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dave obee Unwanted Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
By Nic Clarke
University of British Columbia Press, 256 pp., $29.95

Reviewed by Dave Obee

It's a forgotten chapter in the history of the First World War, a subject that did not get much attention even as the war was raging in Europe.

Not everyone who tried to enlist could be accepted for service. They might have had a strong desire to serve their country, but they did not have the physical condition required of a soldier, so they could not join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Some persistent men tried several times before being accepted, or before giving up. Some made the cut locally, but were turfed out after they arrived in Valcartier, Quebec, Canada's primary training base.

Those who were not welcome in the forces faced criticism and mockery at home. In some cases, when their physical shortcomings were not obvious, assumptions were made that they were simply slackers. To survive without harassment, they felt the need to band together.

A short article appeared in the Daily Colonist on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 1918, announcing plans for a local branch of a new organization, the Honorably Rejected Volunteers of Canada. A branch had already been established in Vancouver, the Colonist reported. The Colonist report is a rare one; not much was said about the new association in other newspapers.

That is understandable, since the war was reaching a crucial stage, and the smell of victory was in the air. The newspapers were filled with stories of local soldiers being injured or killed, of them coming home or being moved to convalescent hospitals in England.

As the Colonist said, the goal of the association was "to draw together in a social way all male British subjects who have served or offered to serve the Empire from August 4, 1914, to August 10, 1917, and to promote the welfare and protect the common rights of all its members who have been honorably discharged or rejected from His Majesty's forces through the Dominion of Canada, and shall be entirely independent of party politics."

The new group vowed it would work closely with the GreatWar Veterans Association. Its organizers also tried to distance themselves from "the common slacker" who "has only himself to blame" for choosing not to enlist.

The establishment of the new group followed a report on employment opportunities after the armistice urged that "the man who stays at home in this crisis surrender some of his privileges as a citizen."

The new group wanted to "stamp out this feeling from the public mind," the Colonist said, and protect its members from "undue and unlimited discrimination with regard to employment." It is an interesting local angle to a national story, one that has been revealed by Nic Clarke, a historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Clarke's interest in the rejected volunteers was triggered by that short Colonist article, which he stumbled upon while researching politics in British Columbia.

At Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, Clarke found records of 3,000 men who had been rejected at Valcartier in August and September, 1914. By the end of the war, more than 100,000 had been rejected.

Unwanted Warriors is the first book to examine the First World War medical examination, and it opens the door to a better understanding of different concepts of disabilities.

Some of the men were rejected because they had poor eyesight, while others had bad teeth, even if they were in excellent physical condition otherwise.

The young men of Canada faced incredible pressure to enlist in the expeditionary force, yet many were ostracized when their efforts to enlist failed.

Clarke's book shines new light on a forgotten chapter of the First World War - not an easy thing to do, given the number of Great War books in print - and gives us a better understanding of men who became, despite their best efforts, victims at home.

It also should make us think again about disabilities. Able-bodied men who were willing to serve - and could do physical work for 10 hours a day - were not allowed into the expeditionary force. That should give us pause, even a century later.

This review was published in the Times Colonist on April 17, 2016


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