Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers

Soldiers

Mutinies and Desertion

The severity of such treatment might well, one may think, have caused frequent mutinies. The very opposite is true. Uprisings among British troops in Canada appear to have been few, and to have had causes other than the rigours of discipline. They were caused by a few isolated soldiers. For example, a letter dated September 1763 states that there was in Quebec "a mutiny of the Garrison on the Eighteenth instance [September 18], which was entirely amongst the private men," 80 who were protesting the excessive deductions from their pay. Thirty years later, a mutiny plot was uncovered within the 7th Regiment in garrison at Quebec City. The leader was executed by firing squad and two other soldiers were sentenced to 700 and 400 lashes.

Although mutinies may have been few, the same cannot be said of desertion. Prior to the 1830s, only some five percent of British soldiers deserted the regular army in Canada. In 1830, however, the rate jumped to more than 12 percent and remained high until 1837, when it dropped because of the rebellions. In 1848 it began to rise, reaching 18 percent in 1854 with the new war in the Crimea and peaking at more than 28 percent in 1857 during the revolt in India. The number of deserters then declined but rose again to more than eight percent in 1864 when the Americans offered generous amounts of money to those who enlisted in the Union army.

These figures are directly related to the noteworthy improvements made to the roads and railways linking Lower Canada, Upper Canada and the United States in the middle third of the nineteenth century. In the more isolated Atlantic colonies there were far fewer desertions. The problem was serious in central Canada and was never really eliminated despite measures taken to guard the borders more carefully. As soon as exciting news arrived, such as the gold rush to California, or when there were fears that the army would be mobilized to fight in the Crimea, or worse still in India, the exodus began. What could the authorities do in 1857, when 955 of the 3,000 soldiers deserted, or in 1864, when 831 of the 9,900 men in garrison took to the fields? Not much, in truth. In London in the 1860s it was thought prudent not to send too many troops to Canada for fear of swelling the ranks of the Americans.