The Right Course, the Best Course, the Only Course: Voluntary Recruitment in the Newfoundland Regiment, 1914-1918

Article excerpt

"THE RIGHT COURSE, THE BEST COURSE, the only course" was a line used in a 1917 proclamation issued by the Patriotic Association of Newfoundland in an attempt to persuade men to enlist. The phrase unwittingly summarized the history of voluntary recruitment during World War I. In the initial call for men in 1914, the "right course" was to enlist in service to King and Empire. By 1917, as the colony witnessed mounting casualties and a deteriorating economic situation, the "best course" was for men to leave their positions within the intricate sphere of community and family production to enlist. By 1918, an enlistment rate which did not match casualties resulted in the colony's beloved and distinguished regiment being removed from the frontlines. The "only course" they could now follow was that of conscription. Historians have argued that recruitment was limited by poor communications in a country with an isolated population, (1) or that high returns from the city in the first year of the war lulled city officials in to a false belief that the regiment could be staffed entirely by St. John's men, (2) or even that high wartime fish prices kept many outport men from enlisting. (3) While there is truth to these arguments, I suggest that the system failed to produce a sufficient number of volunteers to maintain the Newfoundland Regiment at full strength because those responsible for recruitment, chiefly Governor Walter E. Davidson and the Patriotic Association, did not understand the socioeconomic reality of Newfoundland.

Between August 1914 and May 1918 the Patriotic Association and Department of Militia faced the increasingly difficult task of drawing volunteers from a geographically diffuse population for the Newfoundland Regiment, Royal Newfoundland Naval Reserve (RNNR), and Newfoundland Forestry Corps. To maintain the Regiment the colony had to draw men from all areas of the country, while working within a social and economic setting in which a large percentage of the country's male population was involved in the production of the colony's staple resource, fish. Failure to understand the importance of the individual in community and family production in areas outside of St. John's led to an overestimation of the colony's available manpower. By 1917, as the Department of Militia took over control of the war effort from the Patriotic Association and as the Regiment continued to take a high level of casualties, recruitment became a matter of urgency. But years of believing that there was a large body of idle outport men who remained home because they were uneducated or unpatriotic, meant that little could now be done to increase voluntary recruitment.

In-depth study of recruitment is a relatively recent trend within the historiography of World War I. Historians now go beyond the notion that the call to "King and Country" was the primary impetus to enlistment, and explore a wide and interconnected web of motivations that caused men to join the military. Fortunately, we have Chris Sharpe's 1988 study "The Race of Honour: An Analysis of Enlistments and Casualties in the Armed Forces of Newfoundland 1914-1918" and Mike O'Brien's recent work "Out of a Clear Sky: The Mobilization of the Newfoundland Regiment, 1914-1915," which question older notions of blind faith and unquestioning loyalty. This essay examines the recruitment system in greater depth in an attempt to understand the social and economic factors that limited its effectiveness. This work also continues in the direction set by Sharpe, by exploring the "geography" of Newfoundland's war effort and builds on O'Brien's important assessment of how officials handled the war effort and supports his argument that the lack of military structure in Newfoundland prior to the outbreak of hostilities had serious consequences on the effective administration of the regiment. Where this essay differs from their work is in the importance it places on the difference between actual levels of manpower available and what officials thought should be available. …