Countries are preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already battle lines are forming. Those who advocate honouring the war dead, for example, find themselves opposed by those who object to anything that might glorify war.
It’s an anniversary that should be observed — the Great War was a defining event of history, changing the world and changing Canada. It touched the lives of people from the East Coast to Vancouver Island, and it helped shape Canada as a nation. But events and projects associated with the war should be kept free of politics and ideologies.
The issues around the war and its centennial are already boiling in Britain, where the government of Prime Minister David Cameron is planning four years of “national acts of remembrance.” Critics are concerned that it’s a political ploy to stir up patriotic support of a hawkish government’s foreign policy.
The same issues will undoubtedly arise closer to home as Canada prepares to take part in First World War commemorations over the next few years.
Keeping celebrations non-political might be too much to hope for — the Harper government’s peculiar obsession with the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is an example of what can happen. The government spent nearly $30 million on commemorations few Canadians wanted for a war hardly anyone remembers. The Prime Minister’s Office was so obsessed with the event, it devoted considerable attention to the colour of Laura Secord’s clothes.
“The War of 1812 was a seminal event in the making of our great country,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who described the war in shining, noble terms.
Historian Pierre Berton came to different conclusions. In The Invasion of Canada, he wrote that the War of 1812 was unnecessary and unwanted, and that it was not a “people’s war,” as portrayed by the pro-British ruling elite. “Democracy was a wicked word and the army was run autocratically by British professionals,” he wrote.
We should listen more to historians and less to politicians, who too often bend interpretations of historical events to their own purposes.
That doesn’t mean historians are united on the causes and details of the First World War, nor should they be. Rigorous debate and analysis can only help us to understand this horrible conflict better.
Noble actions occur during war, but there is nothing noble about war itself. It is a scourge.
In All Quiet on the Western Front, inspired by his experiences as a German soldier in the First World War, Erich Maria Remarque says: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
Hardly any British Columbian was untouched by the First World War. B.C. had more enlistments per capita than any other province. One Victorian, Arthur Currie, a lieutenant-colonel in the local militia, went off to do his part, and became Canada’s greatest wartime general.
More than 6,000 British Columbians who served did not return. Not all were soldiers in the trenches — Esquimalt-born Gladys Maude Mary Wake, for example, volunteered as a nurse in 1916 and was killed in 1918 when German planes bombed the Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France.
Commemorations and ceremonies don’t glorify war, they condemn it. Monuments at battlefields don’t celebrate the conflict, they honour the dead and stand as powerful reminders of the consequences of war. “Lest we forget” is not an endorsement of war, but a plea for peace.