My Great Uncle William – Part One: Zombie or not?
After more than eleven years of trying to get my hands on my Great Uncle William’s (Bill) WWII personnel file, I find it in my hands, having arrived several weeks ago via my only surviving Great Uncle.
In 2004, more than a year after my original request for Uncle Bill’s military file, I received a message from an archivist at the Library and Archives Canada saying they could not find any such veteran. It took a great deal of investigating to determine that I had provided the wrong date of birth, good grief! Given all the other information I had provided – date of death, next of kin, military personnel number! – it really frustrated me that despite all my efforts, I was without file-in-hand. Fast forward to 2012; armed with all the information needed, I wrote the national archives in Ottawa again to obtain the file for Uncle Bill. I must admit, there was always a cloud of mysticism around my Uncle Bill’s service. All that was known for sure was that he was in Holland during VE Day, he was called a “zombie” by my grandparents and some time during his military career he contracted tuberculosis. Points two and three were the ones always emphasised when his name came up, which frankly was a rare occasion. My grandpa always sang the praises of his brothers Jack and Jimmy. But there was a real difference in attitude when it came to Bill. Not really knowing why made me crazy with curiosity and has very much been the driving force of my desire to learn more.
Between my original request in 2002 and the new once in 2012, the Privacy Act changed. Great! Another road block to my treasure hunt. Now, only next of kin can make a war file request for a veteran that has been deceased for less than 20 years and as a Great Niece, I did not qualify under their definition. Luckily, my Great Uncle Jimmy was willing to help me. When the file arrived, I must confess there was much more than I was expecting; 18 pages of redacted-free, abbreviation-filled, faded-and-hard-to-read military file pages! I should note, this is very much considered a limited file since all medical records and disciplinary records are sealed under the Privacy Act until 2021. Despite being a limited file, there is enough information to keep me busy and so far, I seem to have more questions than answers. Simply said, this file is nothing like the others that I have seen. It will take me several writings to share what is included in the file.
When it comes to my Uncle Bill’s service, my burning questions surround the term “zombie.” I guess it should not be a surprise that nowhere in the three volumes of the Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War is the word zombie used! I found a good online piece on Canadian zombies written by Sidney Allinson, entitled Zombies: the Canadian soldiers who refused to fight. Allinson notes that some Canadian soldiers refused to serve overseas and only went after they were conscripted; the so-called “walking dead” were dubbed zombies and were apparently, the “focus of an intense political controversy, and were individually scorned…” The National Resources Military Act (NRMA) originally granted the government authority to require all men and women over the age of 16 publicly register. The first large scale national registration occurred 19-20 August 1940 and provided the basis of a system of compulsory service on the home front with the propose of securing public safety and the maintenance of public order. The register placed an emphasis, or preference, for men aged 21-24 that were single or widowed and without children.
In January 1942, Parliament voted to change the NRMA, voting yes to release the government from its earlier commitment not to force overseas service. As of May 1942, the government had full power to institute general conscription. According to his file, Uncle Bill “reported as ordered” to 3-A District Depot in Kingston on 14 September 1942. In practice, the government held its powers to force overseas service until November 1944, when for the first time conscripted men were sent to Europe for the first time. In the case of Uncle Bill, he was sent to Europe in February 1945 at the age of 27 years.
While the term “zombie” is nowhere mentioned in his military personnel file (no surprise there!), Uncle Bill is frequently referred to as an “NRMA soldier.” There seems to be a derogatory connotation to its presence in the file, perhaps it is a subtle way of indicating that Uncle Bill was not a willing participant in the war effort. In fact, his file acts as evidence that he had many, many opportunities to voluntarily join the war effort. He instead chose to remain on domestic duties, only going overseas when he was absolutely given no choice.
Uncle Bill’s three brothers, including my grandpa Mike, all volunteered for service. As mentioned in another posting, my Uncle Jimmy enthusiastically joined the Royal Canadian Navy because the minimum age for service was 17 years versus 18 for the Army and Air Force. In reviewing Uncle Bill’s war file I am beginning to understand some of the resentment and embarrassment that my grandpa exhibited on the rare occasion that his Uncle Bill’s service came up in conversation. It is a resentment that my Grandma Betty carries on to this day – she reminds me often, “your Uncle Bill was a Zombie, you know.”
My family is intensely proud of the duty fulfilled by the my grandfather and his brothers during the Second World War. When I first received the war file and started looking more aggressively for information on “zombies” I must confess that deep down, I was hoping to find something that may vindicate Uncle Bill and release him from the reputation he has of being the family embarrassment.
Instead, truth be told, the file paints the picture that he did the bare minimum, took as many leaves as he could, and that he was just trying to hold out and avoid service overseas. So to answer the question “my Great Uncle, zombie or not?” – the answer is a resounding yes. More to details will follow to back up why I am taking this stance that may seem somewhat harsh…
Allinson, Sidney, Zombies: the Canadian soldiers who refused to fight. Accessed on 4 November 2014
Library and Archives Canada, List of Abbreviations Used in Military Service Files. Accessed on 1 November 2014
National Film Board of Canada, Mackenzie King and the Conscription Crisis. Accessed on 4 November 2014
National Defence and the Canadian Forces, Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Vol. I: Six Years of War