Remembrance Day this year is particularly significant as it marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI, the War to End All Wars. With that hopeful thought in mind 620,000 men and women from Canada, with a population of just eight million, enlisted. In 1914 they went off with flags flying and trumpets blaring only to land in a hell none could have imagined. When they died, more took their place.
The impact on the country was incalculable. We lost 66,000 men, while another 127,000 were wounded. At that time, no one counted the mental wounds of returning soldiers. One mother in Winnipeg had seven sons in the army and two were killed. Countless families lost fathers, brothers, sons, husbands and uncles. Losses were staggering. For example, at the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel 800 Newfoundlanders went into battle on the first of July, 1916. Only 68 could answer roll call the next day. The dead included 14 sets of brothers.
So many leaders of the future were lost, artists, writers, industrialists, politicians, inventors, educators and bread-winners. The loss to the country goes well beyond mere numbers. The heart of Canada had been broken. The memorial at Vimy Ridge, shows the figure of a mother weeping for her sons. It is called Canada Bereft.
My first emotional encounter with the war came in my adolescence when I read Rilla of Ingleside, the last of the “Anne” books by L.M. Montgomery. Rilla, Anne’s youngest child comes of age during the Great War. Her favourite brother, Walter, says, “Before this war is over. . . every man and woman and child in Canada will feel it. . .It will be years before the dance of death is over . . . And in those years millions of hearts will break.” 1
In the end, Walter goes to war to save his own soul for he cannot live with the knowledge that the weak and defenceless are dying. I had an uncle who fought in the first war, he was wounded and the bullet hole in his shoulder made his young nephews stare. But my uncle never spoke of his experiences. Walter Blythe, a character in a book, made the war real for me. That’s the power of fiction, it can speak truth in ways real people cannot.
In later years, I’ve watched old film and been angry and heart-broken by the stupidity of trench warfare – all those young lives squandered for a few meters of mud. I’ve hated the generals and the politicians and armament manufacturers who created the war. I’ve questioned the history books who spoke of “winning.” I’ve been heart-sore at the images of laughing faces eclipsed by carnage.
But whatever my mood, whatever the weather, whatever my view on conflict, on November 11, at the eleventh hour, I honour the brave men and women who left home and country and sacrificed their all to do what they thought was right. Duty seems an outmoded concept in our time, but for those who followed the drum, it was the highest calling.
One hundred years since the guns fell silent on that first Armistice Day. Pray God, they fall silent again.
1 L.M. Montgomery, Rilla of Ingleside, McClelland & Steward, Ltd. Toronto, 1947, p.84