Dissolving Canada’s Great War Army
Professor of History at McGill University
Armies dissolve as soon as they are formed. Thousands of the Canadian volunteers sent to Valcartier in 1914 came home, some because they lacked their wife’s permission to enlist. Two hundred thousand more—sick, wounded or otherwise unsuitable for service—followed during the war, leaving about 450,000 soldiers for the postwar demobilization.
Canada was a country with everything to learn about waging war or about winding down a war machine. Its military pension rules dated from 1885 and really from the War of 1812. In the 1917 election, politicians promised soldiers “full re-establishment.” What did they mean? How could a deeply divided and virtually bankrupt Canada support war widows and orphans or 70,000 veterans permanently disabled in mind or body? How could the economy re-absorb half a million impatient young men, unskilled in any but the crafts of war? Could any government resist the demands of organized veterans and their allies for a share of the benefits stay-at-home civilians had too obviously enjoyed in wartime?
Normally, Canadians took their lead from Britain but there veterans had traditionally been abandoned to private patriotic charities and begging on street corners. In the United States politically inspired generosity—the so-called “Pension Evil”—had created the huge Grand Army of the Lobby and pension costs that served to endorse big business’s campaigns for high tariffs. For once, Canadians looked to France where huge casualties, a shrinking population and meagre public finances justified a huge retraining program for disabled soldiers.
Canada’s Military Hospitals Commission (MHC) was launched in 1915 to handle the returning flow of sick and wounded soldiers. “There must be a minimum of sentiment and a maximum of hard business sense concerning the future of the returned soldier,” insisted its secretary, Ernest Scammell. His plan called for a Canadian version of the French program. By 1918, the MHC job-training program ranged from handicrafts supervised by female ward aides to sustain the work ethic through the long months of convalescence to recruiting former travelling salesmen as employment agents for ex-soldier patients.
Scammell’s principles applied equally to a new Board of Pension Commissioners (BPC), created in 1916. Its three commissioners ignored both politics and sentimentality and they counted on retraining to lighten Canada's postwar pension burden.
Pensions would be based on objective assessments of disability, based on a soldier’s medical documents, not on personal or family appeals. Thanks to allowances for wives and children, Canada's full military pensions were the most generous in the world by 1919, but only the completely disabled (five per cent of the total) could claim them.
Whatever the long-term physical or psychological impact of the war, most Canadian soldiers were as fit. Most found their own way back to family farms, pre-war trades and businesses. Traditionally, veterans of Canada's war had been settled on free or cheap land. The new veterans regarded land as almost an entitlement and the government answered their expectations with a Soldier Settlement Act (SSA). In fact, Canada had long since disposed of arable public land. Beneficiaries of the SSA had to prove that they could succeed as farmers, borrow money to buy land, livestock and equipment and benefit only from heavily subsidised interest rates. With expectations inflated by old memories, soldier settlers began with a sense of grievance. They had also begun farming in an era of ecological disaster and a series of depressions starting in 1921.
“The returned soldier,” declared Montreal multi-millionaire Lord Atholstan, “must not be allowed to consider himself an unlimited creditor of the State, to be supported in idleness.” A series of veterans' organizations, headed by the Great War Veterans’ Association (GWVA), formed at Winnipeg in 1917, appeared bent on challenging Atholstan's pronouncement. In fact, GWVA leaders were soon outflanked when the war ended in 1918. Able-bodied veterans came home in 1919 to find Canada in the grip of unprecedented inflation and their families living in poverty next to well-paid neighbours. Inspired by a public meeting in Calgary, they made a demand for a bonus (ranging from $2,000 for men who had served in France to $1,000 who had stayed in Canada) to make up the difference. Sympathizers, including the 1919 Liberal leadership convention, quickly joined the chorus. In Ottawa, Sir Robert Borden's Union government recognized that a $2 billion hand-out would almost double a swollen national debt and would only feed the veterans’ appetite for more. GWVA leaders discreetly agreed but their organization split as dissident Tories and an American-born demagogue named Harry Flan promoted a dissident Grand Army of United Veterans (GAUV).
Unlike the U.S. Congress, Parliament defeated the bonus demand in November 1919, leaving Canada's First World War veterans with a durable sense of grievance and much-shrunken political influence. A weakened GWVA leadership focussed on benefits for disabled comrades and for widows and children. It even won a Royal Commission to investigate its grievances, headed by a former wartime battalion commander and future defence minister, J.L. Ralston. His recommendations allowed the BPC's arbitrary rulings to be challenged before a Pension Tribunal. Claimants could even obtain free legal advice. In practice, the Tribunal changed few rulings, and its wisdom was subject to a Pension Appeal Court. The real effect was to create a huge backlog of cases and claimants at both levels of appeal.
During the 1920s, regular debates on soldier's civil re-establishment took on a pattern. A House of Commons committee would hear the grievances; late in the session some would be incorporated in legislation; as the session was winding up, the Senate would veto any changes its wealthy members disapproved. Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King occasionally expostulated and even threatened abolition, but the ritual persisted until the eve of the 1930 election when many old grievances were remedied and a new War Veterans’ Allowance of $24 a month was approved for so-called “Burned-Out cases,” veterans who claimed to be prematurely aged by their service and who initially were mostly the so-called “thirty-niners,” volunteers who had enlisted though over the maximum age of 40.
In the 1930s, the costs of demobilization gradually began to decline. A majority of Canada's soldier settlers were swept off the land by drought and debt. Dependent pensions had begun to decline in the 1920s as war widows re-married or died and their children reached the maximum age for support (15 for boys, 16 for girls). Now disabled pensions began to fade as well. In 1925, exhausted and broke after its long struggle for pensioners, the GWVA was supplanted by a Canada Legion, inspired by Field Marshal Earl Haig's directive to former CEF officers to play a role in a veterans' movement hitherto dominated by men from the ranks. By the 1930s, with the Depression choking public generosity, the Legion tired of the pension struggle and, like aging veterans, gave new priority to commemoration. A Canadian Corps Association organized the major event for veterans, the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1937, when Canada’s Vimy Memorial was finally unveiled by Edward VIII, one of the only public acts of his short reign. A little over two years later, Canada was preparing for a new war and a second demobilization.
Professor of History at McGill University
Desmond Morton is Hiram Mills professor of History at McGill University and the author of thirty nine books on Canadian military, political and industrial relations history.