Canada in the Second World War


Colonel J. Layton Ralston

James Layton Ralston, born in Amherst, Nova Scotia, on September 27th, 1881; died in Montreal, on May 21st, 1948. Canadian Army officer, lawyer and politician.

The Honourable J.L. Ralston inspecting Canadian troops stationed in England, December 1940

The Honourable J.L. Ralston inspecting Canadian troops stationed in England, December 1940
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-132649

Upon graduating from Dalhousie Law School in 1903, J.L. Ralston practiced law in Amherst, Nova Scotia. He entered public life as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Cumberland, in 1911, and was re-elected for a second term in 1916.

During WWI, Ralston served as an officer with the 85th Canadian Infantry Battalion. With a reputation as a gallant and skilled officer, he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1918, and became commanding officer of the Nova Scotia Highlanders Regiment. Pursuing his military career after the war, he made the rank of Colonel in 1924.

Ralston returned to politics on the federal scene: a member of the Privy Council, he received the National Defence portfolio in Prime Minister Mackenzie King‘s 1926 government. He lost the department in 1930 as R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives took power. Acting as the Canadian delegate to the London Naval Conference, he later sat on several Royal Commissions.

In September 1939, Ralston became Minister of Finance; a few months later, on July 5th, 1940, a cabinet shuffle gave him the National Defence portfolio, where he succeeded Norman McLeod Rogers, who had died in an airplane crash.

In 1944, as fighting raged in Italy and Normandy, there were concerns that the Canadian Army may soon experience a shortage of men to replace soldiers killed or wounded. In October, Colonel Ralston visited the fighting units to assess by himself the gravity of the situation. Upon his return to Ottawa, convinced that some 15,000 well-trained men were indeed required, he reached the conclusion that territorial defence troops should be sent to the front. For political reasons the King government could not impose conscription for overseas service; Ralston was forced to resign on November 2nd, 1944.

Although he was at times criticized for a tendency to get bogged down by administrative minutiae, Colonel Ralston was a good judge of the valour of his superior officers. He was also remembered as a man dedicated to the defence of Canadian fighting troops.