Three points of light at end of Great War

Times Colonist - - Islander - LAWRIE McFAR­LANE jalm­c­far­lane@shaw.ca

This is the last in a se­ries of columns about the Great War that ended 100 years ago Sun­day.

At the time, the con­flict was called the war to end all wars. The com­mon sen­ti­ment among its com­bat­ants was: Never again.

But re­gret­tably, that’s not how things turned out. Hu­man­ity’s great­est self­in­flicted calamity up till that time did not bring an end to such mad­ness. On the con­trary, it was only the be­gin­ning.

Just about ev­ery com­bat fought since 1918 has owed its ori­gins to hate­ful ide­olo­gies spawned by the war, or in set­tle­ments im­posed on the Mid­dle East, which fa­tally de­ranged an al­ready volatile re­gion. In short, the dark­est of pic­tures.

But there were a few points of light, and I want to con­clude by men­tion­ing three.

It is gen­er­ally rec­og­nized that the Great War wit­nessed Canada’s ar­rival on the world stage. I’m not sure this is how any of us would want to re­mem­ber our pas­sage into adult­hood. Nev­er­the­less, the will­ing­ness of young Cana­di­ans to en­ter the fray and the ca­su­al­ties we suf­fered (higher per capita than any of the other com­bat­ants), marked our emer­gence from the shadow of colo­nial­ism into the com­mu­nity of na­tions.

The sec­ond bet­ter­ment in­volved the re­al­iza­tion that some­thing had to be done about the health of work­ing men and women. In Bri­tain, when con­scrip­tion was in­tro­duced, tens of thou­sands of young men were turned away from re­cruit­ing sta­tions be­cause their state of health was dread­ful.

Poor eye­sight left un­treated, the preva­lence of ail­ments such as rick­ets caused by lack of nour­ish­ment (I re­call as a univer­sity stu­dent in Dundee see­ing el­derly men and women bow­legged with this dis­ease), in­fes­ta­tions of par­a­sites and heaven knows what else ap­palled the med­i­cal com­mu­nity.

It was this wake-up call in Bri­tain that sparked calls for a na­tional health ser­vice, al­though it took a sec­ond world war to fi­nally gen­er­ate ac­tion.

Canada, too, in­tro­duced con­scrip­tion, and here as well, though not to such a de­gree, pub­lic health be­came an is­sue. In ef­fect, this was the first time our gov­ern­ing classes were brought face to face with the re­al­ity of wide­spread ill health through­out the work­ing poor.

Canada took longer than the U.K. to in­tro­duce uni­ver­sal health care, but it’s not a stretch to say that here, also, the war opened eyes that had pre­vi­ously been averted.

The third pos­i­tive out­growth was the cul­mi­na­tion of the suf­fragette move­ment. That women should be de­nied the vote sounds ridicu­lous to­day. And in both Canada and Bri­tain there were mil­i­tant demon­stra­tions be­fore the war that made some mi­nor gains.

But when women stepped for­ward to take on wartime jobs pre­vi­ously thought too stren­u­ous for the “weaker sex,” the case for uni­ver­sal suf­frage be­come unan­swer­able.

That women could re­place men in ar­ma­ment fac­to­ries, work as truck and am­bu­lance drivers, and gen­er­ally make an in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to the war ef­fort, es­sen­tially ended the de­bate.

There were some ugly ex­cep­tions. Most women in Canada were granted the right to vote in fed­eral elec­tions at the close of the war. How­ever, that right was not ex­tended to Indige­nous women (or men), un­til 1960. Cana­di­ans of Asian birth were also left out for sev­eral decades.

Nev­er­the­less, in all of th­ese in­stances, de­spite the hor­rors of the Great War, progress was made.

There is no for­giv­ing the “states­men” who led their na­tions into un­speak­able hor­ror, or crea­tures such as Stalin and Mao, Hitler and Mus­solini, who ex­ploited the calami­ties and con­vul­sions it brought.

The world we live in to­day has been ren­dered in­fin­itely more dan­ger­ous by the lega­cies of that con­flict. We are a more dis­trust­ful species, quicker to anger and read­ier to play for sui­ci­dal stakes, than at any time in our his­tory.

But this Sun­day morn­ing, as we pay our re­spects to those who died be­liev­ing in a greater good, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing that some good did ac­tu­ally oc­cur.

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