When World War II broke out, millions of men and women, regardless of country, rushed to the recruitment sites to enlist and volunteer themselves, ready to fight for their nation and everything that they believed in. The world witnessed the largest mobilization of troops, showing what a joint effort could do. Aside from the voluntary enlistment, there was also conscription, when no able-bodied man was spared the examination that would determine if they were to be sent to the battlefield or not. For those who tried but were rejected, they were given the enlistment pin, but what for?
A Moral Obligation
On September 10, 1939, many North American countries declared war on Germany just a week after France and Britain did— a reaction to the Nazi’s invasion of Poland. Canada did, too. Not because they were still a part of the British Commonwealth and were obliged to declare when Britain decided to. At that time, they already had their own legislature and the right to self-rule, which meant they decided to declare war on their own accord as an independent country.
The Canadians supported the war as they saw it as the right thing to do and a matter of honor and integrity. It was also Canada’s first-ever independent declaration of war, so the Canadians were pretty stoked about it. The proof was the long conscription lines of men of all ages, eager to be part of the conflict and wanting to serve under their flag. More than anything, it was seen as a moral obligation that someone should unquestionably do, and those who opted not to enlist were frowned upon, ridiculed, and sometimes assaulted. It was not just in Canada. The same mentality was observed in other countries involved in World War II, too.
Shame on You!
In Britain, the people resorted to several shaming methods to ensure that those who refused to join the war would always be reminded of their disloyalty and cowardice. In World War I, a British organization came up with a shaming method of encouraging women to give those men white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, in hopes that they could guilt-trip them into joining the bloody trench warfare.
Ten percent of the Canadian population entered the military during World War II, another clear proof of their eagerness to be part of the war. Those who did not want to get involved were seen as unpatriotic and traitors.
Now, this approach became a problem for those who tried to enlist and wanted to be part of the war effort but were rejected due to medical reasons. Regardless of how badly they wanted to join, they were denied the right to serve for understandable reasons. The thing was, this was not something that the other people could immediately tell, so they were treated as badly as those who refused to serve. Some who didn’t want to serve would claim they were medically rejected when they had never even tried to enlist.
Some men took being rejected for the services very hard. Some even committed suicide in dispair at not being able to serve.
The refusal to serve wasn’t just about personal cowardice but also self-interest. Canada was mobilizing for war and there were lots of good-paying jobs out there in defense factories and in the production of raw materials like timber and iron ore. Joining the Merchant Marine was a much better gig than the Canadian Navy. it paid four times as much as being an enlisted sailor in the navy.
Finally, some civilians in skilled positions were specifically exempted from military service by their employer asking the government for the exemption.
In 1942, an idea that could resolve the problem was presented. The solution they came up with to protect those who got rejected from being harassed by the public was an identifying pin that basically screamed: “I tried.” As written on the website of Veterans Affairs Canada in regards to the eligibility and criteria of the pin recipients,
Order in Council P.C. 7893 defined those eligible for the award as:
Persons who have voluntarily declared their unqualified willingness to serve in and beyond Canada in the Military Forces of Canada, and who are refused enlistment by reason of their not possessing, due to no faults of their own, the necessary qualifications then required for enlistment in the Naval, Army and Air Forces of Canada.
There were still those who found a way to get their hands on and acquire the shame-immunity badge even when they did not really try to enlist in the first place but nonetheless, the solution was effective. It spared many men from being tagged as cowards while still making a contribution to the war effort in other ways.
As for that contribution itself. It should be remembered that Canada entered the war in Sept 1939, so it fought a much longer war than the United States did when it entered the conflict in Dec 1942. With 1.1 million men and women in uniform, Canada had the distinction of having the largest percentage of its population in the uniform (10%) of any of the Allied nations, including the Soviet Union.