Wednesday, October 17, 2012

White Feathered Zeal: Accosting Shirkers in the Great War

In 1915, problems meeting the manpower commitments of the Borden government were quickly discovered by the Canadian army.  Jack Granatstein and JM Hitsman noted in Broken Promises(Oxford: 1977), their fundamental account of conscription in Canada, that standards were quickly lowered when men failed to flock to the recruiting stations.  Medical standards were reduced, the height restriction dropped an inch down to 5'2", minimum chest measurements were decreased, and married men no longer needed permission from their wives to enlist. (p.35)

Chief Justice TG Mathers noted that the strongest motivation to serve was the social pressures put on Western men who were still strolling  civvy-street.  Mathers, a Manitoban pro-conscriptionist, noted that
It is absurd to speak of enlistment at the present day as voluntary.  In the cities of the West the man who is not in uniform is made to feel that he is a sort of social outcast.  No man who joins the ranks today does so voluntarily.  He does so because he can no longer resist the pressure of public opinion.  (Granatstein, p. 38)
 Pierre Van Paassen NYPL th-60174
Patriotic souls took it upon themselves to organize pressure against those not yet serving.  Some women would search for workers and offer to take their place on the job if they would join the army.  As Granatstein noted, "often these patriotic ladies could get carried away."  The memoirs of Pierre van Paasen, a dutchman living in Toronto, testify to the fervour with which shirkers were sought out:
One afternoon I was accosted on the rear platform of a streetcar by a woman, who was dressed in mourning.  She told me that three of her sons had been killed at the front.  She showed me their photographs.  Suddenly she began to talk very loudly.  'Why aren't you in khaki?' She demanded.  'Why do you dare to stand there laughing at my miser? Why don't you go over and fight? Fight, avenge my boys!' she screamed.  'Madam,' I tried to calm her, 'I am not a Canadian.'  That remark set her yelling at the top of her voice.  She screamed that she, the mother of three heroes who had died for their king and country, had been insulted by a foreigner, a slacker, a German spy, a Red, and I don't know what else.
City of Toronto Archives      Fonds 1231, Item 508a
    Close up of 508, T.S.R. Car No. 6
   November 22, 1916
I pulled the cord to bring the street car to a halt.  I alighted. But the woman followed me off and she kept up her screaming about spies and Germans.  A crowd gathered....Somebody stopped me just at the moment when I thought of taking to my heels as the best way out of the predicament.  I was immediately surrounded by a mob.  A group of business men, who had managed to stay five thousand miles away from where the poppies grow, and who were at that moment emerging from the hotel, gallantly rushed to the woman's aid and forced me to submit, as she pinned a white feather through my coat into my flesh: the badge of white-livered cowardice. The last I saw of her was through a pair of badly battered eyes as she laughingly picked up some of the feathers which had dropped from her bag in the scuffle.
...The following day I enlisted.  (Cited in Granatstein, p. 39)
City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 687
Title Mother of military personnel, World War I
Date(s) of creation of record(s)        [ca. 1916]
When in 1917, the Borden government finally acknowledged that the robust commitments of Canadian troops would necessitate conscription if the war were to continue grinding on, the position of Canadian women was far from clear-cut.  The attitude of women whose sons were still in Canada would, of course, be much different from that of the mourner Paasen encountered.  In February 1917, the journal Everywoman's World had organized a "woman's parliament", which stated that a 6:1 ratio of members were against compulsory service (Granatstein, p. 80).  The national women's organizations were broadly in support of Union government and conscription, but one should not assume this meant that half the nation's population to have a unanimous opinion on the matter.  The women's groups of feminist legend may not have had the influence on public opinion that historians at times ascribe to them.  It does seem clear, however, that women whose sons were lost in the war were given a status which was leveraged to promote conscription and shame "shirkers".

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