GENERAL ARTICLES

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK December 1 1944
GENERAL ARTICLES

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK December 1 1944

BACKSTAGE AT OTTAWA

THE MAN WITH A NOTEBOOK

REAL cause of the Cabinet split was not so much the question of sending the Zombies overseas now. To the last there seems to have been some room for debate on that. The real issue was one of confidence in the Government’s intention to use conscription at all, whatever the need might become. What finally broke confidence was the way Col. Ralston was treated. People thought he’d resigned because his ultimatum— “Send those Zombies overseas or I quit”—was refused. He intended to do so, as he said Nov. 12, but he didn’t get a chance. Even his own words, that he presented his resignation “as requested by the Prime Minister,” were a slight understatement; he handed in that resignation the following day. Actually, it seems, he was fired—without notice— as he was trying to put a dead line into the proposed appeal to Zombies to go active.

Day after the blowup a reporter asked Mr. King if Col. Ralston’s resignation bore yesterday’s date. “To say a resignation was tendered and accepted,” said Mr. King evenly, “is not necessarily to say there was anything written.”

“You mean it was presented orally?” another reporter asked.

Mr. King ducked again: “I can’t reveal Cabinet secrets,” he said.

In both answers he contrived to avoid denying that Col. Ralston hadn’t resigned the day before at all. According to some of Col. Ralston’s best friends, the resignation that Mr. King accepted in 1944 had been presented in 1942, at the time of the rumpus over Bill 80.

According to people who usually know what they’re talking about, the final bolt came from a blue sky. Discussion had been fairly tense on that afternoon of Wednesday, Nov. 1, but no more so than it had been each day for a fortnight.

The subject was the appeal to Zombies to volunteer and Col. Ralston was arguing in pretty strong terms for an “either—or” clause— some kind of stipulation that if they did not volunteer in adequate numbers by a specified date they might have to go anyway willy-nilly. The Prime Minister interrupted him to say in effect: This can’t go on. I’m sorry but I must accept

the resignation you gave me two years ago. I have asked General McNaughton to take over the portfolio and he has accepted.

Ralston got up without another word, shook hands with all his colleagues, including the Prime Minister, and walked out of the room.

* * *

James Layton Ralston is, as he has been for 30 years, one of the most sincerely admired men in Canada. He was a hero in the last war—would have had the V.C., for stepping into a hail of steel to rescue a wounded subaltern, but Regulations forbid a commanding officer to expose himself needlessly. So Ralston’s courage earned him a reprimand and the D.S.O.

People, especially soldiers, remember things like that. In this war “the Colonel” has been one of the few civilians welcomed, respected and heeded by the troops overseas. Officers who were with him in Italy last year say it would have done your heart good to see him riding in a jeep, hat on the back of his bald head, mingling unescorted with the boys and sometimes talking to them like a Dutch uncle. They took it, and liked him for it.

As Minister of Defense he toiled endlessly, incredibly. His normal working day was anywhere from 14 to 18 hours. His weakness was that he could not delegate authority, could not rest until he had checked every last thing himself. Trying to do the impossible he often became a one-man bottleneck, letting important and urgent decisions lie buried under the mountain of detail through which he persistently burrowed.

But by an odd paradox, this man, who couldn’t leave anything to a subordinate, had enormous faith in the professional generals. Their job was to wage war and they knew now, he felt. His job was to get them what they needed and accept responsibility for what they did.

In the manpower crisis the professionals—not the field commanders but the desk generals—seem to have let him down with a calamitous bump.

* * *

At root the reinforcement shortage came from miscalculation. All told there were enough volunteers to see us through. But the catch was, not enough of them were infantry. And in this war, when every infantryman has to have the physique of a footballer, when units of PB I are expected to do 10 miles in two hours, carrying full kit—in this war you can’t make an infantryman overnight, even out of an otherwise trained soldier. It takes several months.

Now the infantry lack was not at the outset a Canadian mistake, it was a mistake of Supreme Headquarters. After the Nazi Panzers mowed down France in 1940 it became conventional to suppose that armor is the thing in modern war. Infantry was passé. Officers who kept insisting that the old footslogger would have to do the final job were regarded as sentimental reactionaries, like cavalrymen pining for boots and saddles.

Desert warfare, with its accent on tanks, further strengthened this notion. Italy’s contrary lessons were put down to freak terrain. So we all went into Invasion undersupplied with infantry and relatively oversupplied with armored and ancillary troops.

That, of course, was nobody’s fault—no general is expected to have the wisdom of hindsight. But in the field the mistake was realized very soon. By midsummer it was obvious that we’d all have to train more of our incoming recruits as infantryhien, fewer as gunners or tank drivers or what not.

Canadian field commanders saw this as quickly as anyone else, and said so. But the desk generals apparently didn’t do enough about it—didn’t even

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Backstage at Ottawa

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tell the Government, by all accounts. They worked at the problem but for several months they worked in silence.

Suddenly, in October, they began to shout that the reinforcement situation would soon be desperate. They had enough men until the first of the year, and the training program had to be altered so that before spring they’d have enough again in the normal volunteer flow. But there was a sixweek gap between the time infantry reinforcements would run short under the old training plan and the time more infantry would become available under the new plan.

During that six weeks, they figured, more men would be needed than their new paper work showed they had in sight. Only way to plug the gap, they decided, was to take those trained infantrymen from the Zombies. Of the

68.000 NRMA personnel now enrolled, some 35,000 are on operational duty, and a little less than half of these are infantry.

* * *

This, by reliable report, was the October emergency. The reinforcement difficulty was there all right. But there were some grounds for balking at the generals’ contention that conscription was the only course left—especially as the whole thing had landed so belatedly in the Cabinet’s lap, a lethal bolt from the blue.

So Col. Ralston did not sell his colleagues very solidly on the staff recommendation, as such. They weren’t too happy, either, about the figures the generals had given him. Some thought the flow of volunteers had been greatly underestimated, and blocks of available men seemed to have been overlooked.

Besides the whole structure of the Army was puzzling. We had upward of

400.000 active service volunteers; the

Cabinet couldn’t see why more of that number couldn’t be got into the field as combatant troops instead of having nearly half of them in Canada and in England. Wasn’t the whole establishment top-heavy?

What with one thing and another, they had a strong hunch that some other way could be found to plug a paper deficit—some other way than a policy which had been avoided at great cost and strain for five years in the well-grounded fear that it would split the country wide open. Was it really needed now, on the very eve of victory?

But they couldn’t be sure of the need, not on those figures. And they couldn’t be sure that the men who had drawn those figures, humanly anxious to have the event prove them right, would be capable of putting real drive behind any other policy.

* * *

If that had been all the crisis would have been less grave than it actually was. But there were really two issues, not one. There was the question of sending Zombies overseas now, and on

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that point the Cabinet could, and did, argue interminably without splitting on general principles. But the second deeper issue grew out of the first—the issue of confidence in the Government’s ultimate intentions.

Ministers have all agreed on the definition of manpower policy—“not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” But what does “necessary” mean?

Most English Canadians, including at least some of their representatives in the Cabinet, would say it’s “necessary” to keep our overseas Army reinforced at its scheduled level—“necessary” to use every resource before allowing any reduction in the scale of our war effort. Most French Canadians, including most if not all of their Cabinet representatives, would say “necessity” begins only when, or if, the safety of Canada is threatened. The latter interpretation, of course, would mean that conscription is out of the question now that victory is assured.

Men like Angus Macdonald and J. L. Ilsley, and the half dozen other Ministers who openly or privately share their convictions, can’t swallow that definition of “necessity.” And what has made their Cabinet seats feel so hot to them is their doubt of the Prime Minister’s own stand on this crucial issue.

Some of their doubt stemmed from an incident in Quebec City at the time of the Churchill-Roosevelt Conference in September. Local Liberals gave a luncheon at the Reform Club for the Prime Minister. It was a private affair, no reporters present, and the PM gave a brief informal talk without notes. Nobody can now recall precisely the words he used. But, according to several who were there, the general effect was something like this: Mr.

King asked rhetorically whether or not we’d had conscription, and when his audience of Québécois cheerily answered “No,” he said something to the effect that of course they hadn’t had it, that he’d never intended they should have it, and furthermore they weren’t going to have it.

This little speech went over big with the Quebeckers but not with some others present, including a Minister or two. When they told Col. Ralston he was angriest of all—taxed the PM with it and threatened to resign. But the PM said his words had been groasly misinterpreted, so the affair blew over more or less.

But it left a sour taste in many a Liberal mouth, a taste by no means sweetened by the brusque treatment given to Col. Ralston. To make it worse some Quebec Ministers are said to have had the poor taste and poor judgment to gloat, visibly, over the fall of the “archconscriptionist.” That capped all—Ralston’s friends fairly bubbled with anger.

They felt this made the plebiscite a fraud, Bill 80 a sham, and their position impossible. Their sense of betrayal was further embittered by their personal loyalty to Ralston, whose behavior when the axe fell is described by both factions as “magnificent.”

So it’s no comfort to them that the Government is still not pledged agamst conscription. General McNaughton, contrary to general impression, doesn’t seem to have made any promises. Even Mr. King himself, in his broadcast on Nov. 8, tagged on a hint that conscription “may” have to be reconsidered. But the rebels are unconvinced.

Mackenzie King has been in tight spots before. Nobody in Canada has such skill in getting out of them. But he’s never in all his career been in as tight a s pot as this one.