When Canadian Troops Booed Their Prime Minister

When Canadian Troops Booed Their Prime Minister
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill welcomes Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King on the occasion of Mr. King's visit to England in September 1941. (CP Photo)
C.P. Champion

It doesn’t often happen that soldiers boo their political leaders. For one thing it is beyond disrespectful for military members to show contempt in public toward those to whom they are subordinate in a liberal democracy. Even if troops dislike a particular politician, or disdain politicians in general, it is a gross breach of discipline to show it publicly.

But that is what happened to William Lyon Mackenzie King during the Second World War. It’s a dubious distinction.

The incident occurred during King’s two-week visit to the United Kingdom in the summer of 1941. Since the surrender of France in May 1940, Canada had been Great Britain’s senior ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. In London, King delivered speeches, attended a War Cabinet meeting and various events, and visited Canadian headquarters near the Canadian High Commission (our Embassy in Trafalgar Square), then headed by Vincent Massey, former president of the National Liberal Federation.

King was a nervous man, uneasy in his own skin. When unveiling the National War Memorial in Ottawa in 1939, he was so jittery that he told King George VI to pull off the veil covering the monument at the wrong time, causing more embarrassment. In 1941, the PM was uncomfortable about visiting Canadian troops and “did not have time to visit” most of them. As his diary reveals, he was always worrying about his public image, what people might think, and how that would affect his political standing.

The Canadian Army mobilized the Canadian Active Service Force on Sept. 1, 1939, the same day that Hitler invaded Poland. The CASF sailed for England in December. Due to grave neglect of National Defence spending during peacetime, our troops were short of clothing, boots, blankets and importantly, weapons, all greatly restricted by the “pitifully small” military budget.

The troops’ training was a little better. Few men are truly “ready” for combat until the fighting starts. Then they die (or learn quickly while trying not to). When Canada declared war on Sept. 10, 1939, most of the officers and a high number of the junior ranks were reservists who had been training part-time for many years. Most reserve officers were smart civilians who had completed the famous Militia Staff Course, “the finest investment ever made with training funds,” wrote Gen. Harry Letson, a veteran of the First World War. With combat experience they became first-rate officers.

In 1940, one cabinet minister warned Mackenzie King that if the troops were given nothing to do besides repeat the same training scenarios over and over again, they would become bored and demoralized. Charles “Chubby” Power had also served in the First World War, rising from private to captain. He was now the Liberal MP for Quebec South and, after 1940, acting minister of National Defence as well as air minister. He urged Ottawa not to let the men’s morale suffer through lack of action.

On Aug. 23, 1941, King reluctantly visited the troops at their camp in Aldershot, representing about one-tenth of the 125,000 soldiers in England at the time. It was their sports day. King arrived 40 minutes late and was greeted by “mixed cheers and boos.” Ten thousand men, “the largest single gathering of Canadian troops ever assembled in Britain,” had been waiting for him in the rain, said the front page of the Ottawa Evening Journal.

The booing was not a one-off. It resumed and “lasted for several seconds,” the Journal went on, and “was at times … more voluminous than handclapping and cheering.”

The prime minister was upset. In public he said Canadian soldiers were “free to express their views.” But in his diary he admitted being “about a quarter of an hour” late. The troops were suffering from “the inactivity” and “it was clear that they were feeling restraint at not getting to the front … I could feel that unfortunately I had gotten off to speak on the wrong foot.”

Contradictorily, he also professed to believe that the incident was orchestrated by Conservatives in the ranks. He wrote in his diary that “clearly it had been organised” and he called the ruckus “unfair and Tory tactics.”

“Some soldiers,” the Ottawa newspaper found, felt that after nearly two years in England they should have been deployed “beside the Australians,” who had fought alongside British, Polish, and Czech forces all year in North Africa and Greece against Italy and Germany, and in the Levant against Vichy France, which then controlled Syria and Lebanon.

Major C.P. Stacey, an army senior historical officer, also interviewed several troops. In his official report dated Sept. 23, he downplayed the booing as a “soldier-like lark.” The men “were not, of course, on parade at the time,” not formally drawn up. There was some “discontent” as they had “been in this country for some twenty-one months without seeing action.”

Winston Churchill also mentioned the fact during the Lord Mayor’s luncheon in King’s honour on Sept. 4. Canadian troops “have not yet had a chance of coming to close quarters with the enemy,” Churchill said. As the crowd murmured, he added: “It is not their fault. It is not their fault.”

As a historian, Stacey knew there was more to the story. Those who had served in the Canadian Army during the 1930s knew the painful neglect that the politicians had subjected the forces to. Reserve units had conducted weekend and summer training with old equipment (or none), and with their personal vehicles standing in for tanks and trucks. Many reserve officers gave up their pay so that junior ranks could be paid to attend training. The politicians simply did not care enough to pay attention to the troops’ needs in detail.

“In the absence of an immediate crisis the country’s political leaders, the members of Parliament generally, and the public at large had all been indifferent,” Stacey had written in 1940. The result was “an army on the cheap.” Stacey wrote those words in his book “Military Problems of Canada.” It’s still a problem today.

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.
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