Policing Vancouver During the Great War–Part 2

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

This is a reposting of a popular blog series from 2014 in honour of Remembrance Day and those who nobly served.

The First VPD Men Who Went to War:

“No mere jackboot militarism inspired them. They sought neither the glory of conquest, nor the rape nor the loot of sacked cities. No selfish ideal led them to leave their homes and exchange the ease and comforts of civil life for the sufferings of war and the risk of death. They came forward free men and unconstrained with a simple resolve to lay down their lives if need be in defense of the Empire. Their Empire too.”

– Lord Beaverbrook, WWI chronicler and the creator of the Canadian War Records office commending the heroism of Canadian Soldiers

In recognition of the 100th* anniversary of the beginning of WWI–one of the most influential events in the world’s history–and its effect on Vancouver, we’d like to shed some light on the men of the Vancouver Police Department who left their job, their home, and their families to fight the war in Europe. As we’ve previously discussed, 1914-1919 was a time of major social and lawful change in Vancouver. And, as with any public policing organization, the Vancouver Police Department was (and still is) a reflection of its city in a time and place–one struggling with the pressures and heartbreak of war, in addition to unionization, prohibition, and (eventually) an unexpected flu epidemic.

Upon the declaration of war on August 4th, 1914, hordes of young men from across Canada rushed to enlist. They were spurred by patriotism, adventurism, opposition to German aggression, and personal ties to Great Britain. The Canadian Prime Minister of the time, Sir Robert Borden, had promised Great Britain a contingent of 25,000 men to aid oversees, but up to 40,000 had immediately voluntarily enlisted and were ready to fight.

The men of the Vancouver Police Department were no exception. Within two weeks of the declaration, ten men were given indefinite leave by Chief MacLennan “to enlist in the war overseas.” Ten officers might not sound like a lot, but the entire VPD only employed 74 officers in total. That’s an alarming chunk of an organization’s roster gone in two weeks, especially an organization whose mandate is to maintain law and order.

Some of the first few VPD enlistees were given leave with half-pay and were promised their rank and position would be held for them upon their return. This promise, however, was made with the expectation that the war would only last until Christmas. The overwhelming requests received by the chief’s office for leave made the brass think again, and the half-pay was quickly reduced to no pay.

There’s no official statement to this end, but it appears that the administration of the VPD recognized that, at this rate, enlisting officers could not continue. Three more officers were given leave to join the fight in September. It’s safe to assume that new requests from the department’s constables and non-commissioned officers were responded to with a firm ‘no’ after this point. The department had to keep a minimum of officers to police the city.

This wasn’t good enough for some of the men, though. Some opted to walk away from the department, giving their permanent leave and signing up for the war regardless.

The chief’s order books for 1914-1918 are filled with statements of officers who submitted their resignation. The unfortunate side of this action is that our historical records don’t name those officers as having been “Vancouver Police Department members who fought in WWI.” Because they quit the department, they are simply “Men who went to war,” even if they ended up re-entering the department after 1918. VPD officer Leonard Philip Parsons, who quit in 1915 and was rehired in 1921, was a prime example of this oversight. He fought in WWI and then stayed with the VPD until his retirement in 1953 as Detective Sergeant. His name and photo is not on the Roll of Honour created by the VPD to commemorate their officers who fought the good fight.

Keeping this bias in mind, the following is a list of those first ambitious VPD officers who were granted leave to fight overseas in 1914. They are listed in order of the date they were released from the department.