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(adapted from Army Bureau of Current Affairs, Oct. 1, 1942)


On September 3, 1939, Neville Chamberlain addressed the people of Great Britain on BBC radio.

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared to at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”

On September 3, 1939 the strength of the Canadian professional armed services consisted of 4,500 (Army), 1,800 (Navy) and 3,100 (Air Force). The call for volunteers was heard immediately and by the end of September the Army alone had recruited over 50,000 volunteers. For those out of work due to the depression the army promised pay, food, clothing, lodging and excitement. In 1939 Mackenzie King promised that Canadians would be exempt from conscription for overseas service. However, as the military desperately sought more troops, the Federal Government's policy towards conscription began to shift. In 1940, the Resources Mobilization Act was passed; this piece of legislation granted the government the authority to “conscript men for [the purpose of] securing public safety and defending Canada. The recruitment of volunteers was organized on a national scale by the Federal Government. Posters were addressed to all Canadians and, with the exception of a few, the same illustrations were used in both English and French.

In an attempt to avoid a divisive national debate about conscription, Prime Minister King opted to put the matter to the voters by way of a national plebiscite. To help smooth over the outcome of the vote and dampen expectations on both sides of the issue, King began touting the slogan, “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” In short, he would only authorize the conscription of manpower for overseas military service as a last resort. By 1944 thousands of fully trained men sat in Canadian camps because King was extremely reluctant to send conscripts overseas. To Canadians these soldiers waiting to be called upon for duty were known as "Zombies."

By early 1945 volunteers and conscripts were fighting together with excellent results. The vast majority of conscripts were excellent soldiers. Conscription was not necessary for the Navy or Air Force. Under the National Resources Mobilization Act, 13,000 sailed for Britain in January 1945. The war in Europe came to an end on 7 May 1945, limiting the number of conscripted troops who saw action to a few thousand.

When the war was over 730,625 had served in the Canadian Army of which 25,251 of them were women. 249,624 men and women had worn the uniform of the Royal Canadian Air Force and 106,522 had served in the Navy.

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