Shortened Service and Field Discipline

During the First World War there was tremendous pressure on young men to serve in the armed forces. Especially after it became apparent the war would be a long, bloody affair young men were expected to take up the cause. From high-minded feelings of patriotism, King, and Empire, to the nagging feeling that a man must “do his bit”, the pressure to enlist and serve was intense. At the same time the social scorn for not volunteering was very real.

Not everyone who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force went on to active service. For a variety of reasons thousands of Canadians had their service time cut short. A number of physical ailments or deformities disqualified a man for active service, so too did any chronic disease. These ailments did not stop these men from trying to serve, however, and often their condition was not caught until after their training had begun. These men were discharged from the service as medically unfit, often to their bitter disappointment.

It was not just the medically unfit that were discharged. Boys as young as 13 snuck into the service, and while some did make it to the front, a great number were exposed as underage and sent home. Overage recruits were similarly discouraged from serving, though recruiters were much better at spotting enlistees who were overage. Some did make it across to Europe and were sent to forestry battalions in Britain.

There were some enlistees who decided after their training began that the military life was not for them. Sometimes seeking a better life or to get out of their present situation, men would enlist and then desert. Some deserted in Canada, while others left after being exposed to the horrors of the front. The most extreme punishment for desertion was execution by firing squad, though that punishment was rarely carried out.

Much more common than desertion were the charges of drunkenness, insubordination, and being absent without leave (AWOL). Soldiers would be tried via courts martial, then if found guilty they would be disciplined by some combination of “field punishments” – some common ones being imprisonment, fines, or losing rank. One harsh punishment was called Field Punishment #1, and involved a soldier being tied to a wagon wheel, fence post, or barn door in a crucifix style for several hours a day, often for weeks at a time. This harsh punishment was a relic of a different time and is an example of old ideas clashing with new, a refrain so common during the First World War.

Back to Top