- Zombie Army: The Canadian Army and Conscription in the Second World War by Daniel Byers
Daniel Byers's Zombie Army is a welcome addition to the still-burgeoning field of Canadian World War II history.
Thus far there have been relatively few studies about the so-called "zombies," those Canadian men conscripted for home defense and, eventually, European service during World War II. Given the pejorative epithet associated with Hollywood undead horror films by their contemporaries, and generally deemed disloyal shirkers, it has been easy for historians to access the political history of those mobilized by the 1940 National Resources Mobilization Act (nrma), but difficult for them to determine men's individual experiences. Most nrma men were reluctant to discuss or write about their service after the war, making the subject a particularly tricky one for academics. Byers deftly tackles this challenge using recently un-accessioned Department of National Defence (dnd) nrma statistics, politicians' private papers, and training centre war diaries. In doing so, he presents an interesting overview of nrma recruits' experiences and the response they met with among individual Canadians and local communities, all against the backdrop of high politics and the larger war effort.
Zombie Army begins with a brief history of conscription in Canada from the 1600s onward and leads up to the 1917 conscription crisis during World War I. The deep divisions between English and French Canadians over conscription presaged similar acrimony that reared its head twenty years later when Canada was once again called to defend the British Empire.
Taking heed of the lessons of World War I, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King initially shunned the idea of conscription when the war drums beat again in 1939. But as was the case during both world wars, Canadian politicians' best intentions were sidelined by developments in Europe when the German army won stunning victories in France and Belgium. The resulting nrma was a political move to show that Canada was seriously involved in the war effort; it allowed the government to conscript men for home defense, which in turn freed volunteers for service overseas. Since the nrma kept conscripted men at home, relatively few feathers were ruffled even amongst anti-conscriptionists. Byers's examination of the "Big Army," created in part because of the nrma, is particularly enlightening. Using private papers, he is able to trace the efforts of powerful generals like HDG Crerar to exploit the nrma not just as a tool for creating a large European force, but also for maintaining a sizable postwar [End Page 379] army. Byers argues that it was in fact the mobilization of the Big Army, with its massive logistical and administrative needs, which sapped Canadian manpower, forcing the government to amend the nrma in 1942 to allow for overseas service as Allied casualties mounted. Unsurprisingly, another conscription crisis ensued that year, and yet again in 1944, when several thousand zombies were sent overseas for European service.
Byers's book is at its best in the fifth and sixth chapters, when he pivots from a macro to micro view of conscription. Chapter five uses dnd statistics of nrma conscripts to make a few novel conclusions, perhaps the most important of which is that zombies were more likely to be French Canadian, but, in Byers's words, "not excessively so" (143). That finding flies in the face of both contemporary and future arguments that claimed many if not most zombies were French-Canadian shirkers.
Chapter six explores the social experiences of nrma men in training centres across Canada. Finding their lives suddenly regimented, zombies spent most of their day in physical training, drill, weapons practice, and tactical exercises. During their time off they were sometimes treated to lively camp events, which included concerts given by local musicians, boxing matches, and carnivals. Byers utilizes contemporary advertisements and training centre war diaries to show that nrma men became an integral part of the communities they were sent to, contributing both to the...