Recruiting Troubles

When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Canada found itself automatically at war too. Recruitment efforts began in earnest in Canada soon after, and across the country English-speaking Canadians born in the British Isles were usually the first to flock to recruiting stations. In Waterloo County, attitudes towards the war were complicated because of the area’s strong German heritage.

As elsewhere in south-western Ontario, recruiting was initially based in local militia organizations. The 29th Waterloo Regiment of the Canadian Militia traced its lineage back to the Fenian Raids of 1866 and was headquartered at Berlin. Unusually, a second militia unit, the 108th Regiment, was established soon after war broke out by Herbert J. Bowman and other prominent local citizens and began recruiting efforts in Berlin and Waterloo. Like other Canadian militia regiments, neither the 29th nor the 108th were allowed to go overseas and instead sent recruits to battalions specially raised for overseas service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Local citizens, anxious to demonstrate their patriotism, lobbied the Department of Militia and Defence to authorize two new overseas battalions, the 111th and 118th, which were established in December 1914.

One of the early supporters of the war effort, William Lochead, a manager with the Mutual Life Assurance Company, joined the 108th Regiment as a Major on 7 November 1914. Like other members of the 108th Lochead was anxious to get overseas and quickly transferred to Woodstock’s 71st Overseas Battalion. However, when he received word that a new battalion would be created in Waterloo, he transferred back home to become the commanding officer of the 118th Battalion.

As commanding officer, Lochead’s chief concern was recruiting and he saw it as a point of pride to ensure that as many men as possible joined up. If he failed to recruit the 800-1,000 men necessary to bring the unit up to field strength, he understood that the unit would likely be broken up with members sent in drafts to reinforce other units. In late 1915 and 1916, recruiting in Canada was not easy. Most of the men who wanted to go overseas had already joined up and new recruits were increasingly hard to come by. In Berlin and Waterloo, the area’s German heritage created additional pressures.

When the 118th began recruiting in December 1915, 200 men soon enlisted for service, a typical number for a south-western Ontario battalion at that point in the war. As happened elsewhere in Canada though, enlistments began to drop-off after a peak in March 1916 and never recovered. The 118th Battalion thus suffered from the same failures of the voluntary system as other battalions in Canada, but Lochead blamed low turnout on anti-patriotic sentiment amongst the German population.

To try to bring his battalion up to strength, Lochead resorted to controversial and unconventional recruiting methods which are documented in his personal papers held by LCMSDS. Lochead’s soldiers forcefully canvassed for new recruits, using techniques that would have been called ‘impressment’ in an earlier time.  Recruiters methodically pursued eligible men, using any means necessary to persuade them to enlist, including force and intimidation. He also resorted to recruiting soldiers from outside the unit’s catchment area—much to the chagrin of other units in the area.

Eventually Lochead succeeded in convincing 707 men to join the battalion and the unit sailed for England in January 1917. However, the unit was severely under strength and like other reinforcement battalions was quickly broken up. Its soldiers were transferred to the 25th Reserve Battalion (which never left England) and then drafted to other units already serving at the front. The men of the 118th thus served in a variety of battalions overseas and never as a combined force.

For our collection of documents that reveal the problems of recruitment, see File #23 on enlistments.


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