During the Great War, desertion was potentially a capital offence in the British and Canadian forces. Two-hundred and three Canadian soldiers were convicted and sentenced to death for the charge of desertion, but only twenty-two of these were ever carried out. Historians have typically focused on desertion overseas, but have paid little attention to what happened in battalions stationed at home where no death sentences were ever given. As the documents here make clear, desertion in the 118th Battalion was not a minor issue when it was stationed in Canada and so provides some new insight.
The battalion’s records show ninety-two men deserted the 118th Battalion during the period December 1915 to December 1916. There are few comparative figures available, so it remains unknown whether these numbers were unusual but given that the 118th only recruited around five hundred men, a desertion rate of around 20 per cent may be on the higher end of the spectrum.
Soldiers had many reasons for deserting, and the Lochead Fonds contains letters that give insight into these motives, some of which must be understood in a local context others of which may be more universal. For example, in his correspondence, Colonel Lochead blamed the community of Berlin and Waterloo’s ‘general disloyalty’ (because of the large number of German settlers in the area) and feared that many of the men might flee to the United States when they found military life disagreeable. In other cases, soldiers deserted because they had financial and family obligations which eventually began to conflict with war service. The patriotic fervour which may have driven some men to enlist clearly began to wear off over time.
One important local issue seems to have been Lochead’s recruiting tactics. To increase the ranks of the 118th, Lochead allegedly allowed a form of impressment, meaning various degrees of physical coercion that went beyond the usual social and cultural pressures, to assemble recruits. Whatever the views of the community had been at the beginning of the war (and there is no reason to believe they were less patriotic than other communities despite the German ancestry of many settlers), Lochead’s tactics increased tensions. These same harsh tactics were then used to round up deserters which did little to mend the relationship between the community and the 118th.
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