Recruitment and Conscription in World War I

In this blog post we introduce to our readers more details about life in Dundas and Canada during World War I. A series of these posts will appear in commemoration of the centenary of  World War I. We also remind everyone that “A War Without End” ends February 16, 2015.

In August of 1914, the Dominion of Canada was part of the British Empire, meaning that if Britain was at war, so was Canada. Regardless, when Canadians learned that their motherland was going to war they were eager to participate, unaware of the political and social strains this would place upon Canada.

Thousands of men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), and then assembled at Valcartier, Quebec to train under the supervision of Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia and Defence. In fact, so many volunteers had enlisted and the selection standards remained so high that many men were turned away. Due to the abundance of men ready to volunteer for service, it was quickly declared by Prime Minister Robert Borden that there compulsion or conscription would not be necessary. He placed his faith in Canadian patriotic spirit to reach the quota for manpower that Britain required.

Volunteers who had signed up to join the armed forces would have had to go through an intense screening process. This process began by heading to the local recruiting office to present their birth certificate to confirm that they were at least 18 years of age at the time of enlistment. Next, they would have to fill out a double sided form known as an Attestation Paper, to provide their name, address, next of kin, date and place of birth, occupation, previous military service, and so on. Officer candidates also had to fill out a second form called the Officers Declaration Paper, which acted as a resume to show their previous military experience. After the paperwork was completed, candidates who were successful thus far would have to have a medical examination completed to determine if they were fit for service.

A strict medical examination required a potential soldier to be at least 5’3” tall, and between 18 to 45 years of age. Good eyesight, arched feet, and healthy teeth were also essential. Due to the initial surge of recruits, many eager volunteers were turned away. Furthermore, recruiters also turned away visible minorities from military service. Many units embraced First Peoples for their skills; however they denied the applications of most black and Asian Canadian volunteers.

Approximately two thirds of the men who enlisted in the first contingent had been born in the British Isles. Most of these men had settled in Canada in the period of massive immigration before the Great War. The attachment these men felt towards their Mother Country was apparent. However, by 1918, almost 50% of Canadian soldiers were born and bred in Canada.

In the fall of 1915, the number of volunteers enlisting began to dwindle. The excerpt below is taken from the Canadian War Museum.

“Recruitment, however, was already tapering off in the fall of 1915. In October of that year, Ottawa bowed to the pressure of patriotic groups and allowed any community, civilian organization or leading citizen able to bear the expense to raise an infantry battalion for the CEF. Some of the new battalions were raised on the basis of ethnicity or religion, others promoted a common occupational or institutional affiliation or a shared social interest, such as membership in sporting clubs, as the basis of their organization. For example, Danish Canadians raised a battalion, two battalions recruited “Bantams,” men less than 5 feet 2 inches tall, and one Winnipeg battalion was organized for men abstaining from alcohol. Up to October 1917 this “patriotic” recruiting yielded a further 124,000 recruits divided among 170 usually understrength infantry battalions.”

After the extremely heavy Canadian casualties in the spring of 1915, additional volunteers were desperately needed. A quote from Dundas’ own, Leonard Bertram, really puts the need for volunteers into perspective. He wrote, “It is surprising how soon men are needed even in this sort of fighting and it doesn’t take long to clean out a reserve Battalion”. High unemployment levels in 1914 and 1915 may have promoted the initial heavy flow of volunteer enlistments, however, by 1916 the wartime industrial economy was booming. Those who were keen to volunteer had already done so, which meant the rest would have to be convinced.

Because voluntary conscription was no longer producing the reinforcements necessary to maintain Canada’s commitment, Prime Minister Borden announced that all citizens were liable for defence of their country. The government then began to draft the Military Service Act.

The Act came into effect on August 28th 1917, and influenced a number of riots and angry demonstrations regularly in Quebec. The excerpt below is taken from the Canadian War Museum.

“The first group of conscripts were called in January 1918. There were slightly more than 400,000 Class I registrants; that is, unmarried and childless males aged 20-34. Nationally, almost 94 percent of these men applied for various exemptions from service and the appeal boards established to review these cases granted nearly 87 percent of their requests. Some 28,000 others simply defaulted and went into hiding to avoid arrest by military or civilian police. Conscription was unpopular among those called, regardless of region, occupation or ethnicity.”

Of the 620,000 men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, about 108,000 were conscripts. Fewer than 48,000 of these proceeded overseas and, before the war ended in November 1918, only 24,000 actually served at the front. Although all of the conscripts would have been urgently needed at the front if the war had continued into 1919, conscription hardly seemed worth the effort.


World War I recruiting poster











This post was written by Claudia Palermo, our Curatorial Assistant, a position made possible by a grant from Young Canada Works in 2014.

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada (Youth Employment Strategy) through the Department of Canadian Heritage for the Young Canada Works Program. Nous reconnaissons l’appui financier du gouvernement du Canada (Stratégie emploi jeunesse) par l’entremise du ministère du Patrimoine canadien pour le programme Jeunesse Canada au travail.


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