Scottish communities in Canada rallied to the imperial war effort by forming Scottish battalions in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As explained in a previous post, these battalions relied heavily on the hallmarks of Scottish culture. Members of these battalions would march in their kilts, often accompanied by the skirl of their regimental pipe band, while recruiting posters often relied on images of soldiers in kilts. Historians have used such images to extrapolate conclusions about the resilience of Scottish identity in Canada, or the power of Scottish identity in rousing recruits for the imperial war effort. The intention behind these recruiting strategies is easily determined, but their impact is more difficult to discern.
Luckily, historians can rely on other sources to find evidence of individual reactions to such appeals. One striking example in the Gleichen Call tells the story of James MacDonald who travelled from his homestead near Peace River, Alberta to enlist with the “Kilties.” The article is a reprint from Calgary’s News-Telegram and tells of the “Kilties” recruiting efforts in Calgary. The article says that MacDonald and “all the Scottish blood that was in him” was so moved by the appeal that he “trekked” 85 miles to the nearest train station to enlist with the Kilties. Based on the timing of the article, the “Kilties” probably refers to the 113th Battalion (Lethbridge Highlanders). With a little help from Google Maps, we can see that MacDonald traveled past Edmonton and Calgary, two major recruiting centers, to enlist with a Scottish unit in Lethbridge. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of Scottish identity in recruiting appeals, I’m not sure what will.
MacDonald’s story raises a broader question about how people define their community. Wartime mobilisation often gravitated around communal efforts, but in a multi-ethnic settler society such as Canada, “community” can refer to different things such as one’s immediate geographical community – being part of a neighbourhood or town – or a cultural community – being part of the Scottish community, for example. MacDonald gives us a clear example of this distinction. Rather than enlisting in a battalion based in Edmonton, where he would serve with other members of a geographically-defined community of Northern Albertans, MacDonald travelled all the way to Lethbridge to serve with a culturally-defined community of other Scottish immigrants. Finding other stories like MacDonald’s trek could provide more evidence of the kinds of choices volunteers made when deciding whether to enlist with a community defined by geography or by culture. Luckily, attestation papers record the place of residence and place of enlistment of each soldier. Compiling this information can illuminate broad patterns that reveal the attraction of cultural battalions in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
The Scottish were not alone in leveraging their unique cultural identity to produce a distinct contribution to the imperial war effort. Canada’s Scandinavian diaspora raised two battalions: the 197th (Vikings of Canada) Battalion and the 223rd (Canadian Scandinavian) Battalion. Both of these units were headquartered in Winnipeg, but drew Scandinavian recruits from much further afield. By mapping all of the places of residence and places of enlistment for the 223rd (Canadian Scandinavian) Battalion with blue lines and the 250th (Winnipeg) Battalion with orange lines it’s possible to get a sense of the different recruiting footprints of these two units, one defined by a cultural community and the other defined by a geographical community. (Zoom in or out and click and drag the map to move it around – it’s interactive!)
As another case study, we can map the places of enlistment of the 233rd (Canadiens-Français du Nord-Ouest) Battalion. Just as the Scots or Scandinavians living in Western Canada, French Canadians wanted to demonstrate their contribution to the war effort by raising a separate battalion headquartered in Edmonton. Contrasting the places of enlistment of the 233rd Battalion with those of soldiers who enlisted in the 218th (Edmonton) Battalion reveals a similar phenomenon. While the 218th Battalion, illustrated with blue lines, drew recruits from all over Alberta and parts of British Columbia, the largest concentration of recruits is centred around the city of Edmonton. Volunteers for the 233rd Battalion, illustrated with orange lines, shows greater concentrations of recruits arriving from Saskatchewan and Manitoba. (Again, this map is interactive)
Battalions that identified themselves by their geographical location, such as the 218th (Edmonton) Battalion and the 250th (Winnipeg) Battalion, tended to draw recruits from their geographical vicinity. Culturally-defined battalions were able to draw recruits from further afield, which is precisely why such battalions were raised. Most of these units were authorised in late 1915 or early 1916, just as voluntary enlistments began to decline. It was hoped that such battalions would draw out recruits that were unfazed by previous recruiting efforts.
A Note on the Maps
These maps are based on data transcribed from attestation papers as part of a research project based in the Department of History at Western University. For each soldier in a battalion, a line is drawn on the map from the soldier’s stated place of residence and their place of enlistment. These lines, however, do not trace back to individual addresses. The reason for this are explained in the next post, which describes the methods used to assemble these maps.