John George Bannerman Diefenbaker (1895–1979) was a law student at the University of Saskatchewan when he attested in the 196th Battalion at Regina on August 25, 1916. He arrived in England that September. There it became apparent that Diefenbaker suffered from a serious medical condition related to his heart. He was declared medically unfit for service, and returned to Canada in February 1917 without ever having seen active combat. He returned to law school and eventually practiced in the small town of Wakaw, Saskatchewan. He joined the Conservative Party, becoming provincial leader in 1936, and was elected to the House of Commons in 1940. He became leader of the party in December 1956, and was elected Prime Minister of Canada in June 1957. He appointed the first female minister in Canadian history (Ellen Fairclough) to his Cabinet, as well as the first Indigenous member of the Senate (James Gladstone). After his term as Prime Minister, he remained a Member of Parliament until his death in 1979.
Service Record Details
Date of Birth: September 18, 1895 (New State, Ontario)
Date of Attestation: August 25, 1916
Age at Enlistment: 21
Prior Military Service/Active Militia: 105th Saskatchewan Fusiliers
Height: 5 feet, 11 1/2 inches
Weight: 146 pounds
Description: Fair complexion, brown hair, blue eyes. Baptist. (He is alternately described as tall with curly hair; and with a fresh complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair.)
Home Address: 411-9th Street, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Trade: Student (Law)
Next of Kin: Father, Mr. William Thomas Diefenbaker, and mother, Mrs. Mary Florence (Bannerman) Diefenbaker, living at 411-9th Street, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Theatre of War: England
Casualties / Medical History
- November 26, 1916 – A note, written at Crowborough Camp in England, indicates that Diefenbaker suffers from cardiac disease. It describes his condition at some length, explaining that he suffered a great deal from symptoms of weakness even before enlistment. Immediately after enlistment, he was given ten days’ leave “owing to heart trouble and weakness.” He cannot, the note says, double (bend down), climb a hill or do any physical training due to this serious heart condition. He also has weak eyesight (corrected by glasses), a weak physique and “dyspnoea [dyspnea, or laboured breathing] upon exertion.” (Page 15)
- February 22, 1917 – A note indicates that he sailed for Canada on the SS Grampian on February 20, 1917, having been declared permanently unfit. (Page 3)
- August 4, 1917 – Has been experiencing “Mitral incompetency” since November 15, 1915, due to “Overwork. Entrenching while in England.” (Page 79)
- A brief medical history states that he was examined on November 1, 1916, and found physically fit. Following that, however, he was in training at the Canadian Military School. He was then assigned to dig trenches, which he did for seven hours a day for 10 days. At the end of this time he began spitting blood, which lasted two days. He returned to light duty, but his condition worsened. He was, finally, hospitalized for eight weeks before being sent back to Canada. (Page 79-80)
Interesting Details from the Service Record
- During the First World War, Diefenbaker was a Lieutenant with the 105th Saskatchewan Regiment. In 1957, the first year he is Prime Minister, he is appointed Honorary Colonel of his First World War regiment. (Pages 33-36)
- He had been considered fit to perform Category “A” duties upon his return to Canada. However, the commanding officer of Military District #12, Regina, Saskatchewan, writes to the Secretary Militia Council in Ottawa to say that, “there being no vacancy in this District whereby his services could be utilized at present, I would respectfully request that he be struck off the strength of the C.E.F. with effect from 25-10-17.” (Page 75)
The London Gazette
Military Medals, Honours and Awards
- At the age of five, John G. Diefenbaker is living in York, Ontario, with his parents, William Thomas (33) and Mary (28), and his younger brother Elmer C. (3). The family is listed as being of German and Scottish descent. His father is a school teacher and a Methodist, whose mother tongue is German. Diefenbaker’s mother is a Baptist.
1911 Census (Surname misspelled as “Diefenbach”)
- Now 15 years old, Diefenbaker has moved with his family to 9th Street, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His uncle Edward (30) also lives with the family.