James Wood, Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010). 368 pages.

Reviewed by Kirk W. Goodlet (University of Waterloo)

James Wood’s Militia Myths sets out to investigate Canadian ideas of the ‘citizen soldier’ from 1896 to 1921. What Canadians said and wrote about the citizen soldier before the Great War, Wood argues, “reflected the values and intellectual currents of the wider society, as well as their understanding of Canada’s place in North America, the British Empire, and the world.” (p. 2) Wood’s book has three primary objectives. First, he aims to underscore the ideas, opinions, and attitudes that best illustrate the “idea of the citizen soldier.” Second, Wood attempts to connect these ideas and attitudes to the society from which they originated, elucidating how Canadians either conformed to or departed from their traditions and the examples of other nations. In so doing, he also demonstrates how some Canadians used the language of social reform, party politics, history, economics, and imperialism to proclaim and define the virtues of the citizen army. Wood’s third objective is to chart the development of how cultural attitudes and ideas towards the concept of the citizen soldier changed over a period of twenty-five years. (p. 13)

Canadian Soldiers await to embark on the SS Sardinia for South Africa

The book follows a chronological format with each chapter structured around a defined theme. Chapter 1 identifies the Canadian militia ideal prior to the Boer War, emphasizing its tradition in home defence, while chapter 2 argues that Canadian opposition to standing armies hindered efforts at military reforms suggested by British advisers. Chapter 3 examines how the Boer War, particularly the British defeats and the Canadians’ admiration for their enemy, created an environment in which support for a Canadian citizen army soared. Chapter 4 focuses on efforts to establish a citizen army during a period when friendly relations with the United States and increasing tensions in Europe undermined the traditional use for a militia, while chapter 5 explores how the impending war in Europe became the primary concern for Canadian Militia officers. Chapter 6 discusses the values Canadians imbued in compulsory military training versus a voluntary militia from 1911 to 1914. This, Wood convincingly shows, resolved the issue in favour of a voluntary militia supported by compulsory cadet training. Chapter 7 argues that the Canadian participation in the First World War was shaped by pre-war ideas of the citizen soldier and, as a result, these ideas underwent dramatic changes. The final chapter assesses these changes in Canadian attitudes in the immediate post-war period, which were characterized by the decline of an amateur militia, the growth of a professional army, and the abdication of citizen soldier advocates from their former roles in military affairs. (p. 17-18)

Instead of understanding the militia myth against the backdrop of “manliness,” “class interest,” or “militarism,” Wood argues that this interpretation is a result of teleology. When examined in the context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada, “manliness and militarism” turn into “citizenship and duty.” In so doing, Wood makes a significant contribution to the existing literature by departing from the approach of previous historians such as Mark Moss and Mike O’Brien.[1] Understanding the myth as Moss and others have, Wood suggests, would do a disservice to our understanding of Canadian society during these years. (p.9)

Canadians return from South Africa

Although Wood provides a well written and thought-provoking account of one of Canadian history’s most enduring myths, Militia Myths is not without methodological quandary. Despite his cursory claim to the contrary, notions of citizenship and military service were tightly bound to ideas of masculinity. Outside of Canada one finds peppered throughout contemporary accounts explicit recognition of this. Ute Frevert’s work on citizen soldiers in nineteenth-century Germany, for instance, shows that contemporaries did in fact see military service both as a means to citizenship and a way to demonstrate their manliness. It was not uncommon to find accounts of men who believed military service turned them into both a “citizen and real man.”[2] Similar work has been done for Victorian England.[3] One wonders, then, whether these ideas were completely absent from Canadian discourse during the same era. In this way, it would be helpful to discuss the ideas of the Militia Myth in light of Victorian attitudes towards immigration, urbanization, and industrialization, all of which allegedly contributed to a ‘crisis of masculinity.’

These oversights are symptomatic of a broader methodological issue in Militia Myths. Wood’s dependence on the Canadian Military Gazette as the main source of information raises a series of questions about the pervasiveness of the ideas and attitudes he seeks to delineate. The journal’s contributors often had a vested interest in Canadian military affairs and one must ask whether chiefly relying on such a source helps reconstruct the fullest possible picture of Canadian military and cultural attitudes. In turn, he downplays the role of what other influential groups, like religious institutions, were saying about military service in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada, something he eludes to. (p. 70, 177) While in his introduction Wood points out that the Gazette underwent some changes, namely in editors and ownership (p. 13-15), he does not discuss the dangers inherent in focusing so narrowly on one publication. Connected to this issue is the absence of French-language sources. Despite acknowledging Jean-Yves Gravel’s L’Arméé au Québec and Ernest Chamber’s work from 1906, Wood excluded a significant body of literature that might have proved valuable, like Arthur Lapointe’s Souvenirs d’un Soldat du Québec or Jean-Pierre Gagnon’s Le 22e Bataillon 1914-1919: etude socio-militaire. Assessing the ideas in this literature would have given greater nuance to an investigation of Canadian military culture. A final criticism lays in ‘citizenship’ itself. One of Wood’s objectives is to trace how ideas relating to the citizen soldier changed from 1896 to 1921, yet he does not identify the commensurable changes in notions of citizenship, which, in Canada’s era of social reform, is of particular significance.

Despite these shortcomings, Wood’s study sheds light on a topic that remains recondite to both military and social historians. Some of the questions left unanswered by Wood leave room for scholars interested in examining the relationship between the militia and citizenship in Anglo-Canadian society. Nonetheless, his work effectively highlights the complexity inherent in the relationship between militia, citizenship, and Canadian society. As such, it is apt for an upper-level undergraduate course or graduate seminar on either military or social history. Militia Myths is a perceptive read that helps us makes sense of how some Canadians constructed an understanding of the Militia Myth and how that understanding evolved from 1896 to 1921.


[1] Mark Moss, Manliness and Militarism: Educating Young Boys in Ontario for War (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 2001); Mike O’Brien, “Manhood and the Militia Myth: Masculinity, Class and Militarism in Ontario, 1902-1914,” Labour/Le Travail 42 (Autumn 1998): 115-141.

[2] Ute Frevert, “Citizen-Soldiers: General Conscription in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Elisabeth Krimmer and Patricia Anne Simpson’s Enlightened War: German Theories and Cultures of War from Frederick the Great to Clauswitz. (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011), 219ff.

[3] See for example, Myna Trustram, Women of the Regiment: Marriage and the Victorian Army (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).




James Wood,  Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010). 368 pages.

Reviewed by Christine E. Leppard (University of Calgary)

The militia myth appears to be a simple concept: the War of 1812 revealed that Canada’s sons were natural soldiers and noble citizens who, in the face of Republican invaders from the south, would rise up and fight with a patriotic vigour unmatched by Wellington’s shilling-a-day “scum of the earth” regulars. This myth has become a cornerstone of Canadian history and identity. For the better part of our nation’s history, Canadians have favoured a romanticized militia over a permanent force.

In Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921, James Wood demonstrates that the militia myth and its relationship with Canadian society were anything but simple. Offering his readers assiduous research and sophisticated analysis, Wood convincingly argues that for a variety of reasons—including tradition, history, geography, and experience—most Canadians believed that the militia was superior to a permanent force. (p. 13) This belief was, at root, tied to contemporary ideas on citizenship, first in the face of American expansionism and later when the Empire was threatened by German aggression.

It is Wood’s ability to place Canada’s militia in both its imperial and North American contexts that makes his research so important. While related thematically and temporally to Carl Berger’s seminal study on imperialism and militarism, Sense of Power (1970), as well as to Desmond Morton’s and Stephen Harris’ studies on the relationship between the professional force and Canadian militia,[1] Wood’s approach offers a more nuanced understanding of the values and social ideology surrounding the Canadian militia from the late Victorian era to the aftermath of the First World War. Indeed, his use of records that illuminate Canadian ideas about the citizen soldier, and the citizen’s social obligation to serve when called upon—including the Canadian Military Gazette and Illustrated War News, daily newspapers, and the speeches and writings of officers and other observers of the militia—provide him with a cross-section of ideas and opinions from across the country. Wood then links these ideas to Canadian society by addressing how they reflected or diverged from the examples set in other countries, as well as “how they employed the language of social reform, party politics, history, economics, and imperialism in proclaiming the virtues of a citizen army.” (p. 13) Lastly, he assesses how these ideas evolved during the period under investigation.

In doing so, Wood charts the evolution of the militia, militia myth, and Canadian society over the twenty years preceding the First World War. Canada’s faith in the militia was, he points out, a by-product of its unique position as a loyal British dominion in North America and a neighbour and close cousin of the United States. Canadians inherited their militia traditions and symbols, as well as their dislike of the permanent force, from the British, but their faith in a voluntary civilian militia’s ability to see the country through an emergency was quintessentially American. Not only did Canadians relate to America’s populist armies that conquered a continent and then engaged in a bloody Civil War, the United States was the only real threat to Canadian security. As such, Canadians judged their military defences in comparison to those of the United States.  When the 1895 Venezuelan Crisis rekindled fears of American aggression couched in the terms of the Monroe Doctrine, Canadians turned to militia training and marksmanship clubs rather than the permanent force in order to ready the country’s defences against possible American expansion.

Officers of the Strathcona Horse, South African War

The 1899-1902 Boer War reinforced this trend. Canadians witnessed the Boers effectively resist well-supplied British regulars with little more than grit and rifles. Meanwhile, Canadian volunteers, many originally trained in the militia, distinguished themselves at Paardeburg as mounted infantry chasing Boer commandos in the arid Transvaal. The amateurs’ attention to marksmanship evidently had paid off, which validated militia training. As Wood contends, “The lesson of the war appeared to be that the Dominion might usefully pursue an independent path of military development, one based primarily on the militia of citizen soldiers.” (p. 83)

           The direction of Canada’s military development became more pertinent by the end of the decade as storm clouds brewed over Europe. Militia officers, and notably the Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Sam Hughes, began to argue that the militia needed to be expanded and reformed in case Canada was called to aid Britain in a European war. Because many Canadians, especially rural and French Canadians, believed that the militia should remain a home defence force, militia officers forwarded a social rather than political argument for the militia to the Canadian public by emphasizing the idea that military training could make better men of their youth and husbands. It is here that Wood could have directly linked his research to the historiography on the Canadian progressive period, thereby broadening the book’s appeal. As he delicately implies, in this era of progressivism, where philanthropic groups beautified cities, rooted out demon rum, and harnessed science (and pseudo-science) to solve the social ills confronted in a period of rising immigration, the militia’s argument was convincing. Military training and service was not only a precondition of citizenship, it also built the skills and imbued the values required of a good “British” citizen (loyal, honest, hardworking, family-oriented, Christian, etc.).  Following the lead of the National Service League in Britain, the Canadian Defence League went a step further and called for compulsory in-school training for boys aged 12-14, with more advanced training from 14 to 18, followed by regular training for the next few years. And yet, the League failed to impress upon Canadians the need for compulsory service. Theirs was an English-Canadian, middle-class understanding of citizenship, and, as Wood concludes, there was “a strong current of isolationist nationalism in the Canadian Militia before the war that has usually gone unnoticed, unexplained, or been ascribed solely to French Canadians.” (p. 223)  Beyond the priority of home defence, however, the reader is left to wonder at what French-Canadian perceptions of the militia and of citizenship were in the pre-war period.

Ultimately, Wood argues that the imposition of conscription during the First World War was the logical outcome of the pre-war English-Canadian notion of citizenship combined with the reality of twentieth-century ‘total war’. As Canadians felt the effects of war and began to believe it was Canada’s cause, those who equated military service with citizenship called for compulsion, ignoring, and thereby alienating, those in the country who did not relate to the war and who continued to believe in the value of a voluntary militia for home defence.

Wood’s study of Canada’s pre-war ideas on the militia and citizenship is a significant addition to the historiography. He offers new insight into pre-war militia development, and in doing so contextualizes the way Canada fought the First World War and establishes a framework for understanding the conscription crises of the First and Second World Wars. In sum, Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921 is an important book that adds depth and complexity to Canadians’ understanding of the militia myth, and challenges us to think about the First World War more broadly.

[1] Desmond Morton, Ministers and Generals: Politics and the Canadian Militia, 1868-1904 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970); Stephen J. Harris, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).