No Politician Need Fear The Soldier Vote, For The Veterans of The Great War Are Scattered to The Four Corners of the Dominion – Disunion Is Evident – Lack of a Soldiers’ Organization That Represents The Old Corps of War Days – What Chance of a Canadian Legion?

By Gregory Clark, July 18, 1925.

Canada has succeeded magnificently in disbanding her army.

One of the oldest problems in the history of the world is how to disband an army.

Raising an army is a joke. Any country can raise an army overnight. The late war proves it. A few drums, a few flags, a few promises. But it is getting rid of that dangerous mustering of men that is the mischief of a job. The world’s history is full of jagged holes torn by armies that wouldn’t disband. Caesar’s to Napoleon’s, great, rearing political and social factors that the statesmen had not counted on when they planned and executed a “good war.”

Caesar set out to make the world safe for democracy: and, after he had done all he intended, here were legions unnumbered cluttering up the streets of Rome, who wouldn’t go back to the plow, but, professional veterans, began agitating for democracy. Napoleon set out to make the world safe for democracy, against the kings of the world; and before he finally got his army disbanded he was an emperor, an exile, and his old army disbanded itself in the cafes of Paris under a king.

It isn’t an army in the field that is a dangerous thing. It is an army back home.

Canada’s army is utterly disbanded. It was probably not by design that our regiments were recruited from different parts of the dominion. Yet there is the secret of disbanding. To hold a reunion of one Toronto regiment, for example, you would have to get its old members from Owen Sound, Ottawa, Quebec, New Brunswick, North Bay, Alberta and Kingston.

That regiment cannot hold a reunion. It has never held a reunion. It disbanded in Toronto Exhibition grounds. And its members scattered to the four winds of the vast dominion. As a whole, it will never be again. A thousand old familiar faces are gone forever. This is the fact about practically every regiment in the Canadian corps.

No politician has anything to fear from the soldier vote. Nor need anything great ever be expected, by way of splendid constructive and organized effort from that magnificent body of Canadians who stood together, say in 1917 and 1918.

The recent gathering of veterans at Ottawa to meet Lord Haig and to hear his inspiring appeal for the union of all Canada’s veterans and to join Canada’s veterans with the British Legion in an imperial association of all the ex-soldiers of the war has merely brought to the front the fact of the disunion of Canada’s veterans.

That Canada’s veterans have tried to get together is proved by the fact that there have been and are in existence at least twenty and perhaps more distinct veterans’ organizations in Canada. There is one strong one – strong, in comparison with the others – one that was strong in the hectic days of 1921, but now of unknown strength, and then a large number that trail away to mere regimental societies, looking after the dependent members of the units they commemorate.

Each Claimed the Honor

That any or all of these veterans’ associations actually represent the ex-service men of Canada as a whole is claimed by all, but stands in need of proof.

Five offices of five separate and distinct veterans’ associations were visited in Toronto. In each office a paid official stated in unqualified terms that there was only one real, strong, representative soldiers’ organization in the country.

This emphatic statement by five paid officials does not mean that the union inspired by Lord Haig has suddenly come into being. Nor does it mean that all five are agreed that one of their number is really the one effective, powerful agency for the service of the ex-soldier.

No. Each official claimed the honor and distinction for his own association! And the words that each used regarding all the others, only a few hours after the meeting with Lord Haig, were hard words.

The reunion of old regiments is physically impossible. The effort to enroll the veterans in a civil organization has failed in the upspringing of a score of separate and opposed associations. The union of these associations, without the leadership of a mighty man, and the co-operation of tens of thousands of Canadian ex-service men who have never joined any organization, is most unlikely.

Yet every one of these societies of veterans has had as its first principle the assisting of ex-soldiers or soldiers’ widows in the winning from the government their just dues in pensions, allowances, and medical treatment. All of them have done something in this direction; some of them have done much. The millions of dollars that have been awarded by official departments in the last eight years on the representation of these veteran societies is proof enough that they have been of value to the country. That such service bureaus would have emerged at the end of the war was perfectly natural, of course.

But to what extent are the veterans’ associations now active representative of that Canadian corps which enlisted, from its start to its finish, over half a million men in Canada?

This has become more than a little question. Because, at the meeting with Lord Haig in Ottawa, the various associations, with a decisive gesture, appeared to hand over to Lord Haig not merely the associations or clubs of veterans which were represented there, but the veterans of Canada as a whole.

When, for example, a veterans’ organization of all of them for that matter makes a public pronouncement on some public question can this be accepted as the opinion of the old Canadian corps?

Descending Order of Figures

To our representative in Ottawa C. Grant MacNeil, general secretary of the G.W.V.A., Nell gave the following figures. He stated that the active and paid-up membership of the G.W.V.A. throughout Canada is now 99,900. He gives as the Ontario membership 42,000.

Mr. A. Shields, secretary of the Ontario district command, stated that the active and paid-up membership of Ontario would be about 30,000, and of Toronto about 5,000.

Mr. Harry Bray, president of the Toronto district, said that 5,000 would be about the paid-up strength of Toronto, and that the Riverdale branch, probably the strongest in the city, would be 600.

The secretary of the Riverdale branch stated that his active paid-up strength was 480.

This downward discrepancy of figures throughout would probably seriously affect Mr. MacNeil’s estimate that there were 99,900 active members in his organization, the strongest of all the associations.

In the audit of the G.W.V.A. dominion headquarters at Ottawa an order of the senate committee which was investigating the payment of trust moneys made to Mr. MacNeil, it showed that money received by the headquarters of the G.W.V.A. over the whole period of eight years of its existence as per capita tax of 60 cents per member per year, totalled for the whole period only $121,000. Divided by eight, this would give some $15,000 a year, the per capita tax of some 25,000 members over the whole dominion. However, some years, the per capita tax receipts were bigger than others, the largest being for ten months ending February, 1920, when over $30,000 was received, the tax on about 50,000 members.

But the last record, the tax received from May, 1923, to April, 1925, when the audit was made, shows only $13,197 over a period of two years, which would indicate a membership, active, during the past couple of years of something around 11,000 members in good standing – not 99,900!

Mr. Shields, the Ontario secretary, explained this extraordinary discrepancy by pointing out that in the case of a returned soldier organization it was hardly fair to demand the paid-up and active membership as being the strength of the organization. The enrolment was much greater than the paid-up strength.

But in searching for the right of representation of Canada’s ex-service men can anything but paid-up figures be allowed? And, of course, the G.W.V.A. is unquestionably the strongest of all the organizations.

“What percentage of your membership is Canadian born?” we asked Mr. Shields.

“Not a very large percentage,” he replied.

“Why is that?”

“Well, for the main thing, because the majority of the troops in the Canadians were Old Country men.” stated Mr. Shields.

This was received with some astonishment, and we were able to supply Mr. Shields with the official figures of the Doomsday Book, showing the records of total enlistments in the Canadian corps to be divided as follows:

Born in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales  221,495

Born in Canada  317,705

Born in the United States   37,391

Elsewhere, some 13,000.

This shows a majority of nearly a hundred thousand Canadian born over Old Country men in the corps. And it shows one-sixth as many Americans as Old Country men, which is an arresting thought, since surely the United States had no particular call to arms until at last she entered on her own behalf.

Absence of Native Born Puzzle

In the same building in which Mr. Shields was being interviewed, as a matter of fact, there had been held a mass meeting of veterans during the recent excitement over the establishing of a Canadian flag, at which all veterans present passed a unanimous resolution that the Union Jack was Canada’s flag. The hall in which the meeting was held was the G.W.V.A. hall.

“How many of the veterans present at that meeting were Canadian born?” we asked Mr. Shields.

“There would not be a great many,” he admitted.

“Would there be ten?”

Mr. Shields thought there would be more than ten. But he would not say precisely how many. He makes no bones about the fact that the Canadian born, who were in the majority in the corps, are by no means in the majority in the G.W.V.A.

So, admitting, for example, the perfect right of every man to express the love of his native land in any way he likes, the mass meeting of veterans that passed the unanimous resolution that the Union Jack be in no way added to by a symbol of Canada, these veterans – Canadian no less than any man who lives and loves and toils in Canada – were none the less British-born veterans expressing their love of their own land above all else.

This is merely one case that makes it interesting and necessary that the relation of such veteran societies as exist to the ex-members of the Canadian corps as a whole be looked into.

The absence of Canadian born from the various veterans’ societies other than those special ones referring to some particular disability is one of the puzzles and problems of the whole situation.

“It is admitted,” says Mr. Harry Bray, the Toronto president, who is, Canadian born himself, “that the majority of veterans are not enlisted in any association, which, from the point of view of the service they might render, alone is a great pity. And it is also clear that those principally absent from the associations are the Canadian born.”

Mr. Bray stated that not one per cent. of the cases that come into his hands as an officer of the Soldiers Aid Commission for relief of various kinds are members of any veterans’ organizations.

How utterly the old corps is disbanded! The regiments but memories. The veterans in conflicting societies of undemonstrable strength, though doing good work. And these societies not representative of the Canadian born, who, though not in the first contingents, the statistics of which are a glorious tribute to the love of Old Country men for their homeland, nevertheless made the Canadian corps predominantly Canadian as a whole.

Who can bring all the veterans of Canada into a union? Can Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the corps, do what Lord Haig, commander of all the British forces, did with the British veterans?

If he could and does – and indications are not wanting that the duty is inevitably moving his way – would it be a good thing or a bad thing for Canada?

History tells that disbanded armies have been mighty social and political factors, most of them very much for the good of the nation. They served to check the ambitions of victorious tyrants. But they have also played tool to politicians.

One little organization with headquarters in Toronto, little in the sense that it has only a small office with three paid officials and no membership of its own, though representing nine different Ontario veteran bodies of various sizes down to regimental veteran associations, is known as the Veterans’ Alliance. It was formed in 1923 as a protest against the inactivity of the Dominion Veterans’ Alliance.

Canada as a Motherland

This independent alliance, with a staff of three, in the seventeen months it had functioned up to the time of making this return to the government secured for veterans from the pensions board and other official sources the sum of $109,080 in cash. These were just and honest claims that the government was not paying until brought to their notice by a society that secures the services of the city’s foremost medical specialists, without cost to the pensioner, and spares no pains to make a true and faithful presentation of claims. The pensions this represents over a period of years could be shown in millions. But the $109,080 is cash already received by ex-service men.

That is an indication of what the need of some independent representation for the ex-service man amounts to. It is very real and, urgent.

What a great union of all veterans, a Canadian Legion, like the British Legion or the American Legion, could do in the wider field of service to Canada as a whole demands vision.

The commander of that legion when it was a corps serving Canada on the field of battle is known to be a man of vision.

With him at the leash the corps did Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Cambrai to what we all thought was the finish.

Some want to call the proposed union of veterans the British Legion. Another group want to call it the Canadian Legion.

If the union consists simply of those associations now existing, it should be called the British Legion in Canada, unquestionably, because it would very largely consist of British-born veterans of the corps.

If a union under a great leader can be devised that will include also a just proportion of the Canadian born, then it should be called the Canadian Legion, in memory of that great corps which consisted of British born and the sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of British born and of French-Canadians, Americans and sons of many lands. Yet any organization which denies to the Canadian born the divine right to love the land they were born in more than any other and whatsoever will not much appeal to Canadians as a whole.

To the British born in Canada the last vision vouchsafed to them on this earth will probably be some bit of Surrey, some little street in Scotland, some green hill of Erin. The spirit turns again home.

Yet to their very sons, as to the sons of their predecessors in the building of the empire, the last vision will surely be of some sweet, familiar glimpse of this beloved motherland that is Canada.

Editor’s Notes: As indicated in the article, after world War One, there were a number of veteran organizations, with the largest being the Great War Veterans’ Association. These organizations were needed as the government was not very good at looking after veterans. By November of 1925, the appeal for unity lead to the creation of the Royal Canadian Legion.