Monday, April 02, 2007

The Canadian Sergeant-Major's Annoyance

"The Canadian sergeant-major was worried about a pig-skin leather pocket-book. He had bought it at the ordnance depot in the town. He imagined himself bringing it out on parade, to read out some return or other to the adjutant. Very smart it would look on parade, himself standing up straight and tall. But he could not remember whether he had put it in his kit-bag. . . His present wallet, bought in Ontario, was bulging and split. He did not like to bring it out when Imperial officers asked for something out of a return. It gave them a false idea of Canadian troops. Very annoying . . . He had imagined himself making a good impression on parade, standing up straight and tall, taking out that pocket-book when the adjutant asked for a figure from one return or the other. He understood their adjutants were to be Imperial officers now they were in France." (315)

This passage brings up several issues related to the Great War and succinctly describes Canada's involvement in it.

When war broke out in 1914, Canada was completely unprepared but did not have the option of refusing its services. As a part of the British commonwealth, it had not yet secured for itself status as a country entirely independent of Britain. Unlike the United States, Canada had not won its status as a country through a successful rebellion, but had instead done so peacefully, leaving the British monarch as head of the state. This position at the time was not a symbolic, but rather, a functional one. The result of all this was that when Britain declared war, Canada was assumed to also be involved by default.

When the Canadian government officially announced that they would be sending troops to Britain's aid, the country's military capabilities could easily be compared to the sergeant-major's tattered wallet. German military writers at the time called Canadian involvement in the war a complete non-issue. At the time, it could boast less than 4000 permanent troops and an outdated assortment of weaponry, including the much-maligned Ross Rifle which Canadian soldiers would often abandon, taking the superior guns of dead British comrades as replacement. In this way, Canada's involvement in the war was not only about serving what it regarded as its mother country, or fighting for freedom, but also about proving itself to the world as something more than a remnant of Imperialism, a sad, backwoods place with no significant role to play in the modern world.

The sergeant-major's anxiety about the state of his wallet, then, can be seen as representative of Canada's own sense of inferiority and its wish to prove itself capable and sophisticated in modern warfare. The sergeant-major is hardly concerned about the content of the reports he is giving, referring to them dismissively as "figures from one return or another", but is instead concerned that the Imperial officers be impressed by his new leather pocketbook. He wishes only to make a good impression upon his superiors. In fact, his pride hinges upon their opinion of him. Without his pocket-book, the symbol of his sophistication, he would not be able to "stand up straight and tall" as a soldier on parade.

Source: A Brief History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
and Their Weapons

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