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SIMON LLOYD: Conscription pressure increases on P.E.I. during First World War

The buoyant imagery of this Dominion government advertisement, carried in The Guardian of Oct. 20, 1917, reflected high hopes for early success in Canada’s conscription drive, but initial results were disappointing. On P.E.I., only a few hundred men reported for military service by the Nov. 10 deadline, and, of these, almost 20 per cent sought exemptions from service almost immediately. SUBMITTED PHOTO
The buoyant imagery of this Dominion government advertisement, carried in The Guardian of Oct. 20, 1917, reflected high hopes for early success in Canada’s conscription drive, but initial results were disappointing. SUBMITTED PHOTO

In October and November of 1917, P.E.I. felt the impact of several major developments in Canada's war effort. On Oct. 6, The Guardian lead editorial announced: “Parliament dissolves today, and we are on the eve of a general election. The Win-the-War Party headed by their great leader, Sir Robert Borden, is ready for the conflict ... conscious of the righteousness of their great cause.”

A week later, The Guardian of Oct. 13 reported the swearing-in of a Union cabinet, comprised of members both from Borden's Conservative party and from a contingent of federal Liberals who had, in supporting conscription, broken with Opposition leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The election date, Dec. 17, was officially announced by Borden on Nov. 1, and some of the campaign’s tone was captured by a front-page banner adopted by The Guardian the next day: “The Coming Election is to take a census of the Disloyal, the Slackers and the Political Opportunists on the one hand and the LOYAL, REDBLOODED CANADIANS who are in the War to the end, on the other.”

Whatever one's opinion on conscription, it was certainly no abstraction. The Oct. 18 issue of The Guardian carried a lengthy official proclamation ordering all men in “Class 1” to report for military service or submit application for exemption, by Nov. 10. Class 1 was comprised of single men and childless widowers between 20 and 34 years of age: the official government position, as proclaimed in a vivid advertisement carried in The Guardian two days later, was that the hoped-for 100,000 conscripts could be raised out of Class 1 alone.

William W. Stanley, appointed P.E.I. provincial registrar under the Military Service Act in September, was soon overseeing a network of enlistment tribunals and medical boards, some sitting in larger towns such as Charlottetown and Summerside, others travelling to smaller communities across the province. The initial results were less than encouraging: on Nov. 21, The Guardian tersely reported that over 95 per cent of the more than 1,000 applications received from across P.E.I. for enlistment exemption had been granted. Of the 330 men who had reported for military service, a full 60 had then applied for exemption.

“At this rate,” fretted the Nov. 21 report, “Prince Edward Island bids fair to be among the lowest in the number of men provided under the Military Service Act”.

Although some medical and compassionate exemptions were granted, the most likely reason for the low Island numbers was the decision to exempt the “essential occupations” of farming and fishing from the draft. Things were clearly not unfolding as expected, however: as reported in The Guardian of Oct. 2, the Dominion government had calculated that there should have been 785 Class 1 men in non-essential occupations in P.E.I.

In any event, the demand for reinforcements was only growing more urgent, as word came in the second week of November of another costly Canadian victory on the Western Front. Fighting through the most horrendous mud and slaughter of the war, the Canadian Corps achieved in a few weeks what other Allied armies had failed to accomplish over many months, capturing the ruins of Passchendaele village and the adjoining high ground. Canadian Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, now leading the entire Canadian Corps after recent promotion from command of its First Division, did his best, as at Vimy Ridge, to prepare the Passchendaele assault carefully. Conditions were so dreadful, however, that Currie only ordered his corps into battle under protest, warning of high casualties. Canada lost over 4,000 men killed and another 12,000 wounded at Passchendaele, and this toll was reflected in notable jump in casualty reports in The Guardian as the end of November approached.

Faced with a disappointing response to conscription, and a seemingly endless stream of Island soldiers killed, wounded or missing, The Guardian was able to find at least one cause for cheer. Desperate for money to carry on the war, the Canadian government had begun issuing war bonds in late 1915, but November 1917 brought the first official Victory Loan campaign. Perhaps fittingly, the P.E.I. Victory Loan launch was announced on the front page of The Guardian on Nov. 12, next to a Canadian Press article reporting, “Passchendaele Now Secure”. Within a few weeks, The Guardian of Nov. 30 was able to report that P.E.I. was the first province to hit its Victory Loan sales target — $1,000,000 – and was now closing in on a new target of $1,500,000, roughly equivalent to $24,530,000 today.

 

Simon Lloyd is librarian responsible for the P.E.I. collection at the University of Prince Edward Island Robertson Library's University Archives and Special Collections. This is part of a monthly series of lookbacks at the First World War he will be providing, drawing on the historic issues of The Guardian available online at islandnewspapers.ca.

 

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