Many who have served during times of war are remembered every November 11. But one group has been all but forgotten.
They never faced combat, but did in fact serve as “Soldiers of the Soil.” Although this phrase has often been broadly used, there was an official Soldiers of the Soil program. Created as an initiative of the newly formed Canada Food Board, they were boys ranging in age from 16 to 19 years who worked in the fields alongside farmers in the last year of the First World War.
The board, established in 1918 to increase food exports to Britain, pursued many avenues. In particular, the SOS Movement involved securing agricultural labourers to replace those conscripted to fight.
The Military Service Act of 1917 had made mandatory enlistment the law for Canadian men aged 20 to 45 years old. Voluntary recruitment was no longer supplying enough men to replace casualties. Prime Minister Borden wanted a strong Canadian contribution to the war because he hoped it could lead to greater influence over British imperial policy.
While the law allowed for the exemption of men providing essential services by special tribunals in their communities, there were no exemptions specifically for agricultural workers. Those who didn’t receive special certificates of exemption could petition the Final Court of Appeal, presided over by the Honourable Justice Duff. In the first case brought before him in early December 1917, newspapers quoted Justice Duff as having two reasons in allowing the exemption of a farmer’s son.
“(1) In order that the military powers of the allies may be adequately sustained, it is essential that in this country and under the present conditions, there should be no diminution in agricultural production.
“(2) The supply of competent labour available for the purpose of agricultural production is not abundant, but actually is deficient.”
Borden succumbed to pressure to exempt farmers’ sons in order to get votes in the December 1917 election. He reneged on his promise in the spring of 1918. Conscription had not generated enough enlisted men. All exemptions were removed and the act was revised to include those as young as 19.
Besides needing food for its own men, Canada was the main supplier to allied forces. Women were encouraged to take the place of agricultural workers who had gone overseas.
Businesses closed early so employees could go out to the fields to help with harvest. It was estimated that 10,000 men were needed for Manitoba alone. The front page of the June 27, 1918 edition of the Manitoba weekly newspaper, the Oakville Standard, mentioned this sighting:
“The shortage of labour accounts for another procession seen the same day. A team was drawing a set of discs, attached to which was a light wagon. Tied to the rear of the wagon was another team drawing an engine gang plow. All in charge of one man.”
According to the Report of the Canada Food Board, February 11 – December 31, 1918, “Because of the shortage of farm labourers and the urgent need of organized effort in all parts of the dominion, steps were taken before seeding time to enlist this army of teenage boys.”
The Soldiers of the Soil Movement was under the direction of the board of the YMCA and in co-operation with the provincial Departments of Agriculture. They were aided by the Departments of Labour and Education, as well as by leaders in the Boy Scouts of Canada.
There were 22,385 boys enrolled with 20,431 placed across Canada, of which 1,218 were in Alberta, 1,925 in Saskatchewan and 1,650 in Manitoba. Farmers requiring help applied directly to the program.
Many of these boys lived in urban centres. They received room and board. While doing a full day’s work, by necessity they learned many things which would not have been a part of their life in towns and cities.
Wages ranged from $15 to $30 per month. In 1918, Manitoba, a non-boarding adult male farm labourer could expect about $78 per month. If still in school, the “recruits” were exempted from classes and exams.
Once they had worked for a minimum of three months or more, they were eligible to receive an honourable discharge certificate which entitled them to move on to the next grade, even if they had missed final exams. Bronze lapel badges were bestowed, often at community ceremonies.
There had been concerns at the start, as this statement from the report indicates: “In some parts, at the outset, farmers were skeptical of the value of boy labour, and the co-operation of the Farmers’ Institutes and Association had to be secured in order to encourage the use of boy labour for more extensive seeding operations than had been originally planned by the farmers.”
In the end, it was concluded that “(r)esults secured have more than justified the undertaking.”