Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day 2013

It's hard not to write something about Remembrance Day on the 11th of November. So, I won't try and resist the impulse.

Here in Ottawa, the weather is miserable. It is cold, and it is damp, and an unpleasant mixture of snow and rain has been sifting downwards since early morning. We also had snow yesterday, Sunday, and some of it actually stayed on the ground. It is way too early for this sort of thing. I don't even have my snow tires on yet. That won't happen until next week, November 18th. I will hope for better weather over the next 7 days; although the forecast is for really low temperatures overnight, and for tomorrow.

This year, as I do most - but not all - years I went to downtown Ottawa, to the Cenotaph, Canada's National War Memorial, which sits in Confederation Square near Parliament Hill.

                           War Memorial Guards Ottawa.jpg

In the background is the Peace Tower, the dominant structure on Parliament Hill. The soldier in the red and black uniform is likely a member of the Governor General's Foot Guard. For those unfamiliar with Canada and its history, the Governor General is Queen Elizabeth's representative in Canada; and the Queen is the titular Head of Government. The ties to the British Crown are still strong here. In practical terms, though, we are a Federation and a Parliamentary Democracy. The real head of government in Canada is the Prime Minister; a position currently held - for better or for worse - by one Stephen Harper.

The end of the First World War - the Great War, if you will - gave rise to the occasion we now know variously as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or - in the United States - Veterans Day. (It used to be known in the USA as "Armistice Day", but that changed in 1954 when a bill was passed to honour the veterans of all wars; hence the present name.) The date, November 11, is the date on which the Armistice between the victors, Britain, France, the United States and Italy, was signed with the big loser, Germany. The actual time of the end of hostilities was "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. The first Armistice Day was observed on November 11, 1919, at Buckingham Palace in London.

We are now approaching the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, and - predictably - new books are coming out that deal once again with that conflict. How it started, why it started, how the war was conducted, and what were the results. Although it was almost a century ago, the war is still important. In addition to the carnage - estimates vary, but at least 20 million died, directly and indirectly, military and civilian - the war redrew the map of the world, and changed the world forever. Empires crumbled, new states emerged. It is also argued, that had the war never happened - which said in another way would mean that had the statesmen of the time, the presidents and prime ministers and kings and emperors, and their senior officials, been better and wiser men, able to prevent the outbreak of hostilities in Europe - much of the misery and awfulness that came about in the following decades might also have been avoided.

There is a rationale to this view. Had the "Great War" never taken place, and a more orderly evolution of European governments been allowed to happen, there would have been no Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. Hitler the man would have lived, but the raison d'ĂȘtre for his political success would not have been there. Hitler built his political career on the notion that Germany had lost the war because of a "stab in the back" at home; the perpetrators of which were, in Hitler's terms, the Jews, Marxists, and 'cultural Bolsheviks', the November Criminals, who sold Germany out. Without that drum to beat, Hitler might well have remained a nobody, an artist of modest talent who would not, eventually, have brought about the death by murder of millions of innocent people, and laid waste much of the European continent.

It follows, also, that absent the Great War, the Russian Empire might not have collapsed, at least not in the way it did. And without that collapse, the triumph of the Communists, under Lenin and Trotsky and others, might not have happened. It follows again, that without that triumph, there might have been no Stalin, and no Soviet Union. Without a Soviet Union, there would likely have been no Mao, and no Cultural Revolution. And so on, and so on. It would have been a much different world in the Twentieth Century, arguably a better one, and with much less bloodshed and destruction.

So, yes, the First World War is important, and understanding it, in all its complexity, is similarly important. It is not only an intellectual exercise.

On a personal level, WW1 had great effects in the land where I was born, the island of Newfoundland. What follows is from my website,

The Great War of 1914-1918 had a profound effect on Newfoundland, both on the battlefields and off. Newfoundland raised and equipped a full regiment of the British Army. By the time the war ended, a total of 6,241 Newfoundland men had served in the Newfoundland Regiment – by 1917 it was the Royal Newfoundland Regiment – 4,668 of them as volunteers. Another 5,747 enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve, the Forestry Corps, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and directly in British Forces. The effort cost Newfoundland much in terms of both men and money. For a small country with a fragile resource-based economy, Newfoundland’s contribution to the British war effort was remarkable. On July 1, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Newfoundland Regiment was almost annihilated at Beaumont Hamel, taking more than 90% casualties. In consequence, while the rest of Canada celebrates July 1st as Canada Day, Newfoundlanders still recognise that day as one of national tragedy. Moreover, it can be argued that the costs of the war led to Newfoundland’s financial and political collapse in the early 1930s.

There were few families in Newfoundland not affected by the Great War. My own family was no exception. Two of my father’s older brothers enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment, and both went overseas; one of them, Donald Wilfred (“Fred”) Curran, saw a lot of action. He was at Gallipoli in 1915, and was invalided back to England with what was then called “enteric”, another word for typhoid.

Ironically, Fred’s illness kept him from the slaughter at the Somme the following July. But he was back at the Front later that year, and in April 1917 he took a notable part in the Battle of Monchy-le-Preux, joining with eight other officers and men to hold off a superior German force until reinforcements could be brought up. For that action, all nine men were decorated; the officers received the Military Cross, and the enlisted men – of whom Fred Curran was one – received the Military Medal.

Fred Curran is seated at lower left

My mother’s family, the Rendells, were also directly affected by the war. Her older brother, Arthur James Rendell, was among the first to enlist in the Regiment, holding the number 204. He was killed at the Somme on July 1, 1916. So awful was the slaughter that day, that it was almost six months before his family received confirmation that he was dead. He was twenty years old. He is buried in Hawthorn Cemetery No. 2, located in Beaumont Hamel, France, on the grounds of the Newfoundland Memorial Park.

                                       Beaumont hamel newfoundland memorial.jpg

And so another Remembrance Day passes. I stayed at the ceremony at the Cenotaph until the parade of veterans, most of them from World War Two, had marched past. There are so few of them now, and those that remain are very old. The 70th anniversary of that war's end is just two years away.

The rational and realistic view is that there will always be wars of some kind. That is the downside. The better view is that, since 1945, there has not been another global conflict of the magnitude of WW1 or WW2. Cautious optimism can be expressed.

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