100 years on, the legacy is with us still

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One hun­dred years ago the First World War came to an end, yet the con­flict still oc­cu­pies a sig­nif­i­cant space in this coun­try’s col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion. Whether we still mark the oc­ca­sion to such a de­gree a cen­tury from now re­mains to be seen, Tim Cook writes. But the lessons of the war – how it changed and shaped Canada – will con­tinue to be a part of us

Tim Cook is the au­thor of 11 books, in­clud­ing The Se­cret His­tory of Sol­diers: How Cana­di­ans Sur­vived the Great War, and the co-cu­ra­tor, with J.L. Granat­stein, of Vic­tory 1918, an ex­hi­bi­tion on Canada’s Hun­dred Days cam­paign at the Cana­dian War Mu­seum in Ot­tawa.

There were no black­ened bat­tle­fields, no smoul­der­ing craters or dev­as­tated cities re­duced to rub­ble, but the Span­ish flu was al­most as deadly as the First World War. The pan­demic started sweep­ing across Canada in early 1918, mu­tat­ing and grow­ing more lethal, and by May the fol­low­ing year, some 50,000 Cana­di­ans had been killed. The dis­ease was un­spar­ing and in­dis­crim­i­nate – it at­tacked the healthy as well as the young and old.

Among its vic­tims were sev­eral thou­sand Cana­dian sol­diers, many of whom had sur­vived years of bru­tal trench war­fare on the West­ern Front – avoid­ing sniper fire, mor­tars and the cruel ef­fects of chem­i­cal weapons, among other dan­gers – only to suc­cumb to an in­vis­i­ble threat both in Europe and at home. Thou­sands of oth­ers sur­vived its rapid-on­set, pneu­mo­nia-like symp­toms – saved by mil­i­tary nurses and doc­tors – then learned, when they re­turned to Canada, that a

si­b­ling or par­ent had been felled by the flu.

And yet, the flu is largely for­got­ten to­day, its legacy al­most com­pletely ig­nored. It has long been over­shad­owed by the First World War, in which more than 60,000 Cana­di­ans and New­found­lan­ders were killed in ac­tion, with an­other 6,000 dy­ing from their wounds, the pan­demic or re­lated ill­nesses in the war’s im­me­di­ate af­ter­math. There is no solemn day to mark flu vic­tims, and only a hand­ful of memo­ri­als across the coun­try serve to re­mind us what tran­spired. But ev­ery year, we mark Re­mem­brance Day with events held at many of the thou­sands of com­mu­nity memo­ri­als and ceno­taphs across the coun­try. There are also na­tional and over­seas mon­u­ments, the most fa­mous be­ing Wal­ter All­ward’s evoca­tive memo­rial at Vimy Ridge. It con­tin­ues to res­onate with Cana­di­ans.

Sun­day marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the ar­mistice and the end of the First World War. The four-year con­flict still oc­cu­pies a sig­nif­i­cant space in the coun­try’s imag­i­na­tion, while the Span­ish flu has been rel­e­gated to the his­tory books. Why do we priv­i­lege one tragedy over the other? The num­bers of ca­su­al­ties, after all, were not so dis­sim­i­lar.

It is be­cause, in part, the flu was a “nat­u­ral” dis­as­ter while the war was un­der­stood to be a man­made cat­a­clysm in which young men, per­suaded to en­list by ide­al­is­tic calls of serv­ing king and coun­try and lib­er­at­ing the op­pressed, were shipped off to a war on the far side of the ocean. The re­al­ity of what they found when they ar­rived in Europe – the hor­rors of trench war­fare and in­dus­tri­alscale slaugh­ter that saw mil­lions killed – shat­tered much of that ide­al­ism. Vic­tory was achieved only through a gut-wrench­ing de­gree of en­durance from in­di­vid­u­als, com­mu­ni­ties and na­tions to see the war through to the end. This is some­thing to be, if not ex­actly cel­e­brated, then rec­og­nized. This is some­thing we have cho­sen not to for­get.

Canada, then a young coun­try of some eight mil­lion peo­ple, had never been tested the way it was dur­ing those four years more than a cen­tury ago. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that both shat­tered and strength­ened. It forced Cana­di­ans to con­front hor­rific vi­o­lence – to find mean­ing in it and draw from it – and to live with its ef­fects. And the legacy of the con­flict – the al­most un­be­liev­able brav­ery and the ter­ri­ble sac­ri­fice – has bled through the cal­en­dar, from 1918 to the present day.

Whether we still mark the oc­ca­sion to such a de­gree 100 years from now re­mains to be seen. But the lessons of the war – how it changed and shaped the coun­try – will con­tinue to be a part of us.

When Great Bri­tain de­clared war on Ger­many on Aug. 4, 1914, Canada was au­to­mat­i­cally dragged into the con­flict. De­spite the fact the coun­try found it­self in a war not of its own choos­ing, its cit­i­zens re­sponded in huge num­bers – tens of thou­sands, then hun­dreds of thou­sands, of men en­listed. What they found when they ar­rived on the West­ern Front was out of a night­mare: 700 kilo­me­tres of trenches, all pro­tected by ra­zor-sharp barbed wire, ma­chine guns and heavy ar­tillery. Men were torn apart in a storm of steel. Even with mil­lions of sol­diers, the Al­lies could not break through the lines es­tab­lished by the Cen­tral Pow­ers. One year turned into two, then a third. There were many hard-fought vic­to­ries. But the losses were ghastly – on a scale the world had not seen be­fore.

More men were re­quired to keep up the strength of Canada’s pri­mary fight­ing force, the 100,000-strong Cana­dian Corps, so in the sum­mer of 1917, Sir Robert Bor­den’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment en­acted con­scrip­tion. A ma­jor­ity of English Cana­di­ans agreed with Mr. Bor­den, who spoke of the war as an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis (and also “the sui­cide of na­tions”): That if Bri­tain were de- feated, Canada would for­ever be di­min­ished in a world dom­i­nated by the Ger­mans. Other Cana­di­ans – many of them Fran­co­phone – felt that the war, while per­haps just and nec­es­sary in that it was no­ble to lib­er­ate oc­cu­pied Bel­gium and France, had lit­tle to do with Canada. Forc­ing men to serve against their will was too much to ask.

The bat­tle over con­scrip­tion changed Canada’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. In the run-up to the di­vi­sive 1917 fed­eral elec­tion, Mr. Bor­den dis­solved the Con­ser­va­tive Party and joined forces with a group of pro-con­scrip­tion Lib­er­als to form the Union­ist Party, which hand­ily de­feated Wil­frid Lau­rier’s Lib­er­als. The fol­low­ing April, the Union­ists broke a prom­ise that the sons of farm­ers would not be con­scripted; out of anger and a sense of alien­ation at hav­ing been aban­doned by the two na­tional par­ties, nascent pro­vin­cial farm­ers’ par­ties took power (in­clud­ing the United Farm­ers of On­tario in 1919, the United Farm­ers of Al­berta in 1921 and the United Farm­ers of Man­i­toba in 1922). On a fed­eral level, these par­ties were con­nected to the Pro­gres­sive Party of Canada, which was es­tab­lished in 1920 and which, after it col­lapsed, ar­guably led to both the New Demo­cratic Party and, through West­ern alien­ation stirred dur­ing the war, the Re­form Party, which merged with the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives in 2003. Thus, to­day’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape was planted dur­ing the First World War.

The in­come tax that busi­nesses and in­di­vid­u­als pay to­day had its ori­gins in the war as well. Ot­tawa was also forced to turn to Wash­ing­ton for hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in loans dur­ing the mid­point of the war and away from fi­nan­cially pressed Lon­don, so em­brac­ing a North Amer­i­can fi­nan­cial sys­tem was an­other of the war’s lega­cies.

There were other changes, es­pe­cially in the realm of women’s rights. Most women had won the right to vote in many prov­inces and at the fed­eral level by the end of the war, and while Canada was far from em­brac­ing equal­ity and equal pay, the war had shown that women could con­trib­ute equally by work­ing in mu­ni­tions fac­to­ries and banks. Al­most 3,000 women served as nurses, and they were among the first to cast a vote. En­fran­chise­ment was a wartime legacy that fun­da­men­tally al­tered Cana­dian so­ci­ety, as was the new-found con­fi­dence for tens of thou­sands of women who, dur­ing the war, moved from the do­mes­tic sphere to the work­place.

The coun­try emerged from the war with a strong sense of self – with what made Canada “Canada.” The wartime ef­fort to “Buy Cana­dian” re­sulted in the cre­ation of many made-in-Canada prod­ucts, every­thing from beer and bis­cuits to au­to­mo­biles and farm equip­ment. The coun­try sud­denly had new heroes and icons – Lieu­tenant-Gen­eral Sir Arthur Cur­rie and air­man Billy Bishop – which helped stoke na­tional pride. New Cana­dian works of art emerged from the war, such as John McCrae’s In Flan­ders Fields, which long out­lived the sol­dier-physi­cian-poet, who died of pneu­mo­nia in Jan­uary, 1918. Dozens of Cana­dian pain­ters were com­mis­sioned to doc­u­ment the Cana­dian forces at home and over­seas, in­clud­ing four fu­ture mem­bers of the Group of Seven. “We are no longer hum­ble colo­nials,” A.Y. Jack­son said after the war, cap­tur­ing the trans­for­ma­tion. “We’ve made armies. We can also make artists, his­to­ri­ans and po­ets.”

The war fun­da­men­tally changed how Cana­di­ans saw them­selves – and how the world saw Canada. The coun­try was proud to stand shoul­der to shoul­der with Bri­tain, con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cantly to the empire’s war ef­fort. At home, fac­to­ries were re­fash­ioned to make mu­ni­tions, and by 1917, a third of the shells fired by the British armies were made in Canada. The British were no doubt grate­ful for the shells – not to men­tion the wheat, min­er­als and other food Cana­di­ans pro­duced – but Canada dis­tin­guished it­self most sig­nif­i­cantly through the spec­tac­u­lar wartime record of its Cana­dian Corps. Led from June, 1917, un­til the end of the war by Lt.-Gen. Cur­rie, the Corps’ vic­to­ries pro­vided, to Mr. Bor­den, an­other kind of am­mu­ni­tion, al­low­ing him to de­mand that Canada be rec­og­nized at Ver­sailles as a sep­a­rate sig­na­tory to the treaty that ended the war and to later join the flawed-if-ide­al­is­tic League of Na­tions, the pre­cur­sor to the United Na­tions. Canada was step­ping out of Bri­tain’s shadow.

Ad­mit­tedly, if you’d polled Cana­di­ans on Nov. 11, 1918, few would have said they wanted to sever their ties to Bri­tain. But some­thing had changed. In­deed, Mr. Bor­den wrote in his di­ary dur­ing the long treaty ne­go­ti­a­tions at Ver­sailles, “I am be­gin­ning to feel more and more that in the end, and per­haps sooner than later, Canada must as­sume full sovereignty.” The 1919 Nickle Res­o­lu­tion barred Cana­di­ans from ac­cept­ing for­eign ti­tles of hon­our, such as a knight­hood, which was a sym­bolic sev­er­ing with Bri­tain. Later, Mr. Bor­den and his suc­ces­sors would use the war to de­mand in­creas­ing Cana­dian sovereignty, which would cul­mi­nate in full con­trol over for­eign pol­icy with the 1931 Statute of West­min­ster. Canada had ar­rived.

The coun­try had ar­rived, but many were left be­hind.

Day after day, dur­ing the du­ra­tion of the war, dozens of Cana­dian sol­diers were killed – a slow drip of death. Such losses were only in­ter­rupted by the mas­sive num­bers of ca­su­al­ties suf­fered in ma­jor bat­tles at places such as Ypres, the Somme, Vimy and Amiens. Like blood in a pool of wa­ter, each death spread out­wards, en­com­pass­ing not just fam­i­lies but en­tire com­mu­ni­ties. The en­tire coun­try.

The deaths were ac­knowl­edged dur­ing the war, some­times with the tra­di­tional wear­ing of black mourn­ing clothes or in the pub­lic dis­play of pho­to­graphs of sons or fa­thers, but the losses were so fre­quent and so heavy, with the pa­pers filled ev­ery day with the names of slain Cana­di­ans, that there was lit­tle sense of clo­sure. The grief would have been over­whelm­ing.

Around 60,000 Cana­di­ans were killed – the dead­li­est mil­i­tary con­flict in the coun­try’s his­tory. After the war, al­most all of Canada’s dead were left in Europe, dis­in­terred from their tem­po­rary graves and re­buried in the vast Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion ceme­ter­ies. They were laid to rest un­der the white Port­land lime­stone non-de­nom­i­na­tional head­stones that bear the maple leaf or the New­found­land cari­bou. The corpses of some 6,846 sol­diers were so badly man­gled that they were buried with­out be­ing iden­ti­fied; their head­stones bear the un­for­get­table in­scrip­tion, A Cana­dian Sol­dier of the Great War – Known Unto God. And al­most 20,000 of those killed were never found – their deaths ac­knowl­edged but their bod­ies lost; they are re­mem­bered at the mon­u­ments at Menin Gate in Ypres and Vimy Ridge. In­scrib­ing the names of those lost Cana­di­ans on these mon­u­ments was – and con­tin­ues to be – a pow­er­ful act of recla­ma­tion.

These over­seas mon­u­ments and ceme­ter­ies con­tinue to serve as bea­cons; gen­er­a­tions of Cana­di­ans have made the long pil­grim­age to the West­ern Front to visit these sites. Here, one feels the weight of an­guish and his­tory.

I first vis­ited the ceme­ter­ies when I was 17. I was shocked by the mag­ni­tude of the losses – row upon row of graves of Cana­dian sol­diers, some younger than I was at the time. I have since re­turned, bet­ter armed with his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing, but still al­ways over­whelmed by the courage it took for those sol­diers to with­stand the strain, to en­dure such mis­ery and, ul­ti­mately, to de­liver vic­tory. I’ve writ­ten 11 books about the two world wars – all of them at­tempt­ing to ex­plore and cap­ture the ex­pe­ri­ence of ser­vice men and women, how these or­di­nary Cana­di­ans sur­vived ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances. I have shed more than a few tears for those who fought and found their way home to Canada. And yet I have shed more tears study­ing the head­stones of the fallen, the young and the old, the English, the French, the new Cana­di­ans and the Indige­nous sol­diers who lie there still. I am left won­der­ing what legacy they might have carved out had they lived. We will never know.

With the bod­ies of the fallen left over­seas, sol­diers’ fam­i­lies, friends, other vet­er­ans and mem­bers of the com­mu­nity con­trib­uted to erect memo­ri­als across the coun­try, rang­ing from sim­ple plaques to stained-glass win­dows in churches to or­nate mon­u­ments. The names of the sol­diers or nurses were given to geo­graph­i­cal fea­tures – lakes, rivers, moun­tains – with for­mal nam­ing pro­grams in sev­eral prov­inces. Schools and streets are named after those who served, but none can top Val­our Road in Win­nipeg, which was home to three even­tual Vic­to­ria Cross re­cip­i­ents be­fore the war – a unique oc­cur­rence through­out what was then the British Empire. Many of the memo­ri­als are hid­ing in plain sight, but usu­ally more prom­i­nent are the sev­eral thou­sand ceno­taphs (empty graves) that were built – one in al­most ev­ery com­mu­nity. Those lo­cal mon­u­ments be­came the sites to gather for Ar­mistice Day and, later, when it was re­named in 1931, Re­mem­brance Day. The sym­bols of com­mem­o­ra­tion and loss – the two min­utes of si­lence, the poppy, In Flan­ders Fields – were all in­ter­twined with Re­mem­brance Day, which con­tin­ues to com­pel us to re­flect, ev­ery No­vem­ber, on not only the First World War but all sub­se­quent wars.

Canada, then a young coun­try of some eight mil­lion peo­ple, had never been tested the way it was dur­ing those four years more than a cen­tury ago. It was an ex­pe­ri­ence that both shat­tered and strength­ened.

While the war led to Canada step­ping out onto the world stage, there was also a dark legacy of anger at home. Ex­ist­ing fault lines were ex­ac­er­bated, and new stress points emerged dur­ing the strain of war. The re­lent­less de­mand for all to fight or pay, to serve or sup-

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