Canadian Troops Embarking for Canada on SS Olympic
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02 min 26 s
Topical Film Company
This clip documents scenes from the huge demobilization effort, as Canadian soldiers board the RMS Olympic at Southampton, England. (RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer.) An initial segment showing Canadian infantrymen walking up the gangplank is followed by wide shots of the vessel at dock and images of officers posing for the camera alongside the ship’s staff. The final images show Australian troops celebrating on the dock.
The dearth of adequate ships was a problem for those responsible for bringing the troops home, and the scandal over the S.S. Northland made things worse. In December 1918, returning troops got off the ship in Halifax, complaining bitterly of conditions during the crossing. The incident caused a scandal, sparking a commission of inquiry that set out basic standards for troopships — a commendable goal but one that slowed repatriation.
The RMS Olympic was a sister ship of the Titanic and one of the few big liners to survive the war. Another sister ship, the RMS Britannic, had been converted to a hospital ship and was subsequently torpedoed in the Aegean Sea in 1916.
However, Canadian authorities were concerned that rail connections in Halifax could not accommodate the large numbers of disembarking passengers from such vessels, and were initially reluctant to use these “monster ships” in repatriation. Furthermore, in the interests of Anglo-American relations, the British were complying with US demands to use the big liners to repatriate American units.
In March 1919, a riot at the Kinmel Park camp brought a new sense of urgency to repatriation. Tired of waiting and angry about poor living conditions, a group of Canadian troops went on a rampage that culminated in five deaths. The incident caused a sensation in the British press, straining Canada-British relations, and put additional pressure on Canadian authorities to speed up repatriation. With this in mind, previous concerns over the Halifax facilities were set aside, and the British offered the RMS Olympic to the Canadian government for a single transatlantic crossing.
Pieces of History
Dissolving Canada’s Great War Army
Professor of History at McGill University
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.
Morton, Desmond. Fight or Pay: Soldiers' Families in the Great War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.
---. “'Kicking and Complaining': Demobilization Riots in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1918-19.” Canadian Historical Review 61, 3 (September 1980): 334-360.
Morton, Desmond and Glenn Wright. Winning the Second Battle: Canadian Veterans and the Return to Civilian Life, 1915-1930. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.
The original estimate that at least eighteen months would be required to bring back all overseas troops proved excessive. Two-thirds of the overseas force reached home within five months, and before a year had passed repatriation was virtually completed. On November 13 1918 the British Ministry of Shipping advised the Canadian Government that ships would be available to move 50,000 troops each month; and in spite of strikes which cancelled individual sailings, shipping was never a real problem. But during the winter of 1918-1919 Canadian railways could handle less than 25,000 troops in a month; and even when disembarkation could take place at the St. Lawrence ports, with a resulting shorter rail haul, the capacity of the vessels available considerably exceeded that of the troop trains. Wisely the Militia Department called for expert assistance from the Minister of Railways and the presidents of the three major railway systems. High officials of the companies formed a railway demobilization committee which was able to increase the monthly carrying capacity to a total of 45,000 troops.
Each soldier had the right to choose his destination in Canada. In order that each might be demobilized at a point near this destination, twenty-two Dispersal Areas were set up in Canada by subdividing the existing eleven Military Districts. At the concentration camps established in the United Kingdom troops from the continent, as well as those already in England, were regrouped and distributed among twenty-two wings, each matched to a Dispersal Area in Canada. From these camps units of the Canadian Corps entrained direct for the port of embarkation, but for troops outside the Corps a large staging camp was organized at Kinmel Park, thirty miles from Liverpool. Only the 3rd Division (which headed the Corps move) and Corps Troops were not regrouped, but returned to Canada in the units in which they had fought.
At the concentration camps the soldier completed his documentation and received his final medical and dental clearances. His kit deficiencies were replaced, his pay account adjusted, and he filed his application for his War Service Gratuity. He was then granted demobilization leave of from eight days to two weeks. On his return he received his Last Pay Certificate and was posted to an embarkation company to await sailing. In all, the average soldier spent about a month in England. There were some cases when for compassionate reasons individuals returned home in advance of normal sailings. Unfortunately, though these were few, they were a cause of dissatisfaction to soldiers who did not understand the circumstances involved. Furthermore, for considerations of economy and to keep ships filled, certain untrained drafts were sent back to Canada soon after their arrival in the United Kingdom.
These modifications to the policy of "first over, first back", aggravated by disappointment brought about by the cancellation of individual sailings, were at the root of some of the rioting which occurred at several Canadian camps. Men were being brought home as fast as the available ships and trains could move them, but not as rapidly nor in the order in which some desired to come. There was resentment over the fact that the 3rd Division - which included many Military Service Act men with comparatively little service - was given precedence over the other divisions. Unfortunately not enough effort appears to have been given to explain the reasons for the delays, unavoidable as they were. In all, between November 1918 and June 1919, there were thirteen instances of riots or disturbances involving Canadian troops in England.
The most serious of these occurred at Kinmel Park on March 4 and 5 1919, when dissatisfaction over delays in sailing precipitated rioting by upwards of 800 soldiers which resulted in five men being killed and 23 wounded. Seventy-eight men were arrested, of whom 25 were convicted of mutiny and given sentences varying from 90 days' detention to ten years' penal servitude. At Witley, on the night of 14-15 June, a small group of dissidents started trouble by trying to free some soldiers arrested for persisting in playing Crown and Anchor in defiance of previous regulations curbing widespread gambling in the camp. The disturbance spread to canteens and the civilian area. On the following night the Garrison Theatre was burned and nearly all the civilian shops in the area were destroyed. Similarly at Epsom on June 17, the indiscipline of a small minority was to blame when a civilian police station was stormed, one policeman was killed and seven others injured.
On June 20 1919, Lieut.-General Sir R. E. W. Turner, V.C., Chief of the General Staff, O.M.F.C., published a Special Order of the Day warning all troops of their individual responsibility to quell such disturbances. He made clear in no uncertain terms that the incidents that had occurred were acts of mutiny, and that to remain a passive spectator in such a situation was to side with the mutineers. The order appeared to have a good effect upon the troops; at any rate, there were no further disturbances. The outbreaks had been regrettable, particularly as there seems little doubt that the unrest which produced them might have been considerably lessened had more publicity been given to explaining the reasons for having to modify the plans for demobilization.
Despite attempts by the Canadian Government to discourage the discharge of soldiers in the United Kingdom, 15,182 men signed away their right to free transportation home and remained in England. This total, added to 7136 who had already been discharged there before the Armistice, meant that in all some 22,000 Canadian soldiers entered civil life in the United Kingdom.
In Canada demobilization proceeded smoothly and expeditiously. On the arrival of a troopship at a port of disembarkation, the Clearing Services welcomed the soldiers and their dependents - an estimated 54,000 relatives accompanied the returning troops – and arranged for their transportation inland to the Dispersal Areas. Immigration officers worked closely with the military authorities, so that an average train, carrying about five hundred troops, could be loaded in thirty minutes. Spirits were high as the trains rolled rapidly westward; those with only one night on board found in the excitement of nearing home little time for sleep. The heart warming reception given by cheering crowds as the train drew into its destination was repeated in cities all across Canada. In many cases the returning unit would form up outside the railway station for its last march - a proud parade through thronged streets to the place of dismissal. Then came the last order by the Commanding Officer. The men turned right and broke off - and another unit of the
Canadian Expeditionary Force passed into history.
The final stages of demobilization were quickly effected. The soldier turned in his arms and equipment (retaining his clothing and steel helmet), had his medical history sheet signed, and received his war badge, his cheque and his discharge certificate. The careful documentation carried out in England and on the ships now paid off, as men passed through the dispersal station at the rate of about six every minute. Every soldier who had been overseas for six months and every one who had served in Canada for a full year received a gratuity based on his length of service and the rate of pay of his rank. (For overseas service, single privates received payments which varied from $420 - for three years' service or more - to $210 for service of less than a year.)
Those veterans who wanted to establish themselves on the land were assisted with long-term loans; in this way the Soldier Settlement Board withdrew more than 30,000 soldiers from the general labour market and directed them into agriculture. For the disabled, there were pensions and medical treatment and opportunities for vocational training. Up to the end of 1919, a total of 91,521 pensions had been granted, amounting to some $22,500,000 annually. At the same time 8000 soldiers were receiving medical treatment, while more than 23,000 were enrolled for vocational training.50 In such manner did a grateful country attempt in some measure to repay its debt to those who had served and survived.
Adapted and used with permission from Nicholson, G. W. L., Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919. Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1964, p.503-506.
Grade Level: Secondary 9-12
Time Allocation: 90 minutes
Films: Recruiting, Colonel Sam Hughes Reviews the Troops, To Willie with Compliments and Canadian Troops Embarking for Canada on SS Olympic
Summary: Students decide how they would respond to a variety of war-related dilemmas.
Imagine that you are a young Canadian in 1914 and have just started university. You are faced with the following dilemmas (a difficult choice between two undesirable alternatives). Answer the questions below, and explain why.
1. Many of your friends have dropped out of university to enlist. Do you enlist? (Explain your decision to your parents.)
2. You enlist. You have a friend who is a conscientious objector (he does not fight in wars). Your military friends say he has no right to stay out of the war. What do you say to them?
3. You have a girl/boyfriend and you plan on marrying after university. Do you marry before going overseas?
4. You have to decide who your next of kin will be if you die. If you marry it is your new spouse, not your mother, who receives the pension. Does the prospect of a death pension change your marriage plans?
5. You are in the trenches in France for the first Christmas of the war. Your regiment is one of the several that fraternized (made friends) with the enemy on Christmas day, 1914. One German soldier was especially kind to you. The next day you have him in your gun sight. What do you do?
6. Many soldiers in your regiment are being killed. A close friend deserts and you see him go. Do you persuade him to return to the trench, do you report him or do you let him go?
7. You tried to persuade him to return and you are both caught and charged for desertion. Do you explain to the colonel what happened and implicate your friend?
8. Your friend admits that he deserted and he is to be executed. They put you in the firing party. Do you refuse to shoot him and risk punishment?
9. Your platoon attacks a German trench. You are wounded, but your comrades carry on and kill the enemy soldiers. Soon after, your fellow soldiers die by shellfire. You are given the credit for capturing the trench and are to be given a medal. Do you tell the truth – that you were wounded before the trench was captured?
10. After recovering in hospital in England, you are sent home to Canada. The Canadian public still thinks that the war is glorious and you are asked to help recruit other soldiers. What do you do?
11. You return to the trenches. During a major attack your regiment is ordered to push to the enemy lines and leave the wounded behind. Your best friend is hit. What do you do?
12. Your regiment is sent back from the front lines. You are ordered to paint red crosses, symbols of hospitals, on boats carrying war materials. Do you do it?
13. You go back to the trenches. Your brother and other Canadians are found with their hands tied and shot by the Germans. You capture some prisoners and no one else is there. Do you take revenge for your brother’s death?
14. A reporter at the front asks you if the Canadian sacrifices are worth it. What do you tell him?
15. You have served your country well for four years. Finally the war is over. Some of your fellow veterans resent being kept in England for months after the war. There aren’t enough ships to take them home. Do you join the near mutiny and protest?
16. You come back to Canada and need a job. A family friend offers you a position, but he will first have to fire the woman who is presently doing the job. Do you accept his offer?
17. Somebody breaks into your new house and you catch him. He is a former soldier who is unable to find a job. Do you send for the police or let him go?
Try to think up moral dilemmas, this time set in the navy or air force. (You are a submariner, what dilemmas arise? You are a pilot. Do you drop bombs on hospitals, schools, etc.?) Try to keep the dilemmas fairly realistic and try to think up difficult decisions that people actually had to make.
For example: the captain told us to abandon ship but…