The Nation in Arms: How Canada’s ‘Army on the Cheap’ Became a Successful Fighting Force

The Nation in Arms: How Canada’s ‘Army on the Cheap’ Became a Successful Fighting Force
The 13th Royal Regiment of the Canadian Militia parade in Hamilton, Ont., in 1915. (Public Domain)
C.P. Champion
Six months before the outbreak of the Second World War, Prime Minister Mackenzie King predicted that Canada would never again send its army overseas. “The days of great expeditionary forces ... crossing the oceans are not likely to recur,” he said in March 1939. It was wishful thinking.
The words attributed to communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky are more accurate: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” War can only be prevented by preparedness and effective deterrence, which require strategy and cost money.
Canada sent more than 600,000 volunteers overseas during the First World War. By difficult learning and training, and with 61,000 killed and 172,000 wounded, they accomplished magnificent feats of arms, helping to force the German surrender in November 1918. The “creation of the Canadian Corps was the greatest thing that Canada had ever done,” wrote historian C.P. Stacey. It was, according to Gen. Jonathan Vance, in a “very real sense the nation in arms, the life-force of Canada transported overseas.”

Our military has a glorious heritage—not because war and murder are glorious (it is obvious they are evil) but because service, especially voluntary sacrifice, teamwork, skill, and ingenuity on behalf of one’s fellow man, no matter the circumstances, gives life great meaning and inspiration.

After demobilization, most soldiers returned to civilian life, but some stayed on. As historian Marc Milner wrote, the army (both full-time and part-time) was still the “traditional nation in arms.”

The nation in arms refers to our wonderful voluntary army, which Canadians from every part of the country can choose to join, or not. Before the Second World War, the “Canadian Militia,” as it was called, consisted of a small professional Permanent Active Militia (PAM) or Permanent Force, and a larger part-time force, the Non-Permanent Active Militia (NPAM), the reserves. Today, regular and reserve are closer in size, with reserves being one-third of the entire army.

Like today, the Militia before the war was painfully neglected, with “pitifully small” budgets, too few weapons, too little kit, and “great restriction in training.” All of this was controlled by Parliament and ultimately by the prime minister. It was the “familiar policy of partly trained Militia, inadequately equipped, out of balance, lacking modern arms,” George Stanley wrote, “an army on the cheap.”

Politicians like to believe it is OK to neglect the armed forces: “In the absence of an immediate crisis,” wrote C.P. Stacey in 1940, “the country’s political leaders, the members of Parliament generally, and the public at large [were] indifferent.”

By contrast, most serving officers considered themselves to be “realists.” They expected that a second war involving Germany, Russia, and the Western powers would come sooner or later. They also believed that in the event of war, Canada would urgently need adequate numbers of trained officers and men.

Accordingly, from 1937 to 1939, the defence ministry tried an “attempted rearmament,” proposed by the Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Andy McNaughton, before he stepped down in 1935. This was based on defence planning by another great Canadian, Brig. Gen. James Sutherland “Buster” Brown.

The reserves subsisted in hundreds of small part-time army regiments in towns and cities in every part of Canada. That remains true of the Army Reserve today. Because Canadians’ homes are spread out across 5,500 kilometres east to west, in order for civilians to be able to serve part-time in the reserves, the army must have a very large number of small local units, rooted in the community, with different styles of attraction like the skirl of the pipes, the ruggedness of infantry, blast of artillery, romance of cavalry (“Why walk when you can drive?”), and the humanity of the medical corps—each subculture absolutely central to Canadian identity since the 1800s. What could be more Canadian than a bearskin cap?
The Royal Canadian Dragoons, a cavalry regiment with the Militia, leaving Stanley Barracks in Toronto in 1925. (Public Domain)
The Royal Canadian Dragoons, a cavalry regiment with the Militia, leaving Stanley Barracks in Toronto in 1925. (Public Domain)
But with low budgets, how did the pre-war Militia survive? Believe it or not, they survived by studying and training unpaid during their leisure time—and by not giving up their day job. In the decades between 1919 and 1939, Canada’s army in every city and town was sustained to a great extent by that voluntary spirit.
As Stacey and other military historians have recounted, despite “miserly budgets” and “training deficiencies,” and little public sympathy, reserve units found innovative ways to recruit, train, and retain troops through the interwar years, “often at their own expense” because they “felt in their innermost thoughts that the nation should not be completely unprepared.” They “had a hunch in spite of the popular trend, that they’d be needed once again” when war came.

Reservists were (and are) an easy target for being scoffed at as “weekend warriors.” To outsiders it seems like play-acting, “dressing up” as soldiers. In reality, regular soldiers do exactly the same thing because there is no other way to train.

Author Farley Mowat was a great defender. “The absurdity was purely superficial,” he wrote in his book “The Regiment.” “What mattered was the power of the belief that the Militia was a thing to be preserved in readiness.”

Mowat regretted the 1930s atmosphere of pacifism, “propaganda,” and “political expediency,” with “not a few” citizens sympathetic to fascism. The resulting “starvation” meant “no boots, no weapons, no interest, and often no pay.”

But in spite of this, men turned out “from the farms and from the shops,” even though “often, there was not even the recompense of the miserly militia pay.” He added: “Their officers laboured unceasingly, giving not only of their time, but of their own pockets to buy boots for the men. Against a growing feeling of apathy, or of outright antipathy, the Regiment survived — stood ready against the day of need.”

Lt. Gen. Howard Graham rose from a reserve private (the lowest position in the rank and file) to become Chief of the General Staff (commander of the army) from 1955 to 1958. He recalled in his memoir, “Citizen and Soldier,” that as a reserve officer before the war, “I can never recall drawing a cent of pay for time spent in regimental training.”

Studying military records, historian Britton MacDonald found that in 1927, at least “402 of the Militia’s 870 units” voluntarily “turned over part or the whole of their pay to their unit” to provide training. That gave new meaning to the term “volunteer service.” And so despite the obstacles, the Permanent Force and the NPAM together fought “a silent battle for existence.”

Because of their dedication, there were 30,000 reservists at summer training camps in 1938–39, more than any season since the First World War. By Aug. 23, 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet Friendship Pact was revealed and war became inevitable, the Canadian Militia was on a sounder footing than ever before.

When it was time, in 1940, for Canada to send its next overseas expeditionary force, the reserves provided “the majority of commissioned officers and warrant officers.” That core of “partially-trained officers, NCOs and soldiers” formed an “invaluable nucleus,” Stacey wrote. By May 1945, with much more training and hard experience, three of the five division commanders were reserve officers.

If you desire peace, prepare for war. Once war breaks out (and it always will), it’s too late and you will lose many additional young lives for no reason other than that you neglected them during peacetime.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
C.P. Champion, Ph.D., is the author of two books, was a fellow of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen's University in 2021, and edits The Dorchester Review magazine, which he founded in 2011.