Remembrance Day — every Nov. 11, how many of us pause and wonder how to best “celebrate” this event that marks the 1918 end of hostilities in the First World War? In most Canadian towns you can’t even buy a coffee at Tim’s without facing the “Great War.” What message do we foster among the next generation as we admire the sacrifice and sympathize with the suffering of those who went to war?
If you worship in an older church building, such as I do, there may be lists of fallen soldiers from two World Wars commemorated on the walls of your parish building — often found directly under some of the stations of the cross.
Yet, Pope Paul VI’s 1965 speech at the UN cried out: “No more war. War never again!” This same invocation was echoed by John Paul II in 2002: “Never again war. Never again hatred and intolerance.”
As a high school student, I had no idea why our teacher Ted Schmidt had us read and discuss All Quiet on the Western Front. I had no idea that Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 anti-war classic had been a bestseller of 40 million copies, but had also once been excluded from Ontario’s curriculum. Nor did I realize the book was banned in Poland (as pro-German) but also burned by the Nazis as defeatist (and anti-German.)
But it did influence my thinking forever on “The Great War.” What was its purpose, its confusing and less than noble cause, the global tensions unleashed between historic empires and, most graphically, how was the war understood by those suffering through it, and after it?
These conundrums came to mind again as I turned the pages of a new book: The Vimy Trap: or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War.
In April 2017, Canada will mark the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. Authors Ian McKay (McMaster University historian) and Jamie Swift (director of the Social Justice Office of the Sisters of Providence in Kingston) warn us to be wary of “Vimyism”: a network of ideas and symbols that mythologize what the battle, and the war, truly mean.
At Vimy in April 1917, the four divisions of Canadian troops fought together for the first time in a cohesive action. They barraged and stormed this high spot of land in France, advancing 4,500 yards to take and hold the ridge from fierce German fighters. Enemy casualties were not reported, but some 4,000 prisoners were taken.
Yet, the German command did not see Vimy as a defeat, since no full-scale breakthrough occurred following the attack. Throughout the rest of the war, they did not attempt to re-take the ridge. Some Canadian politicians and writers, however, especially in recent times, have attempted to laud and sanctify Vimy Ridge as “the birth of the nation.” McKay and Swift decry this narrative as overwrought “martial romanticism” rather than a warning against “the unprecedented possibilities of mass death under conditions of industrial modernity.” In just four days of brutal action, 3,598 Canadian soldiers died, and over 7,000 more were wounded.
The authors warn that, as preparations for Vimy centennial commemorations approach in the coming months, Canadians might not be equally exposed to the darker side of the experiences of Canadians who lived that era. Obviously, the toll of human suffering in the war was atrocious: of the 420,000 soldiers who served overseas, over half were killed or wounded. Many who valiantly signed up to defend “Canada, western civilization and Christianity” (and, notably at the time, “the British Empire”) against an atrocity-perpetuating foe, returned doubting some of those justifications.
Thousands of returned soldiers were forced to engage in the “second battle” for economic survival. Postwar pensions reflected societal divisions: if privates received an annual maximum of $480, officers might receive twice as much. Aboriginal veterans received nothing. Conscription divided Canadians, especially in Quebec. While women laboured for pennies in munitions factories on the home front, profiteering and corruption by owners and senior politicians were widely reported. And the country’s debt load jumped from about $220 million in 1914 to roughly $3 billion in 1920.
Today, religious communities would do well to recall the words of leaders who travelled to France in 1936 to inaugurate the impressive Vimy Memorial. Rev. (Lt.-Col.) Fallis said, “The only hope lies in making the world hate war — as I hate it — as every man who went through the awful ordeal hates it.” Auxiliary bishop A.E. Deschamps of Montreal called on all to “hate and curse war, this universal evil.”
Lest we forget.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.