On Sunday we honour sacrifices made a century ago
A century has passed – will have passed, come 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 – since the armistice that officially ended the First World War, returning ravaged Europe to peace and sent home Canada’s armed forces, short more than 60,000 young men killed.
Those hundred years can be counted many ways. Time is like that. Filtered through history it takes on new colours and perspectives.
One count is by generations.
The baby boomers who populated the great economic boom that followed the Second World War are now Canada’s closest link to the generation that sacrificed so much 100 years ago.
Their grandfathers and great uncles fought in the First World War. Parents, family members and family friends shipped overseas to fight the Second
World War, or watched from home and lived the fears, hardships and, eventually, hope and triumph wrapped up in that bloody and terrible conflict.
Their children and grandchildren are much farther removed from the old wars but still touched by new ones.
They make six generations of Canadians charged with accepting and honouring Lieutenant-Colonel John McRae’s poignant challenge:
“Take up or quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.”
The message of In Flanders Fields, the most famous poem to survive The Great War, has rung through those six generations.
Poetry, like time, is both permanent and changing. The words are fixed but their meaning shines in different lights as the time of their writing recedes and new events add perspective.
For McRae’s own generation and the one shoved shortly after into the threat of Hitler, Nazism and then the Second World War there could be no missing a literal reading of “Take up the quarrel with the foe.”
Democracy, freedom and the promise of a largely peaceful world were threatened again and had to be defended at the cost of millions of dead and injured combatants and civilians.
The men and women who made their sacrifices during that second terrible war were embraced into Remembrance Day ceremonies, honored for their willingness to take up the quarrel at any cost.
But McCrae’s call was not primarily a call to arms. He saw the human cost of war at the front lines and paid for the violence with his own life. In the mud and blood his foe was the German army. The larger, more elemental foe was, and is, any threat to peace and freedom.
And so the “quarrel” becomes a campaign to prevent those elements from taking control on the world stage.
The challenge is to knit countries and peoples – governments and citizens – more closely together and to do it peacefully.
Aid to those less well off, diplomacy, and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across national borders are the strategies that have worked.
At best they could bring the end of war, still a long way off. But those following generations have already succeeded in one immensely important way: the past 75 years have not brought another World War, and despite many challenges over the passing decades we can look optimistically to a prediction there will never be another.
On Sunday at Peterborough’s cenotaph, we can honour that legacy of a century of fallen heroes and commit to continuing it in their memory.