Canada is on the razor’s edge of lived memory. At the time of writing this story, there is only one Canadian veteran left alive from the First World War. In fact, there are only a handful of these veterans still alive from around the world, with France, Turkey, and Australia’s last Great War veterans having passed away in recent years to join their millions of comrades who had already marched into history. While we totter from memory to history, the war remains a poignant event that continues to resonate across the divide of more than 90 years.
The Great War for Civilization, the War to End all Wars, the Great F—k Up, the First World War: just some of the names for the terrible conflict that raged for Canadians from Aug. 4, 1914, to Nov. 11, 1918. Worldwide, the war killed between 9.5 and 10 million people; some 15 to 29 million were maimed, passing through life with shattered limbs and broken minds; countless millions of civilians were killed through war-induced disease, starvation and genocide. The empires of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia were destroyed; new countries were formed, often along ethnic fault lines which led directly to the continual unrest in countries like Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Palestine. New superpowers were born in the United States and in the USSR. The cultures and arts would never be the same, with modernist movements in all fields, from painting to architecture, from dance to music, and all reflecting or railing against the upheaval of war. Few could have imagined such a worldwide cataclysm when the armies had marched to war in 1914.
Canada was never the same after the Great War. It was the young dominion’s coming of age event. Statistics from Veterans Affairs Canada tell us that a total of 619,636 Canadian men and women served in the Canadian forces in the First World War, and of these 66,655 were killed and another 172,950 were wounded. This was a terrible toll for a young country of not yet eight million. Today’s ratio of death and destruction to a 21st century Canada four times the size would be approximately 250,000 dead and 550,000 wounded.
But despite all the destruction, or perhaps as a result of it, Canadians came together during the war like never before. Young and middle-aged men enlisted in staggering numbers, and they were backed by communities across the country. Canadians put their shoulders behind the war effort, raising millions for soldiers’ families, buying newly issued war bonds to allow the government to pay for the war, making sacrifices daily. Fight or pay was the slogan of the time.
Canadians distinguished themselves overseas in the British flying services, in combat and support arms, and, most importantly, in the Canadian Corps, the dominion’s land army that forged a reputation as an elite formation on the Western Front. The Canadian fighting units first earned their fierce reputation at the desperate stand during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, when the 1st Division held off overwhelming German forces and withstood the first use of lung-searing, chlorine gas. The success at Vimy two years later, the combined offensive by all four Canadian divisions against the seemingly impregnable fortress in northwest France, confirmed the corps’ status as a formidable force. And the battles of the final two years of the war, at Hill 70, Passchendaele, and especially the Hundred Days campaign, reinforced their claim to the title of shock troops. But there were no bloodless victories on the Western Front. Even when the Canadian Corps was winning, it was hemorrhaging men in active operations and during the so-called quiet times of trench warfare.
The phenomenal rate of enlistment had slowed in Canada by the summer of 1916, just as more and more men were needed overseas to replenish the Canadian Corps that was being bled white on the Western Front. An increasingly desperate government, faced with pressure from patriotic citizens who insisted that the burden of war be shared evenly across the country, demanded conscription. Other Canadians, including large segments from Quebec, but also labour, farmers, and some religious organizations, suggested Canada had done its fair share in this terrible war, and that the conscription—the drafting of young men to fight—was counterproductive to the war effort and morally wrong.
Canada, the fragile confederation of many regions, classes and ethnic groups, began to crack, and when Sir Robert Borden’s government invoked the Military Service Act in the summer of 1917, and then fought the election over the conscription issue, it nearly tore the country apart. We must be willing to pay any cost, raged patriotic Canadians. But thrown back at them was the question: How much more blood was required? Farmers demanded to know who would bring in the essential war crops if every last man is sent overseas. And if the nation conscripts men for service, charged labour, it should also conscript wealth. That sounded too much like the infection of Bolshevism that was sweeping through Russia, and the government fought it tooth and nail. But there were no easy answers, and when Borden’s pro-conscription Unionist party was elected, it was clear that majority rights would trample minority concerns. Such is the case at times in democracies, and especially when countries are pushed to crisis in war, but conscription left deep scars in Canada.
The political legacy of the war was no less monumental, with Prime Minister Borden using the country’s sacrifice during the war to demand greater rights for the dominion within the British Empire. A devoted Imperialist before the war, he had become a Canadian nationalist by 1917, and his pressure on British Prime Minister David Lloyd George led to an important agreement at the 1917 Imperial War Conference through the relatively innocuously named Resolution IX. It promised to redefine the relationship between the dominions and Great Britain after the war. Forged in the fire of battle, Canadians were more aware of the role their country could play on the world stage.
The Great War was Canada’s War of Independence and American Civil War combined into one shattering event. Canadians came together as never before, but at the same time nearly lost the country. Region was pitted against region, family against family. The casualties to the small dominion were, per capita, on par with the horrendous bloodletting the United States faced during its civil war of 1861-65. Canada had come of age, and while it was still an unfinished country, its citizens had a far better understanding of who they were and what they hoped to achieve in the future.
In October 1918—following one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Cambrai —Canadian soldiers advanced through Mont Houy and Valenciennes before entering the historic Belgian city of Mons on Nov. 11. That was the day the guns fell silent—the day the Armistice came into effect at 11 a.m.
With the soldiers returning home in waves by middle of the next year, there was a pressing need to get on with lives. Veterans reconnected with families and loved ones; they returned to seek jobs or fulfilled desires to carve out a new life in the West on their own farm. None of these tasks were easy. For those who had been wounded or plagued by what we now diagnose as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they were at first often left to fend for themselves, assisted by government pensions that never seemed to stretch far enough, and often in the care of loved ones who no longer recognized the stranger in their house. We’ll never know how many veterans slipped through the cracks of society or sought solace in the bottle. But most found ways to cope with this new stress and strain. They often turned to one another for help. The rise of soldiers’ groups, which culminated in what is now The Royal Canadian Legion, allowed veterans to keep alive the bonds of camaraderie and speak with a united voice when it came to seeking changes that would improve their lives and the lives of comrades and dependants.
While the war receded from immediate day-to-day life, Canadians refused to forget the terrible sacrifice, which had to mean something. While some of the childless parents, widows and orphans could never justify their own personal loss, and others called for an end to all war—never again to repeat the slaughter of the trenches—most communities, from the largest cities to the smallest hamlets, chose instead to find meaning in the war. During the 1920s, the overwhelming response from vocal citizens was to build memorials to the fallen. From stained glass church windows to cenotaphs to commemorative books for schools, organizations and individuals, those who served and sacrificed were to be remembered. The federal government embarked upon a program of erecting national memorials, the largest in France at Vimy and in Ottawa with the National War Memorial, but also the Peace Tower, the Books of Remembrance, and other forms of commemoration.
Local communities also erected monuments and memorials. The names of the fallen were inscribed with loving care and these sites of memory became the gathering places for Armistice Day—renamed in 1931 as Remembrance Day. The Legion and other veterans’ organizations took it upon themselves to organize Nov. 11 ceremonies and other events aimed at recognizing the service and sacrifice, and perpetuating the importance of remembrance.
A generation scarred could indeed not forget the Great War, but what did it mean? In the early to mid-1920s, the war was viewed as a just sacrifice. Canadian soldiers had died in a crusade for King, country, and Christ against militarism and evil.
But something had begun to change by the late 1920s. The veterans who had survived the war had time to reflect on their war service. Many felt that in return for their wartime sacrifices they had been promised a better society, a “land fit for heroes.” A decade after the war this promise was unfulfilled. Soldiers’ writings increasingly turned bitter, as best exemplified in the worldwide bestseller, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, but also by a host of British writers like Richard Aldington, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon. In Canada, American-born Charles Yale Harrison, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, wrote Generals Die in Bed (1930), perhaps the best remembered of the disillusionment school of writers. While most of the writers offered grim and disturbing accounts of the terrible strain of combat, the banality of trench warfare, and the gulf between the high command and the front-line soldiers, few if any of the novels and memoirs proclaimed that the war had been fought for unjust reasons. Moreover, while some found truth in the writing, other veterans condemned these accounts as the products of unbalanced minds. Amidst the terrible Depression of the early 1930s and the failure of the democracies to create a new and better society for its citizens, time had not healed the war’s wounds, instead leaving them raw and infected.
By the 1930s, the Great War was increasingly seen as a tragic death march that had achieved nothing but to bury a generation of the best and brightest. What chance did the memory of liberating little Belgium face in the wake of veterans who had lost the comrades in the trenches? How could issues surrounding the ‘balance of power’ resonate in a world where the dictators in Germany, Italy, and Japan were rising again? With new storm clouds on the horizon, the Great War had seemingly solved nothing, leaving only terrible grievances and the winners weaker to face new and rejuvenated enemies.
The Great War all but disappeared from public memory during the Second World War. With 1.1 million Canadians in uniform in the fight against Fascism on multiple fronts, the Great War disappeared, save for the occasional song that was sung from that period or the old men of the trenches now in veterans’ units protecting key points in Canada. The six years of war against Hitler’s minions ended in unequivocal victory and with Europe in ruins, and with Canada emerging as a powerful and influential middle power.
The Second World War veterans faced their own challenges in returning to Canada, but they were aided by a more interventionist government that, through the Veterans’ Charter, helped Canada’s servicemen and servicewomen go to school, start businesses, and build houses. Canadians went from producing shells to raising families.
The all-but-forgotten Great War emerged in public consciousness again in the mid-1960s. The 50th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge coincided with Centennial celebrations in Canada, when the country, riding prosperity and pride in accomplishments like Expo 67, took notice of its now aging heroes. There were tours to the Western Front, new histories written, and a general reminder that the surviving veterans needed to be acknowledged within society, as tens of thousands had already passed away. At the same time, a new antiauthoritarian and antiwar generation, increasingly dissatisfied with societal norms and watching the breakdown in the United States reeling from race riots and the ongoing bloodletting in Vietnam, reached back to the Great War as an example where the old had supposedly led the young to slaughter, forced them to dig their own graves on the Western Front, and left the soldiers there to rot for half a decade, while killing off millions of them. Fewer and fewer Canadians were sure about what the war had meant.
By the 1980s the Great War was shrouded in the mists of time and increasingly misunderstood as most of the veterans had now died, leaving others to fill the gap. Yet, moviemakers, playwrights, poets and novelists were all attracted to the memory of the Great War. Invariably they focused on the suffering in the trenches, the soldier as victim. While historians increasingly turned to the archives of the nation to explore the history from the ground up, they made little impact in changing the increasingly calcified memory and myth of the war.
One of the strongest wartime myths was based on those Canadians who served: the seemingly “gullible and the forsaken.” The gullible refers to that generation of Canadians who were supposedly tricked into serving overseas and then kept against their will there, usually with the ultimate threat of a bullet from a firing squad. There can be no doubt that the army of civilian-soldiers who formed the First Contingent in 1914 did not know what they were getting into when they went overseas. A sense of excitement and adventure drove some to enlist; others felt the pull of Empire and desire for Canada to support small nations like Belgium against unfettered German militarism; some were driven by pressure from peers, politicians, and the pulpit.
Indeed, there were countless reasons for men to enlist, including the belief of a quick war or to escape unemployment, but this does not account for why tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands of Canadians continued to enlist in the succeeding years. It simply does not make sense to suggest that young or older men only enlisted in 1916 out of a sense of adventure; most knew what was in store for them in the trenches. While censorship blunted some of these messages, the stark casualty lists could not be overlooked, nor could the revealing letters of soldiers at the front. Those who later enlisted, for instance, often testified that they felt it their duty to serve: young, single men (who formed 80 per cent) of the CEF, frequently spoke of enlisting so a married man with a family would not have to; many more waited to take care of ailing parents or to put their finances in order; others simply felt the growing need to stop the Germans and that while others had gone, now it was their turn. Far from gullible, this generation of Canadians made the conscious choice to serve King and country. They believed in the cause, to varying degrees no doubt, but portraying these soldiers as duped innocents fails to do them justice.
There is probably even greater misconception about what happened to the citizen-soldiers in the trenches of the Western Front. The common image of the soldiers is that of the infantry in the front lines, bayonets attached to rifles, waiting on the fire step before going over the top. In fact, the signpost battles on the Western Front were infrequent; take 1917, for example: the Canadians fought in the four-day battle of Vimy Ridge from April 9 to 12 and in two minor engagements from April 28 to May 8; towards the end of the year, the Canadian Corps fought at Hill 70 from Aug. 15 to 25 and in the mud of Passchendaele from Oct. 26 to Nov. 10. There were large and small raids throughout the year, and time spent in the line in more active operations before and after the big battles, but much of the front-line service was about holding the trenches.
The soldiers lived and died within these subterranean lines. While conditions were trying in the summer and winter, with rats, lice, bugs, heat, cold, and lack of water plaguing all, the soldiers were not simply one-dimensional fighting machines. Even in the firing line—and they usually cycled through from front to rear trenches to reserve, and then back again over a two week period—they read magazines, wrote letters home, played cards, smoked like chimneys and told bad jokes. Without these simple pleasures and leisure activities, they would not have been able to deal with the bullets, shells, shrapnel, poison gas, and other death-dealing weapons that took lives at random.
If the popular memory of the war is one of soldiers attacking day after day to be slaughtered on the barbed wire by the waiting machine-guns, it was not the fault of the soldiers but that of the callous generals behind the lines. The myth suggests that these upper-crust maniacs, more interested in garnering glory for themselves than saving the lives of their soldiers, refused to entertain any thought of changing their approach to battle, from the introduction of new weapons to the embracing of new doctrines or tactics.
In the last 20 years, historians have systematically investigated and debunked many of these assertions, especially in relation to the British high command, and specifically Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force from late 1915 to the end of the war. The British and Canadian generals continually embraced new technology, which included, tanks, airpower, chemical weapons, and armoured cars, as well as how to wield these weapon systems more effectively together in a combined-arms approach to battle. They were not perfect, and few would suggest that Haig was a military genius, but were there any genius commanders during the war? For the Germans, Moltke the Younger, Erich von Falkenhayn, Erich Ludendorff, and Paul von Hindenburg all displayed gross examples of failure at the strategic, operational, and tactical level, while the French, Italian, and Russian generals seemed to do their best throughout the war to systematically destroy their own forces in one failed offensive after another.
By comparison, in fact, the British high command often looked good, and certainly the dominion forces, ably supported by expert British staff officers, benefited from strong leaders like Sir Julian Byng, Sir Arthur Currie, and Sir John Monash. But it was a hard war in which to show any brilliance. The power of the defensive in the form of trenches in depth, barbed wire, interlocking machine-gun nests supported by artillery fire, and backstopped by reinforcing troops, meant that no matter how effective the offensive capabilities—and they improved throughout the war—assaulting forces would always take terrible casualties when crashing through such positions. Did it imply that none of the armies learned to fight better and more effectively during the war? No, the opposite in fact: that both sides—the Allies and the Germans—evolved throughout the war, ensuring that there were never any easy victories on the Western Front.
From the gullible to the donkey-like, the durability of such myths exists because they are partially based in truth. There were soldiers who were tricked into enlisting; there were generals who were not fit for command; it was often suicidal to attack frontally dug-in machine-gun positions. But more often the myths of the war were formed over time, as each new generation looked back on the Great War and increasingly found it harder to understand, especially against their own societies.
Click to view In The First World War
In this, the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, one is reminded by the frequently used phrase: ‘the past is a foreign country.’ The Great War can seem that way, with all the photographic evidence in black and white, the film footage jerky and unrepresentative of the horror, the last worldwide veterans, now all over 105 years old, ancient men from a forgotten time. But unlike most historical events that remain a part of that foreign country, in Canada the Great War continues to resonate. The unveiling of the refurbished Vimy Memorial in 2007 was attended by several thousand Canadians, the prime minister, and the Queen. The war remains an integral part of most school curriculums across the country, save for in Quebec. Filmmakers, novelists and playwrights continue to be attracted to the memory of the war. There are Internet sites like that of the CEF Study Group consisting of about a thousand members and hundreds of private websites—digital memorials—devoted to units or relatives. Ceremonies like Remembrance Day and the iconography of the poppy, two minutes of silence, and In Flanders Fields continue to resonate over time, still powerful enough to move Canadians to tears and contemplation, even those who have never served in the Canadian Forces.
Each new generation brings its own beliefs and understandings to the Great War: the war has not changed, but what it means to us as Canadians indeed changes, forming and reforming over time. The memory, meaning and myths of the Great War both attract and repel us. Ninety years after it ended, it would appear that we are not yet done with the Great War, and nor is it done with us.