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  • Writer's pictureColleen Murray

The Intentionally Forgotten

Updated: May 31, 2021

Library and Archives Canada finished digitizing the service files of Canadian Soldiers in WW1 earlier this year. The completion of this project, no doubt, was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, which we are celebrating today, this Remembrance Day, 11-11-2018.

Finding a service file is rewarding, genealogically speaking, because we learn about next-of-kin, their addresses, and details on the soldier that we are unlikely to find anywhere else, such as hair and eye colour. But more than this, we often get a sense of pride when we find a file showing excellent service and bravery, even if the connection between us is distant.

Photo courtesy of “Personnel files of the First World War,” Library and Archives Canada (

These are the relatives we proudly honour on Remembrance Day.

But what about those relatives who served with less than exemplary service? Those who were AWOL regularly, or drunk and disorderly? Those who lost pay due to bad behaviour, or whose character was described as fair or poor? Those who were sick with venereal disease, and saw the inside of a hospital more than the battlefield? How do we feel upon finding a deserter in our family? Do we feel pride in these soldiers as well, or do we regret searching out their service files?

Photo courtesy of “Personnel files of the First World War,” Library and Archives Canada (

Photo courtesy of “Personnel files of the First World War,” Library and Archives Canada (

I’m not sure how common desertion was, but I have come across it more than once in my own family tree, and from time to time in the trees of clients. Apparently in Canada, two hundred death sentences were passed for cowardice or desertion during WW1, although only twenty-two men were executed.[1] In 2001, the Canadian government added the names of those executed to the Book of Remembrance, and in 2006 they were pardoned,[2] indicating our changing attitudes towards war, mental health and the different ways that sacrifice manifests itself.

Tracing deserters after the war is difficult, as they may have changed their names, moved, or gone into hiding. The obituaries of the parents of one of my deserters do not mention their son at all, possibly to protect him, or possibly out of embarrassment.

Library and Archives Canada has a database of WW1 Court Martials - the website appeared to be down today. As far as I recall, my deserter relatives were not listed in it. A few photos of some deserters have been published in the Canadian War Museum’s digital archive, showing the effort made to identify and track down these former soldiers.

As some of my other blog posts will attest to, I’m interested in realistic stories of my relatives, even if they aren’t positive. Our ancestors and relatives were real people, and just like us, they struggled, and had moments of both strength and weakness. Although I believe that Remembrance Day is mostly about honouring those who sacrificed everything so that we don’t have to, I still have room in my heart to remember those who tried, but weren’t good soldiers. Those who volunteered, but then didn’t have the ability to follow through. Those who put themselves forward, but ultimately found themselves lacking. Although we may not exactly honour them today, it is worth noting that they too made sacrifices that luckily most of us are not asked to make today. It’s impossible to say that we would have done any better in their place.


[1] “Canada and the First World War: Discipline and punishment,” Canadian War Museum ( : accessed 11 Nov 2018).

[2] “Canadian soldiers executed in WW1 to get pardon,” article 15 Aug 2016, CBC ( accessed 11 Nov 2018).

1.596886: accessed 11 Nov 2018).1.596886: accessed 11 Nov 2018).

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