese invasion and even less of a German invasion.
On 27 April 1942 a plebiscite was held on the question, "Are you in favour of releasing the Government from any obligations arising out of any past commitments restricting the methods of raising men for military service?" In Quebec, the Ligue pour la Défense du Canada was founded to campaign for the "No" side under the slogan Jamais, Jamais...a dit M. Lapointe, a reference to King's Quebec lieutenant, Ernest Lapointe who had died of cancer in November 1941 and who was fiercely opposed to sending the Zombies overseas. The Ligue pour la Défense du Canada united all spectrum of political opinion in Quebec, with some of its most effective speakers being André Laurendeau, Henri Bourassa, Jean Drapeau and a young Pierre Trudeau. La Ligue pour la Défense du Canada professed to speak for all of Canada in opposing conscription, but its French-Canadian nationalist message had little appeal outside of French-Canada. Reflecting the quasi-fascist mood of the nationalist intelligentsia of Quebec, the speakers for the League often expressed approval of Vichy France, citing the Révolution nationale as a model for Quebec, and expressed a "disturbing anti-Semitic tendency". One rally for the League in Montreal ended with the speakers blaming the Jewish community of Canada for dragging Canada into a war with Nazi Germany that did not concern French-Canadians, which almost degenerated into a pogrom with attendees beating up Jews on the streets of Montreal and smashing windows of Jewish shops; only the prompt intervention of the Montreal police put an end to the violence.
The plebiscite was supported by most English Canadians as well as the banned Communist Party of Canada which established Tim Buck "Yes" Committees to campaign for a yes vote. Across Canada, 64.5% of voters were in favour of conscription, with English Canadians voting 83% in favour. The proposal received hardly any support from French Canadians, especially in Quebec, where anti-conscription groups (including one led by Henri Bourassa, the most vocal opponent of conscription in 1917) convinced 72.9% of voters to oppose the plebiscite. Besides Quebec, six largely French-Canadian ridings in New Brunswick and Ontario also voted "No", as did several German-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking ridings like Vegreville, Alberta, and Rosthern, Saskatchewan. King, who had expected all nine provinces to vote yes, was shocked by Quebec's "No" vote, and explained that henceforward his policy was now: "Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary". The government then passed Bill 80, repealing the sections of the NRMA that did not allow for overseas conscription. Bill 80 passed the House of Commons by 158 votes to 58. However, many Canadians still did not support immediate conscription; there were a few riots in Montreal, although these were not on the same scale as the 1917 and 1918 riots.
Following the plebiscite, Public Works minister Pierre Joseph Arthur Cardin quit the King cabinet to protest the possibility that the "Zombies" might go overseas. A number of other Quebec Liberal MPs also left the party in 1942 over the conscription issue, many of whom joined the Bloc populaire canadien when it was formed in the fall of 1942 to campaign against the government. The Defence Minister, Colonel James Ralston resigned in protest over King's unwillingness to send the Zombies overseas, but King refused to accept his resignation.
The Aleutians and Italian campaigns
In his Christmas broadcast in 1942, the former Conservative prime minister R.B. Bennett sarcastically noted that this was the fourth Christmas in a row that the Canadian Army was sitting in Britain doing nothing, and that the only battles on land that Canada had fought to date were Hong Kong and Dieppe, both of which were defeats. In March 1943, during the Operation Spartan war game, General Andrew McNaughton, commanding the First Canadian Army, had been badly defeated, and was judged unfit to command an army in the field with the war game's umpires criticizing McNaughton for leaving his HQ to supervise the building of a bridge while his supply lines were caught up in a huge traffic jam. After Operation Spartan, the British had been strongly pressuring the Canadians to remove McNaughton before he led the First Canadian Army into a real defeat in a battle. King had tried to keep the Canadian Army out of action to avoid casualties that might require a difficult decision on overseas conscription, but in the spring of 1943 with the Allies clearly winning the war, he was seized with the fear that the war might end with Canada winning no battles on land, something that was certain to hurt the Liberals in post-war elections. Accordingly, King demanded that the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, which had been sent to Britain in 1939, be included in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. General McNaughton was not keen on having a division being taken from his command but was promised that 1st Division would return to Britain after Sicily was taken.
A brigade from one of the three "home defence" divisions in Canada was sent to the Aleutian Islands Campaign in 1943 (the islands were technically North American soil and thus deployment there was not considered "overseas"). By this time, there were 34,000 soldiers, mostly Zombies, guarding the coast of British Columbia against a possible Japanese invasion, and to dispel criticism that such a huge force could be more profitably deployed to Europe, King wanted the Zombies to see action. These divisions in British Columbia were made up largely of conscripts, other than officers and NCOs, and desertions before embarkation were noted. Canadian conscripts deployed in the Aleutian Islands Campaign were pointedly issued American helmets. When the 13th Brigade landed on Kiska on 15 August 1943, they discovered that the Japanese had already left, and the island was empty. The major battle that the men of the 13th Brigade had to fight during their six-month stay on Kiska was with the taxmen over the question of whether they were overseas or not, as the former meant exemption from paying taxes on the grounds that they were west of the International Date Line, which they used to argue that they were in fact in Asia, making them overseas. The Revenue department won.
Believing in Winston Churchill's repeated statements that Italy was the "soft underbelly of Europe" and the Italian campaign would be easy, King in the fall of 1943 decided to keep the 1st Division, which was operating as part of the British Eighth Army, in the Italian campaign and to send the division to the mainland of Italy. Furthermore, King decided to send the 5th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade to Italy, which now formed the I Canadian Corps of the Eighth Army. Contrary to Churchill's promises and King's hopes, the Italian campaign proved to be anything but the "soft underbelly of Europe" as the mountains favoured the defensive, and the Germans made expert use of the mountains of Italy to fight a bitter defensive campaign that took a heavy toll on the Allies. McNaughton for his part had protested strongly against losing the I Canadian Corps to the Eighth Army, as he much preferred to keep both I and II Canadian corps together in the First Canadian Army, making increasingly furious remarks on the issue. The Defence Minister, Colonel Ralston, had McNaughton removed on the spurious grounds of ill-health in December 1943, though Desmond Morton noted that McNaughton appeared very healthy when he returned to Canada later that month.
Introduction of conscription
There was an ethnic dimension to the question of volunteering for the war. The Canadian historian Jack Granatstein noted that in both world wars that the Canadians most likely to volunteer to fight overseas were those who identified most strongly with the British Empire, noting that in the First World War that British immigrants were disproportionately over-represented in the ranks of the Canadian Expeditionary Force with two-thirds of those who volunteered in 1914 were British-born and that an "extraordinary" 228,170 of the 470,000 young male British immigrants in Canada volunteered for the war. It was not until 1918 after conscription was introduced in 1917 that the majority of the CEF finally become Canadian-born. The same pattern repeated itself in the Second World War, with the only difference being this time the majority of the Anglo-Canadians volunteering to fight overseas were Canadian-born rather than being British-born. By contrast, in both world wars, it was the Canadians who least identified with the British Empire who were the ones most likely not to volunteer to fight overseas. Granatstein noted about enlistment in World War II: "If French-speaking Canadians enlisted well below their share of the population, as they did, and if ten percent of the total Canadian population joined one of the armed services, then Anglo-Canadians must have enlisted in higher numbers than all or almost all ethnic or religious communities. In other words, Canadians of British origin made up the lion's share of enlistments, exactly as in the Great War, though now most were Canadian-born." Brigadier W.H.S. Macklin, an officer whose task it was to "convert" the Zombies into "going active" wrote in May 1944 that he experienced almost total failure with persuading French Canadians to "go active", adding: "The great majority [of NRMA soldiers in other units] are of non-British origin—German, Italian, and Slavic nationalities predominating. Moreover, most of them come from farms. They are of deplorably low education, know almost nothing of Canadian or British history and in fact are typical European peasants...." Granatstein wrote the research has supported Macklin's conclusions, if not his prejudices. However, the need in the Army for men to "go active" by volunteering for overseas duty led to the ending of the whites-only policy for officers. About 500 Chinese-Canadians enlisted in the military, and unlike in the First World War, some were able to obtain officers' commissions, though this was not easy.
After the campaigns in Italy in 1943 and the Normandy invasion in 1944, combined with a lack of volunteers, Canada faced a shortage of troops. The offensive against the Gothic Line in Italy and the Normandy campaign, especially the battles of Caen and the Falaise Gap had decimated the Canadian infantry. However, General Kenneth Stuart, the chief of Canadian Military Headquarters in London had all through the summer of 1944 been downplaying the Canadian losses in France and Italy, and only in late August 1944 did he first start to hint at the truth. By the late summer of 1944, the numbers of new recruits were insufficient to replace war casualties in Europe, particularly among the infantry. It was on 22 November 1944, that the Liberal government decided to send to Europe a single contingent of 16,000 home defence draftees trained as infantry men. Further contributing to King's difficulties was the return of Duplessis to power in the Quebec election of 8 August 1944. Duplessis won the election by appealing to anti-Semitic prejudices in Quebec. He claimed, in a violently anti-Semitic speech, that the Dominion government and the government of Premier Godbout had made a secret deal with the "International Zionist Brotherhood" to settle 100,000 Jewish refugees left homeless by the Holocaust in Quebec after the war in exchange for campaign contributions to both the federal and provincial Liberal parties. By contrast, Duplessis claimed that he was not taking any money from the Jews, and if he were elected premier, he would stop this alleged plan to bring Jewish refugees to Quebec. Through Duplessis's story about the alleged plan to settle 100,000 Jewish refugees in Quebec was entirely untrue, his story was widely believed in Quebec, and ensured he won the election. Duplessis was a French-Canadian nationalist opposed to both the war and to sending the "Zombies" overseas, and with his return to power made King more reluctant to have the "Zombies" fight at the exact moment when the Canadian Army in Europe was suffering from major manpower shortages.
The crisis began on 19 September 1944 when Major Conn Smythe, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had been invalided out of the Army following the wounds he had taken in France, issued a statement that was published on the front page in The Globe and Mail newspaper charging that infantry replacements in the First Canadian Army were "green, inexperienced and poorly trained" as the Army hastily sent up cooks and clerks to replace men who had been killed and wounded who were usually swiftly killed or wounded in their turn owing to their inexperience. Smythe stated the solution was to send the Zombies overseas as they had been training for the last four years or so. Smythe's status as the owner of the Maple Leafs (who with the Montreal Canadiens were the only Canadian NHL teams at the time) meant he was a celebrity in Canada and his letter attracted much media attention. George Dew, the Conservative Premier of Ontario who was already was looking forward to becoming Prime Minister, endorsed Smythe's claims.
In response, the Defence Minister Colonel James Ralston decided to personally investigate reports of major shortages of infantry by visiting Northwest Europe and Italy. Upon his return to Ottawa, Ralston informed the Cabinet the situation was far worse than he had been led to believe with front-line infantry regiments so seriously short of manpower that wounded men were being pulled out of the hospitals to go back to the front lines without sufficient time to recover. The shortages of infantry were especially serious in the French-speaking regiments owing to a lack of volunteers. On 13 October 1944, Ralston telegraphed King from Europe: "I regret to say that conditions and prospects of which I have learned will I fear necessitate reassessment in light of the future particularly regarding infantry involving, I fear, grave responsibilities". King wrote in his diary that Ralston's cable was "an intimation that he was coming back with the intention of making proposals which may involve the whole question of conscription". King added that sending any conscripts overseas would be a "criminal thing" that would cause a civil war in Canada, and lead to the United States stepping in to annex Canada. On 19 October Ralston formally informed King of the need for more men in Europe and on 24 October, the matter was first discussed at the Cabinet where the defence minister stated: "I feel that there is no alternative but for me to recommend the extension of service of N.R.M.A. personnel overseas".
Ralston informed the Cabinet that in order to continue combat operations, the overseas Canadian Army needed 15,000 new infantrymen immediately, and the only way to find these replacements were from the 60,000 Zombies who at present were guarding the Pacific coast against the unlikely threat of a Japanese invasion and the Atlantic coast from the equally unlikely threat of a German invasion. Ralston argued that the only alternative to sending the Zombies overseas was to pull the Canadian Army out of the front as otherwise the Army was bleeding to death, which would have been highly humiliating for the Canadian people King objected to Ralston's assessment, stating the Allies would soon win the war so there was no need to send the Zombies overseas, and he could not care less about the problems of shortages of manpower in the overseas Canadian Army. The cabinet was badly divided on the issue with some ministers supporting Ralston and others King.
An additional concern for King was Ralston was from Nova Scotia as were Angus MacDonald, the junior defence minister in charge of the navy and the Finance Minister J.L Ilsley . The three politicians from Nova Scotia were all close friends with C.D. Howe commenting that "the three Nova Scotians were a sub-cabinet in themselves". King was worried that if the three leading ministers from Nova Scotia were to resign together in protest against his conscription policies that it might topple his government, and much of King's time in October 1944 was spent charming MacDonald and Ilsley in an attempt to break up the Nova Scotia triumvirate. Through King felt that MacDonald disliked him for vetoing his plan to send the Royal Canadian Navy ships to the Indian Ocean because it would mean having Canadian ships under British command, he discovered that MacDonald was more conciliatory than he expected with MacDonald concerned about alienating French-Canada from English-Canada. King wrote in his diary: "Angus said he saw the difficulties. Was much concerned about everything himself, but Ralston was hard to deal with". MacDonald tended to favor bringing conscription if that was necessary to win the war, but if the former Premier of Nova Scotia was widely viewed as a possible future Prime Minister, and MacDonald wanted to avoid another 1917 style split in the Liberal Party, making him ambivalent about where he stood.
King's first effort at a solution was to ask the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill for a statement that Canada had done more than enough to win the war, and sending the Zombies overseas was unnecessary, a request that Churchill refused. King's next effort at a solution was to fire General Stuart for underreporting Canadian losses in Europe, which did not really resolve the problem, but provided King with a scapegoat. King himself noted that Ralston and the other ministers supporting sending the Zombies overseas were all from the right-wing of the Liberal Party who also had all opposed his plans for a post-war welfare state, which King decided was evidence of a "reactionary conspiracy" to bring him down. King was convinced that there was a plot to "get me out" and that Ralston had provoked the crisis to make himself Prime Minister.
Further contributing to the crisis with the heavy losses taken by the First Canadian Army in the Battle of the Scheldt, in what was easily the most difficult and bloody battle fought by the Canadians in north-west Europe with, for example, the Black Watch regiment and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry regiment both suffering 50% causality rates while fighting by the banks of the river Scheldt in October 1944. As more and more Canadians were killed or wounded during the Battle of the Scheldt without anyone to replace them, the survivors were required to do more with less, which imposed major psychological strains on the front-line infantry. Many soldiers were psychologically broken by the stress of the bloody fighting by the Scheldt, falling victim to battle exhaustion as they curled up in a fetal position and refused to move, which made the manpower shortages even worse. Such were the shortages of manpower that the Army refused to provide proper treatment for men suffering from battle exhaustion, giving them the shortest possible period of rest and treatment before sending them back to the front, a policy criticized by the Army's psychiatrists as inhumane. One soldier, Major Ben Dunkelman of the Queen's Own Rifles regiment wrote at the time: "We knew why leaves were so scarce. Thanks to Prime Minister Mackenzie King's handling of the Conscription issue at home". Another soldier serving in Italy, Brigadier Bill Murphy wrote to his wife: "I personally will never cast another Liberal vote as long as King as anything to do with the party. Of the armies in Italy, only that of Canada has no provisions for home leave", the reason for which was "that there are no men to replace them-except the Zombie Army. And to preserve the Zombies' precious skins the volunteers just have to take it".
King's paranoia about a plot to force him out was sparked by the fact that the Canadian military had 1.1 million people out of a total population of 11 million serving in their ranks, of whom half had "gone active", which for him made the inability for the Army to find 15,000 men simply inconceivable. The Canadian historian Desmond Morton wrote that King's question was legitimate, but the answers were far more complex than King's conspiracy theory of certain Liberal cabinet ministers working to oust him in conjunction with the military. The reasons for the shortages of infantry were:
- The Royal Canadian Air Force, the most glamorous and relatively luxurious of the three services had attracted far more volunteers than what it needed, which the RCAF had used for its gargantuan air training program, taking away men who could have been used for the Army.
- In 1943, over the objections of McNaughton and the rest of the generals, King had sent the I Canadian Corps to Italy while keeping the II Canadian Corps in Britain, thereby as McNaughton had warned requiring two different administrative organizations, which tied up much manpower.
- In the summer of 1944, the I Canadian Corps was thrown into an offensive against the Gothic Line without any troops to provide a diversionary attack, and had taken very heavy losses, which occurred just after the bloody Battle of the Liri valley in May 1944.
- In spite of having five years to prepare for combat, the II Canadian Corps when it went into action in France was not as well trained as it could have been and thereby suffered heavy casualties owing to this lack of preparations for the test of war.
- Likewise despite expectations, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery commanding the 21st Army Group had failed to win the war in 1944 as he had promised, and by launching Operation Market Garden had allowed the Germans to move the 15th Army into the upper banks of the river Scheldt to make the port of Antwerp unusable. As long as Antwerp was closed, the Allies lacked the necessary deepwater port close to Germany to support an offensive into the Reich. By not securing the Scheldt in September 1944 as Montgomery could have, and instead launching the ill-started Battle of Arnhem, Antwerp, the third-largest port in Europe remained closed, which caused such logistical problems as to shut down the entire Allied advance, ensuring that none of the Allied armies on a line extending from the North Sea to Switzerland could advance deep into Germany in the fall of 1944, ensuring the war would go into 1945. Morton noted that if Montgomery had decided to forego Operation Market Garden and instead cleared the Scheldt, Antwerp would have been opened earlier, making possible offensives by the Allied armies into Germany, which might have ended the war earlier. Furthermore, to open Antwerp required that the II Canadian Corps fight the very bloody and difficult Battle of the Scheldt, where Montgomery had for a time placed the First Canadian Army at the bottom of supply allocations, forcing the Canadians to ration ammunition in the Scheldt.
- The Army's system of replacement was based upon the British system developed in North Africa where the Luftwaffe often struck rear troops, leading to more or less equal number of replacements for the infantry, armour, artillery, service corps, engineers, etc. By contrast, in north-west Europe, the Luftwaffe was not a factor, and the Canadian infantry took almost all of the casualties.
- Knowing what King had wanted to hear, General Kenneth Stuart had suppressed the news of mounting losses in Europe, which allowed for a mood of complacency to emerge in Ottawa, with King being informed that there were enough volunteers to replace all of the losses in Europe.
The French-Canadian ministers in Cabinet, and Quebec in general, did not trust Defence Minister James Ralston, and King felt it was politically sensible to replace him as Minister of National Defence with the anti-conscription General Andrew McNaughton in November 1944. On the morning of 1 November 1944 when the Cabinet met, King who only informed his Quebec lieutenant Louis St. Laurent in advance, suddenly announced that he now accepted Ralston's resignation, which had been submitted back in April 1942. Given the length of time between Ralston's resignation and King's acceptance meant Ralston had been effectively fired as Defence minister. King had taken a gamble in firing Ralston as there was always the possibility that the other right-wing Liberal cabinet ministers like C. D. Howe and James Lorimer Ilsley who were also pro-conscription might resign in protest and thereby split the Liberal Party just as the Grits had been split in 1917; much to King's relief, Ralston walked out of the cabinet room alone with no-one following him. Ralston's ally, the navy minister Angus Lewis Macdonald ripped pieces of paper in frustration, but remained seated with the rest of the cabinet.
General McNaughton was a popular and well-respected war hero, though he had been asked to resign as commander of the First Canadian Army in 1943 after his disastrous performance in Operation Spartan war game, though the official story was McNaughton had retired for health reasons. McNaughton was opposed to sending the Zombies overseas and from King's viewpoint had the additional benefit that he and Ralson hated one other. McNaughton believed that he could persuade by the force of his personality enough of the Zombies to go overseas, a policy that failed. One Zombie was quoted in the press as saying: "If Mackenzie King wants me to go overseas, he'll have to send me. I'm damned if I'll volunteer to help out this government". McNaughton was unable to produce large numbers of volunteers for the army, although there were numerous volunteers for the navy and air force. The Canadian historians Jack Granatstein and Desmond Morton noted: "The news of Ralston's sacking put the conscription crisis on the front pages in screaming headlines. To King's horror and to McNaughton's distress, the publicity created a firestorm of reaction against the once-popular general. Audiences booed and jeered when he tried to rally the country behind the no-conscription policy". In Vancouver, General George Pearkes, commanding officer of the Pacific command called a press conference to explain why the Army was asking the Zombies to "go active", which led to King, who distrusted all of his generals, to write in his diary: "These men in uniform have no right to speak in ways that will turn people against civil power".
Some members of King's cabinet threatened to resign and bring down the government if the Zombies were not sent overseas. Of King's cabinet, James Lorimer Ilsley, C. D. Howe, Angus Lewis Macdonald, Colin W. G. Gibson, Thomas Crerar, and William Pate Mulock were all threatening resignation if King persisted with his current policies. On the morning of 22 November 1944, General John Carl Murchie told McNaughton that his policies had failed and hardly any Zombies were volunteering to "go active", which McNaughton recalled "was like a blow to the stomach". Later on 22 November 1944, McNaughton telephoned King to say, as he wrote in his diary, "The Headquarters staff here had all advised him that the voluntary system would not get the men...It was the most serious advice that could be tended". King added that at once "there came to mind the statement that I had made to Parliament in June  about the action the government would necessarily take if we were agreed that the time had come when conscription was necessary". King chose to misrepresent McNaughton's statement as some sort of military coup d'état, what in his own words was variously a "general's revolt", a "palace revolution" and "the surrender of civil government to the military". Morton wrote Murchie's statement about the failure of McNaughton's recruiting drive was "irrefutable", writing "It was no act of mutiny to tell the truth. Yet to King, the notion of a "general's revolt" was too useful to ignore. It fitted his view of the military. It superseded the mutiny that really mattered-the imminent resignation of the pro-conscription ministers. It would frighten the anti-conscriptists". King's Quebec lieutenant Louis St. Laurent chose to accept "this fiction" that King was being forced by the military against his will to send the Zombies overseas, but the Air minister Charles "Chubby" Power would not, resigning in protest at this violation of the government's promises to the people of Quebec.
King finally agreed to a one-time levy of 17,000 NRMA conscripts for overseas service in November 1944. Many of the Zombies deserted rather than fight in the war. As General McNaughton was never elected to the House of Commons, on 22 November 1944, McNaughton had to go to the bar of the House of Commons to announce 16,000 Zombies were to go overseas if the House gave its approval. When word of the decision reached soldiers stationed in Terrace, British Columbia, it resulted in the short-lived Terrace Mutiny. A brigade of Zombies in Terrace mounted guns on the railroad linking Terrace to Prince Rupert and announced that they were now on "strike" as they had no desire to fight in the war. General George Pearkes headed north to Terrace, and soon restored order by telling the mutineers that the penalty for mutiny was death, but promised if the men laid down their arms, no one would be tried for the mutiny. The following debates in the House of Commons were very bitter, but on 8 December 1944, a motion of no-confidence in the government was defeated 143 to 70, though 34 Quebec Liberal MPs voted for the motion. The no-confidence vote marked the end of the crisis. Public opinion in Quebec was outraged by sending the NRMA men overseas, but as King had done everything possible to put this off, the political damage was limited. Furthermore, of the national parties in Canada, the CCF was too left-wing for Catholic and conservative Quebec while the pro-conscription views of the Conservatives limited their appeal in la belle province, which as King noted at the time meant the Liberals were the only party capable of forming a government that Quebec could vote for.
During the Battle of the Scheldt in October–November 1944, the First Canadian Army had taken such heavy losses and the battle had been so psychologically exhausting for the rest of the men that the First Canadian Army needed a three-month period of rest to recover from the Schedlt, which prevented further losses. Furthermore, the transfer of the I Canadian Corps from Italy to join the II Canadian Corps provided further manpower for First Canadian Army, which now had the task as part of the 21st Army Group starting in February 1945 of advancing into the Netherlands and north-west Germany to secure the left flank of the 2nd British Army as it advanced deep into the Reich. No further combat employment was made until February 1945, when 12,908 men were sent overseas, most of whom were from the home service conscripts drafted under the NRMA, rather than from the general population.
Few conscripts saw combat in Europe: only 2463 men reached units on the front lines. Out of these, 69 lost their lives. Politically, this was a successful gamble for King, as he avoided a drawn-out political crisis and remained in power until his retirement in 1948. However, King's refusal to commit the Zombies to action led to much bitterness among the men who volunteered to "go active". Farley Mowat recalls in his volumes of war memoirs savagely disliking those who wore the uniform but refused to make the same sacrifices he and his brothers in arms were called on to make in Italy and North-West Europe. The "Zombies" wore a black tie and collared shirts as part of their uniforms while volunteers for overseas duties did not. In April 1945 when the men of the First Canadian Army were informed that henceforth they would now wear the Zombie black tie and collared shirt, Mowat serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment wrote: "the black tie itself was known as the Zombie tie, and the resentment of the volunteers, who were now ordered to wear this symbol of shame was most outspoken."
Postscript to the crisis
In the 1945 election, the Progressive Conservative leader John Bracken proposed conscription for the Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, which badly hurt his chances. By contrast, Mackenzie King promised to commit one division, the 6th, to be recruited from veterans still wanting to fight in Japan. King handily won the election as Canadian public opinion was unwilling to support conscription for a campaign that would cause heavy losses. The invasion of Japan scheduled in two stages for late 1945-early 1946, was widely expected to be a bloody campaign as the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa were the "dress rehearsals" for the invasion of Japan. Moreover it was believed the invasion would take at least a year, if not longer.
A future conflict seemed foreshadowed when the crew of the Royal Canadian Navy cruiser HMCS Uganda, operating off the coast of Japan, announced that they had only volunteered to "go active" against Germany and, as they had no desire to "go active" against Japan, thus forcing the Royal Canadian Navy much to its embarrassment to send the Uganda home in the summer of 1945. A few days later, on 6 August 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and on 9 August on Nagasaki. On 14 August Emperor Hirohito asked his subjects in a radio address to "bear the unbearable" (i.e surrender). The Japanese decision to surrender in August 1945 instead of fighting on to the bitter end as widely expected saved Mackenzie King from what was emerging as a potential new conscription crisis as he was caught between his promises to the United States that Canada would fully commit to the planned invasion of Japan vs. his promises that only volunteers would fight in Japan.
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