Tag: Remembrance Day

Remembrance 2021

Tomorrow, Nov. 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada. For as long as I can remember I have stood at a cenotaph on this day, joined with fellow Canadians in remembrance and sorrow, pride and humility.

This year, like last, because of the pandemic, the Royal Canadian Legion has asked me to stay home and watch on a screen. What guns and bombs and hatred couldn’t do, a virus has accomplished. One of the nation’s most deeply held traditions is “cancelled.”

Whether as a result of the pandemic or the acknowledgement of important war anniversaries, over the past twenty months I have read a lot of war novels. They have focused on “the home front.”

In “The Last Bookshop in London,” I’ve read about a woman’s life during the Blitz in London.  “The Paris Library,” is an account of a woman’s life in occupied Paris. Kirsten Hannah’s “The Nightingale” took me through the terror of occupied France. I’ve read about music giving hope to the population in “La’s Orchestra Saves the World,” and “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.” I’ve read about the Ack-Ack girls in “Light Over London,” and fifth column threats in “The Spies of Shilling Lane.” I re-read “Barometer Rising,” and experienced again the magnitude of the Halifax explosion of 1917.

I thoroughly enjoyed all of these books and recommend them without reserve.

When I look at the above list of novels I note a shortage of  Canadian content. This year, since I cannot stand alongside our veterans, I’ve committed to reading more about Canada’s experience of war. On my to-be-read list is Marjorie, Her War Years,  Tim Cook’s The Fight for History, and his two volume work, The Necessary War.   A search of the internet yielded this title, War on the Home Front, the Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan. As my grandparents and great uncles continued to farm during WWI, I look forward to reading about Daniel MacMillan.

This year, my tribute to veterans will include an effort to better understand their lives and their sacrifice. Yet no amount of reading is going to fill me with the kind of fear men and nations and families lived during world conflicts.

You see, I know that our side won. So while I empathize with a shopkeeper losing her store to the Blitz I know that, in the end, everything will be all right. I have that reassurance, our veterans did not.

In our time the world is mobilizing to fight climate change. There is real fear in the streets as people, especially youth, contemplate rising sea levels, the disappearance of island nations, vanishing ice caps, food shortages, and dried up lakes. The battle for the planet lacks the immediacy of fighter squadrons and toiling troops, but the outcome could not be more dire. This time we don’t have the reassurance that “our” side will prevail. Perhaps that fact gives us a taste of life in a time of war.

 

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1918 – 2018

 

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

 

 

 

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