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Zombies strike back: Canada's largest military mutiny

Taken by Elsie Smith in either 1942 or 1943, and now part of the collection at the Heritage Park Museum, this photo is of a parade of soldiers on the corner of Lakelse and Kalum. - Photo courtesy of Heritage Park Museum
Taken by Elsie Smith in either 1942 or 1943, and now part of the collection at the Heritage Park Museum, this photo is of a parade of soldiers on the corner of Lakelse and Kalum.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Heritage Park Museum

By Kelsey Wiebe

It was, as described later, an “unusual parade” that formed in Terrace on the Saturday morning of Nov. 25, 1944.

Waving banners proclaiming “Down with conscription”, and “The zombies strike back”, the soldiers refused regular duty and were instead reacting to news the government was going to send 16,000 Home Defence soldiers to Europe at a crucial stage of the Second World War.

The conscripted Home Defence men were referred to sneeringly as “Zombies.” Borrowed from movies popular during the 1930s, the term suggested that conscripted men lacked the will of their own to volunteer for overseas duty.

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 24, three battalions of these embittered soldiers stockpiled 50,000 rounds of rifle ammunition, 15,000 rounds of Sten gun ammunition, and four boxes of hand grenades.

All that day they had angrily discussed the announcement of an overseas deployment.

Most of the men in Terrace had not volunteered for military service. Rather, they had been conscripted into protecting Canada’s national borders as part of the Home Defence.

In 1942, as reinforcements in Europe became increasingly urgent, a reluctant Prime Minister Mackenzie King implemented conscription. He maintained that these men would only be forced into compulsory service within Canada, which was a more palatable political option.

When the news of the deployment broke on the radio, many of the soldiers in Terrace (and elsewhere) felt betrayed.

They were restless and angry after months of fruitless training in an isolated community for the defence of a coast that they didn’t believe was in danger.

According to military scholar Reginald Roy, Terrace was likely the most remote military camp of its size in Canada.

Before the Second World War, the town itself numbered under 400 people, with several hundred more residing in the outlying areas. There were almost no amenities for the approximately 3000 soldiers and 3000 construction workers who flooded into the area in 1942.

There was not enough fuel in the winter camps to keep warm, fresh food was extremely limited, and an enormous gender gap—perhaps 300 women to 6000 men—led to friction between soldiers and workers, especially during dances.

“You wouldn’t sit out a dance even after spending your teen years as a wallflower,” recalled Mary Harris in a 1978 oral history.

Because of all of these factors, the fear of being sent to Terrace was used to threaten soldiers into obedience.

Those who were posted here were often miserable, adding to the anger exhibited on that Saturday morning of Nov. 25.

Les Fusiliers du St. Laurent, a mainly French Canadian battalion stationed on the Birch Bench, “came charging down the hill, whooping and shouting like a swarm of angry wasps,” remembered Floyd Frank, who witnessed the parade while delivering milk.

Frank noted that the men carried rifles and had filled the gas masks hanging around their necks with grenades.

The well-organized men next marched toward what is now the Royal Canadian Legion, where they met with the Prince Edward Island Highlanders, a battalion camped at Riverside Park. Together, the group picked up more recruits at the Hall St. camp of the Prince Albert Volunteers. Several hundred soldiers marched in the two-hour-long parade.

People gathered along the streets to watch. Some found it exciting. Others, especially those with family in the military, were furious: they saw the men as shirking their duty to protect their country.

Mary Harris remembered that “a sweet little old lady” with several sons overseas “cussed them up one side and down the other.”

Similarly disillusioned soldiers rioted over conscription in Vernon, Prince George, Courtenay, Chilliwack, Nanaimo, and Port Alberni.

Though violence and injury occurred elsewhere, the Terrace protest was peaceful and remarkably orderly.

In the report of the court of inquiry order afterward, Major-General George R. Pearkes writes: “It is worthy of note that the discipline of the dissidents within their own ranks was well maintained and their parades and guards were well organized.”

On Nov. 26, the Fusiliers – who were later charged with inciting the protest – composed a message to military officials explaining the protest.

“The recruits are not in favour of conscription,” the telegram read. Given that “all danger of invasion on the Pacific Coast is passed,” in their opinion, they demanded to return, unmolested, to Quebec. They marched again, this time gathering more than over 1,600 supporters.

Incidentally, many of the senior officers stationed in Terrace were in Vancouver for a conference about the conscription crisis when the protest broke out. The commander of the Mountain Warfare School, acting command of the brigade, instructed junior-ranking officers not to do anything, unless the protest became violent.

Very quickly, all non-commissioned officers were stripped of their ranks. “You’re Zombies, just like us,” the protesters jeered.

Men who had been threatened and hackled by their officers in the hopes that they would eventually cave and volunteer for active service were again bullied, but this time by their fellow soldiers.

“There [are] a number of boys that are definitely opposed to this sort of thing,” a war diarist for one of the regiments recorded, “but [they] are practically forced or threatened to tag along.”

On Monday, Nov. 27,  the troops still had not returned to regular duty. Protests elsewhere had long since wrapped up, but the Terrace movement gained momentum.

Threats to blow up the Skeena Bridge (now known as the Old Bridge) circulated, and no one knew how everything would unfold. Many men, according to military records, were given drugs to calm their overextended nerves.

An advance group of Prince Albert Volunteers attempted to leave Terrace by train, and were prevented from doing so at gunpoint.

By Monday evening, senior officers had arrived back in Terrace.

The next morning, Nov. 28, one unit agreed to surrender their arms to a guard.

Commanding officers threatened the men with the legal consequences of mutiny and sedition but failed to convince them to return to normal duty.

The situation was officially declared a mutiny on Tuesday night, Nov. 29. Concerned about the ramifications of such a declaration, the Prime Minister belatedly organized media censorship.

On the same evening, most of the mutineers gave up, apparently with little resolution of their issues or concerns.

All of the rifles were relinquished – many with relief – and all of the pilfered ammunition was dumped in the Skeena River.

By Sunday, Dec. 3, all three battalions had been shipped out of Terrace. While charges were laid, there was limited political will to follow through with them.

Apparently, many men jumped off the train that was bringing them home to face charges, while their superior officers turned a blind eye.

Charges were dropped for those mutineers who agreed to serve overseas.

In the end, only a limited number of people were sentenced. For the most part, the government was happy to let the whole affair fade away quietly.

“It all seems like a bad dream,” war diarist Lt. Col. Costin mused.

Indeed, we know little, 68 years later, about the longest lasting mutiny in Canadian history.

It transformed conscription – a predominantly political issue – into a cultural, economic, and ethical issue. It makes us think, once again, about Terrace’s place within Canada.

Kelsey Wiebe is the curator of the Heritage Park Museum.  If you have photographs, stories, or ideas about the mutiny, please contact the museum at 250-635-4546 or through curator@heritageparkmuseum.com.

The following is additional material provided regarding the role of the military during the Second World War in Terrace.

Soldiers training in Terrace, BC during the Second World War

Mountain warfare school located in Terrace.

A mountain warfare school was established in Terrace in 1943 with the official object to train officers in fighting, travelling, and sustaining themselves in harsh, mountainous terrain.

Several people involved with the school surmised that its ulterior motive was to address the tedium of being stationed in Terrace: in addition to encouraging strategic understanding of military operations in the area, the school would appease the restlessness of the troops and boost lagging morale.

The morale of the troops was a serious concern. In the early days, soldiers recounted stories of desperate social isolation and of conditions so dire that uniforms froze to the wall.

Men went to extreme measures to escape Terrace, the threat of which was used to scare soldiers elsewhere into good behaviour.

"One of our troop would take a cold shower on one of the coldest days of winter," an airman stationed here in 1943 recalled, "and then stand in the snow hoping he would develop pneumonia."

Another man taped a penny over a self-inflicted cut, "hoping he would develop copper poisoning and also be sent out to a hospital."

To mediate such desperation, the mountain warfare school trained officer and officer recruits in trail climbing, rock climbing, bivouacs, ice travel, snow traversing, offensive tactics (including ambush), improvised bridging, and mountain firing.

During an early exercise around Kalum Lake, the men set up camp around George Cobb’s hotel, which now serves as the centrepiece of Heritage Park Museum.

On a cold, windy day in March of 1944, military records indicate that fifty men were dropped off at 8:00 a.m. at the base of Copper Mountain to conduct training as part of the school. They were picked up again in the early evening, having traversed the area.

Officers also trained at Kleanza, Terrace Mountain, Thornhill Mountain, and Lakelse Lake.

The findings of the school were regularly reported to the Department of National Defence. Among other things, the Terrace school determined that, while mortar fire is effective in thin snow, deep snow "nullifies" its lethal effect. Fifty per cent of rounds fired fail to detonate, even in crusted snow.

Courses - which ranged from several dozen to 270 men - were so popular that there often wasn’t sufficient gear.

Constantly facing a shortage of instructors and equipment, the school trained officers to teach the course to their own units, solving their manpower problems.

Given the eventual outbreak of mutiny, the school failed to alter the general sense of disenfranchisement shared by men in Terrace.

Rock climbing, mountaineering, and simulation ambushes did little in the face of the national political force of conscription.

They did, however, improve the experience for some individual soldiers, several of whom fondly recollect their times spent in the forests and mountains of Terrace.

"We realize now it was a paradise but at that time it was our prison," explains one soldier, decades later.

Dogs of War

"A census of all dogs within unit lines will be compiled," a Terrace war diarist noted in April 1943.

Many of the men had brought wives, children, and even pet dogs with them to their posts in Terrace. Military housing was provided for the men themselves, but their families had to find spaces in private homes.

"Everybody took in people if they could," Mary Little noted in an oral interview in 1979. "We felt it was your duty to do it - which it was."

Many people lived in sheds, and the adventurous found space in converted chicken coops

.Apparently, there were enough pet dogs in the encampments that the military needed to order them "locked up or otherwise disposed of during parade hours."

Dogs served as mascots, too. Properly trained regimental mascots attended ceremonial parades.

Ray de Kergommeaux, who served as a newspaper and errand boy due to his fluency in both French and English, remembers that one of the units even had a trained mule deer for a mascot.

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