WW2, Zombies and my Great Uncle William

William Edmund Brown

I have very little information on my Great Uncle, William (Bill) Edmund Brown, who served in the Royal Canadian Army.  I have tried several times over the last eight years to obtain his partial war file from Library and Archives Canada.  I say partial since he has been deceased for less than 20 years so his files are considered restricted.  Changes to FIPPA – the act that governs privacy laws – means that only immediate family can request files for those that have been dead for less than two decades.  In the case of Uncle Bill, this only living immediate family he has is Uncle Jimmy.  I am working with him to get a partial record in hopes that it will fill some of the gaps until 2019 when we may request his full record.

Here is what we do know about Uncle Bill: he was originally assigned to D Coy., Royal Highland Fusiliers of Canada but later was transferred to the PEI Highlanders.

The only other thing I know about my Uncle Bill’s war service is that my grandparents always referred to him as a “zombie.”  This was the name given to Canadian men during WW2 that didn’t serve as a result of volunteering, but instead served because they were conscripted.

In response to pressure from England by mid-1940 for the mobilisation of manpower, the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) was introduced.  The NRMA called for a national registration of eligible men and authorised conscription for home defence.  Beginning in April 1941, men called up by the NRMA were required to serve for the rest of the war on home defence duties.  Canada provided the bulk of the volunteers for the British armed forces and unflattering name for the NRMA conscripts was “zombies.”  Increasingly, there was pressure on the “zombies” to volunteer for overseas service – this is sometimes referred to as Canada’s conscription crisis.  This pressure mounted as the Italian Campaign dragged on through 1944 and with the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.  With the high casualties of fighting, the Minister of National Defence J.L. Ralston, was convinced it had become essential to send conscripts overseas as reinforcements. After disagreement among his Cabinet colleagues, the Prime Minister forced Ralston to resign and appointed General A.G.L. McNaughton as the new Minister in a last-ditch effort to avoid conscription. Despite his great reputation and prestige, McNaughton was also unable to find enough NRMA men willing to volunteer. On November 22, 1944, King was forced to reverse his position and order conscripts overseas. When it was all said and done, around 13,000 NRMA men left Canada with only 2,463 of those having reached units that were in the field, and only 69 died in battle.  Uncle Bill was one of the 2,463 that reached the field – he saw active duty in the Liberation of the Netherlands.

To this day, around Remembrance Day, if Uncle Bill’s name comes up she always reminds us that he was a “zombie.” Zombie or not, Uncle Bill did his time, he did his service to his country and he saw his own horrors of war. I hope one day to learn more about his service because it feels like there are a lot of gaps in this part of the family military history.


National Defence and the Canadian Forces, Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Vol. I: Six Years of War