Poignant re­minder of First World War

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BILL BROWNSTEIN bbrown­stein@post­media.com twit­ter.com/ bill­brown­stein

The New York Tri­bune front­page ban­ner head­line of Nov. 11, 1918 blared: “Ger­many Sur­ren­dered. World War Ended.”

This is but one of scores of clips, bat­tle­field ar­ti­facts and in­ter­pre­ta­tive pan­els in War: Is It Over? The Chal­lenge of Peace, a poignant ex­hi­bi­tion com­mem­o­rat­ing the 100th an­niver­sary of the ar­mistice that ended the First World War. It runs un­til Sun­day at Vic­to­ria Hall.

But while the ar­mistice put an end to four years of bat­tle that re­sulted in the deaths of mil­lions — in­clud­ing 66,000 Cana­dian sol­diers — and led to the Treaty of Ver­sailles, this ex­hibit, pre­sented by the Mu­seum of the Royal Mon­treal Reg­i­ment (RMR), raises com­pelling is­sues about all those sac­ri­fices and the chal­lenges of peace.

These are is­sues that are dif­fi­cult enough to di­gest for adults who have some un­der­stand­ing of The Great War. But what about young stu­dents, many of whom have lit­tle knowl­edge of the war or Canada’s in­volve­ment therein?

Manu Boucher, one of a group of 15-year-old Grade 10 stu­dents from Lower Canada Col­lege, con­cedes that be­fore check­ing out this ex­hibit all he knew about the war were its 1914-1918 dates. Nor had he been aware of Canada’s role.

“This has been a real eye-opener for me to learn about the trench war­fare and about Canada’s big con­tri­bu­tions to the war,” Boucher says. “I also learned that the ar­mistice was re­ally just a tem­po­rary peace treaty.”

Class­mate Maeve Har­ring­ton notes that the ex­hi­bi­tion has left her shocked by the harsh re­al­i­ties of war but also extremely ap­pre­cia­tive for those Cana­di­ans who fought and for those who died in com­bat. “Remembrance Day will have spe­cial mean­ing for me now.”

Zach Ger­main, an­other class­mate, is struck by the statis­tics pro­vided: “I hadn’t been aware of the mas­sive num­ber of deaths that it took to win this war. I had been aware of Canada’s role at Vimy Ridge, but I hadn’t re­ally been aware of what a huge con­tri­bu­tion Canada made to the war over­all.”

Ma­rina Smythe, the ex­hi­bi­tion’s project co-or­di­na­tor, is pleased to see and hear the re­ac­tions of the stu­dents.

“The goal here is to show the du­al­ity of hav­ing pride in vic­tory as well as the sub­se­quent tragedy and loss, but also in the dif­fi­culty in tran­si­tion­ing to­wards cre­at­ing a peace which es­sen­tially af­fected the world for the next 100 years,” Smythe ex­plains. “It’s been par­tic­u­larly grat­i­fy­ing to see how this has all been res­onat­ing with stu­dents.”

Colin Robin­son, the RMR’s Honourary Lt.-Col., con­curs.

“What so many peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly younger gen­er­a­tions, don’t re­al­ize is just how fierce the fight­ing was un­til the very last hours of the war, but this ex­hibit is bring­ing that home,” Robin­son says. “And how many know that the last Com­mon­wealth sol­dier to be killed dur­ing the First World War was a Cana­dian, Ge­orge Price? He died two min­utes be­fore the war of­fi­cially ended.

“One of the rea­sons we put this ex­hi­bi­tion to­gether is to get peo­ple think­ing about the cost of hu­man­ity, and not just in terms of the war but also in terms of the bu­reau­cratic bungling, the egos. The last 100 days drove the Ger­mans to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble in Oc­to­ber 1918, but it took an­other five weeks (for the ar­mistice) and how many hun­dreds of thou­sands of lives were lost and af­fected dur­ing that pe­riod while the coun­tries in­volved started pos­tur­ing to set them­selves up in a pos­i­tive fash­ion af­ter that peace?”

Of the 6,500 RMR sol­diers who served dur­ing the First World War, 1,192 were killed, while many more were wounded and/ or taken pris­oner.

“What too many don’t un­der­stand is that ar­mistice is not un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der,” adds Robin­son, who served with Cana­dian Peace­keep­ers in Bos­nia in 2001 and 2002. “The Ger­mans did not see them­selves as a de­feated peo­ple or that the war was re­ally over, which led to the rise of Hitler and war to come. The Treaty of Ver­sailles wasn’t the only thing that brought about World War II, but it cer­tainly was a ma­jor fac­tor.”

Fol­low­ing its run at Vic­to­ria Hall, this ex­hi­bi­tion will be go­ing to eight city schools. Ger­main thinks that fel­low stu­dents around the land could learn plenty from it.

“I re­ally feel that there should be more time ded­i­cated in school to the World Wars, be­cause both had ma­jor Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tions, which re­sulted in so many deaths. We should be re­mem­ber­ing this all the time, and not just at Remembrance Day,” Ger­main says. “The sit­u­a­tion around the world to­day may seem a lit­tle calmer, but even so we’re still at risk and it only takes a lit­tle spark to start a ma­jor war, as was the case with the First World War.”


Hon­orary Lt.-Col. Colin Robin­son of the Royal Mon­treal Reg­i­ment speaks with Lower Canada Col­lege stu­dent Ji­ax­han Li as Manu Boucher and Matthew An­zarouth, right, make notes dur­ing a visit this week to the War: Is It Over? The Chal­lenge of Peace ex­hibit at West­mount’s Vic­to­ria Hall.

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