Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War by Patrick M. DennisReluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War by Patrick M. Dennis

Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War

byPatrick M. Dennis

Hardcover | September 15, 2017

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Reluctant Warriors is the first in-depth examination of the pivotal role played by Canadian conscripts in the final campaign of the Great War. During the “Hundred Days” of the First World War, over 30 percent of conscripts who served in the Canadian Corps became casualties. Yet, they were generally considered slackers, shirkers, or malingerers for not having volunteered to fight of their own accord.

Challenging long-standing myths about conscripts, Patrick Dennis examines whether these men arrived at the right moment, and in sufficient numbers, to make any significant difference to the success of the Canadian Corps. He examines the conscripts themselves, their journey to war, the battles in which they fought, and their largely undocumented but often remarkable sacrifices and heroism. Apart from chronicling the seminal events that created the need for compulsory military service, he also focuses on the commanders who employed these conscripts and how their decision making was affected by a steady flow of reinforcements.

Reluctant Warriors sheds new light on the success of the Military Service Act and provides fresh evidence that conscripts were good soldiers who fought valiantly and made a crucial contribution to the success of the Canadian Corps in 1918.

Patrick M. Dennis is a retired Canadian Air Force colonel who served abroad for over twenty-two years, including tours as Canada’s deputy military representative to the NATO Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium, and as the Canadian defence attaché to Israel. He is a graduate of the United States Armed Forces Staff College and the NA...
Title:Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great WarFormat:HardcoverDimensions:332 pages, 9 × 6.28 × 1 inPublished:September 15, 2017Publisher:Ubc PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0774835974

ISBN - 13:9780774835978

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Book That Sets The Record Straight I enjoyed “Reluctant Warriors” very much and found it most informative. It tells the long-neglected story of the Canadian conscripts who were drafted late in the First World War when volunteer recruiting dried up. It is the story of those soldiers, significant in numbers, and the crucial role they played in the Canadian Corps and its astounding tactical and strategic achievements in the final months of the war. This is a first rate book, well written and coherent. It is very readable and I recommend it to both serious scholars of the war and to the casual historian. One of the reviews for this book on this web page, lengthy and detailed, rates the book at “one star” and questions a number of assertions made in the book. I think it is appropriate to address those issues for those contemplating purchasing the book. The reviewer self-identifies himself as Michel Gravel, a Canadian military historian and author. Mr Gravel appears to be on a campaign against Reluctant Warriors by posting as many negative reviews as possible. This is the third I have run across; I won’t speculate on his motivation. His criticism of the book is mainly centred on the numbers – Gravel has a notion that the number of conscripts is not nearly as large as the official records and many other publications – including “Reluctant Warriors” – indicate. He speculates that, “as much as 50%” of the soldiers identified as conscripts drafted under the Military Service Act of 1917 (MSA) were actually volunteers recruited through the British Canadian Recruiting Mission (BCRM), which operated in the US in late 1917and the first half of 1918. He originally made that assertion in an Appendix to his book “Tough as Nails” published in 2005. While Gravel wrote an excellent book, this assertion on BCRM numbers is unfounded and unresearched speculation based on a very small sample that is unlikely to be representative of the true numbers. While the conscripts versus the BCRM numbers are at the heart of Gravel’s “review,” he makes several other critical comments that lack credibility. I don’t want to clutter this review with a detailed critique of Gravel ‘s review – I have posted my criticism of his narrative as a “comment” on his review. Therein I provide some detail, based on my own and third party research, to show that Gravel’s speculation on the BCRM numbers are in error by a wide margin and that the original numbers published in the official history of the CEF actually hold up pretty well. It is worth mentioning that Jack Granatstein, one of Canada’s most famous and well respected military historians, wrote the Foreword to “Reluctant Warriors.” Jack is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an Officer of the Order of Canada and a recipient of the Vimy Award. He concludes his very complimentary Foreword with the words, “Dennis’ important book definitely sets the record straight.” I’m going with Jack on this one! In any event, this is an excellent book, rich in detail and well researched. It’s very readable and tells an important and long overlooked story. Scholars and history buffs alike will enjoy this book.
Date published: 2018-06-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from An incomplete book I just finished 'Reluctant Warriors, Canadian Conscripts and the Great War' by Patrick Dennis and here is my review: My favorite section is 'The First Canadian Conscripts in Combat' as it discusses the logistics of training the conscripts in the spring and summer of 1918. I learned a lot. Half the book is a summary of the 100 days campaign, which helps put the conscripts into context. Dennis' main goal seems to be to dispel some perceived 'myths', however sometimes I feel that he is attacking a straw man. For instance, I have studied extensively the Canadian 1918 campaign and therefore consulted many war diaries and read all published personal diaries (and some unpublished) for the period and have come across very little about the conscripts, good or bad. Dennis has found some anecdotal evidence that these men were considered 'slackers', but he hasn't convinced me that this was as pervasive an attitude at the time as he thinks. His statement ‘There were no ‘volunteers’ after the fall of 1914’ is simply ridiculous and disrespectful to the thousands of volunteers who served after 1914. Dennis accepts the 1944 statistic extracted from Nicholson's 1962 official history of the Great War that 24132 conscripts served in France before the armistice. He states that this figure has '...long been a matter of some dispute.’ It has not. It seems that most historians who have quoted it since 1962 has taken the statistic for granted, except for me, in my 2006 book ‘Tough as Nails’. In the appendix of this work (which Dennis told me he read twice) I point out that there was a serious error in how the number 24132 was arrived at. Back in 1944, when a quick estimate of the number of conscripts who served at the front was required, the men with regimental numbers in the 3 000 000 and 4 000 000 range where counted, and were assumed to all be conscripts. (No individual service records were consulted.) I pointed out, correctly, that British and Canadian volunteers from the USA, recruited at the British Canadian Recruiting Missions (BCRM) were also assigned regimental numbers in the 3 000 000 range, putting the 24132 estimate into question. (I also correctly pointed out that the estimate was further muddled by the fact that conscripts were also issued regimental numbers in other blocks of regimental numbers not counted in the 1944 estimate.) Dennis persists with the 1944 estimate as he states ‘…Nicholson’s figure of 24132 MSA (Military Service Act) men who ‘served in the field’ is still fairly accurate-if anything it is a bit low.’ I find this curious as Dennis also cites Richard Holts’ figure of 17000 soldiers recruited at the BCRM, but concluded that this number is ‘..distinct from the number of ‘24132’ conscripts’ as if to say none of the BCRM recruits were included in the 24132 figure, which I have shown, is quite simply false. Dennis, for whatever reason, has chosen to ignore my findings. Dennis has criticized my conclusion that, based on my preliminary examination of documents, it was possible that as much as 50% of the men included in the 24132 number might have actually been volunteers from the BCRM. However, if we rely on Holts' figure of 17000, it is quite possible that an important minority of the men originally counted in the 24132 statistic are actually men from the BCRM. Whatever the proportion of BCRM men included in the 24132 figure is, since Dennis has taken the BCRM recruits out of the equation, we are left still without a good estimate of the number of conscripts who served at the front before the armistice. Any judgment as to the efficacity of the Military Service Act of 1917 has to be on hold until a proper estimate is reached at. I admit that it might turn out that 24000 is a close approximation to the number of conscripts who served at the front, as many conscripts were not counted in 1944, but a reliable estimate hasn’t been determined yet. One thing is certain is that the 1944 estimate of 24132 as quoted by Nicholson includes an important minority of BCRM recruits, therefore it should no longer be cited. I have noticed that Dennis tends to downplay the BCRM men in general. In his 2009 article ‘A Canadian Conscript Goes to War’ Dennis refers to the BCRM volunteers as ‘so-called volunteers’, implying that they were somehow not really volunteers even though they clearly were. He continues this theme that somehow these volunteers were coerced in some way in ‘Reluctant Warriors’: He claims that the ‘BCRM sought to take advantage of considerable social pressures being brought to bear in the United States by the selective service act.’ His attempts to portray that these men where somehow coerced by ‘social pressure’ into volunteering is wrong by the simple fact that British Subjects residing in the USA were not under the authority of the selective service act until July 30, 1918, date at which they became eligible for the draft. (On this date the BCRM went out of business). Therefore, the fact remains that these late-war volunteers, willingly and without coercion, were a significant source of reinforcements to the Canadian Corps in the field in 1918, whether this suits Dennis' thesis or not. We owe them a great debt. The volunteers of the BCRM alone falsify Dennis’ statement that ‘There were no ‘volunteers’ after the fall of 1914’. Dennis fails to ‘qualify’ the conscripts, and doesn’t deal with enforcement of the Military Service Act, nor does he deal with the apprehended defaulters who served at the front. My investigations have shown that probably a great number of the conscripts who served at the front reported for duty after waiving their right to an exemption. (According to the Nicholson History most of the men registered for the MSA applied for exemption). These men were what I call ‘easy conscripts’. A case can be made that these men were as ‘good’ and motivated as any volunteer. Dennis does not explore how many of these ‘easy conscripts’ made up the ranks of the total conscripts who served at the front. It would be interesting to have seen what would have happened to the effectiveness of the MSA, and the quality of the conscripted soldier, after the pool of ‘easy conscripts’ was used up. Dennis does not discuss the hundreds of men, who registered for the MSA but failed to report as ordered. The Part II daily orders of the depot Battalions show columns of men who were taken on strength effective November 10, 1917 (the date the MSA came into force) and listed as absent. No study has shown whether-or-not these unapprehended defaulters are included in the MSA statistics quoted in the Nicholson book. This is significant as these men probably inflated the actual number of MSA men taken on strength in Canada during the war. These men were only recruits 'on paper'. Occasionally, these defaulters were apprehended by the Dominion police and forcibly compelled to enlist. When this happened, they were given an enlistment date of November 10, 1917, their attestation was marked ‘brought in by Dominion police’ and were often issued a regimental number in the 4 000 000 block. (I suspect that this block might have been reserved for apprehended defaulters and might have been done to identify potential trouble makers, but this remains to be confirmed.) It is my belief that comparatively few of these potential troublemakers saw service at the front. But I also believe that as exemptions were suspended and if the war dragged on, ‘apprehended defaulters’ would have started to swell the ranks of the conscripts at the front, probably affecting the quality of the reinforcement drafts. Dennis’ book demonstrates that the performance of the conscripts during the hundred days campaign was good, thanks, I think in part to the thousands of men who reported for duty immediately and waived their right for a possible exemption. However, had the war lasted into 1919 and 1920 would the quality of reinforcements provided by the MSA have deteriorated after the abolition of exemptions? We’ll never know. I think that the effectiveness of the MSA could only have been judged had the war persisted. The war ended too soon for us to make a proper assessment. What is my verdict on ‘Reluctant Warriors’? I think the book is a solid start to studying the men of the Military Service Act of 1917, but the book is unfortunately, incomplete.
Date published: 2018-06-21

Table of Contents

Foreword / By J.L. Granatstein

Introduction: Slackers, Shirkers, and Malingerers

1 “The Blood Dimmed Tide”

2 Canada’s New Fighting Forces

3 The First Canadian Conscripts in Combat

4 Conspicuous Gallantry at Amiens

5 “Draft Men” and the Battle of the Scarpe, 1918

6 The Hardest Single Battle: The Drocourt-Quéant Line

7 Canal du Nord and the Brotherhood of Arms

8 A Dangerous Advance Continued

9 Cambrai and Iwuy: “For a time hell was loose”

10 Honour and Duty in the Pursuit to Mons

11 The Equal of the Best

Conclusion: Evidence has a Way of Dissolving Theories


Notes; Bibliography; Index

Editorial Reviews

During the “Hundred Days” campaign of the First World War, over 30 percent of conscripts who served in the Canadian Corps became casualties. Yet, they were often considered slackers for not having volunteered. Reluctant Warriors is the first examination of the pivotal role played by Canadian conscripts in the final campaign of the Great War on the Western Front. Challenging long-standing myths, this Patrick Dennis examines whether conscripts made any significant difference to the success of the Canadian Corps in 1918. Reluctant Warriors provides fresh evidence that conscripts were good soldiers who made a crucial contribution to the war effort.With his fine research and careful analysis, Patrick Dennis has corrected the story that I and others told for so long. Some conscripts may have been shirkers – so were some volunteers – but most did their duty in a succession of great and terrible battles that broke the German Army. - from the Foreword by J.L. Granatstein, OC, FRSC