First World War fall­out

100 years later, his­to­ri­ans de­bate what, if any­thing, was ac­com­plished

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY BAR­BARA DEAN-SIM­MONS SALTWIRE NET­WORK

Tak­ing into ac­count the sig­nif­i­cant losses, the ques­tion after a cen­tury of con­tem­pla­tion over the First World War re­mains, “Was it worth it?”

There’s no easy an­swer, says his­tory pro­fes­sor Brent Wil­son of the Univer­sity of New Brunswick.

All his­to­ri­ans can do, he says, is ex­am­ine the se­quence of events, in try­ing to un­der­stand and doc­u­ment the war.

He says re­search shows that, over­all here in Canada, most peo­ple came to be­lieve their loved ones did not die in vain, that some good came out of the sac­ri­fice.

“I think prob­a­bly the av­er­age sol­dier and their fam­i­lies felt that what they were do­ing was the right thing; they were sad­dened by the ex­pe­ri­ence, but it was a pe­riod of pa­tri­o­tism in Canada. Cana­di­ans still felt a very close con­nec­tion to Bri­tain and the Empire and be­lieved that serv­ing and help­ing Bri­tain in its war against Ger­many was the right thing to do.”

The sim­ple thing we take from the First World War, then, is pure knowl­edge.

“It helps us un­der­stand ways in which our so­ci­ety has changed and how it has evolved in the way that it has,” says Wil­son.

Si­mon Lloyd, ar­chiv­ist with the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land, has spent con­sid­er­able time ex­am­in­ing cov­er­age in The Guardian from 1914 through 1919 through the dig­i­ti­za­tion project www.is­land­news­pa­pers.ca. He has also been writ­ing a monthly col­umn look­ing at the war 100 years later for the past four years.

He notes news­pa­per writ­ings of the day in­di­cate clearly the so­cial elite were very much be­hind the war, as were the pro Con­ser­va­tive news­pa­pers.

“You gen­er­ally tend to find this very jin­go­is­tic, pro-war tone, main­tained through­out the years of the war,” he says.

And that, in it­self, is a les­son to take away.

“It’s one thing to love your coun­try, but to be un­crit­i­cally sup­port­ing of the vast ma­jor­ity of what the gov­ern­ment is do­ing … means a lot of those hard ques­tions don’t get asked,” Lloyd says.

From a pop­u­la­tion of 100,000, Prince Ed­ward Is­land sent 3,000 to 4,000 sol­diers, some vol­un­teers, oth­ers by or­der of the gov­ern­ment.

One thing that fas­ci­nates Lloyd is the pe­riod in 1918 that fol­lowed Canada’s 1917 in­tro­duc­tion of con­scrip­tion.

Un­til then, en­list­ment had been vol­un­tary. How­ever, fol­low­ing ma­jor Al­lied losses through 1916 and 1917, young men did not ap­pear as ea­ger to sign up.

The Cana­dian gov­ern­ment de­cided to take that choice away.

On April 1, 1918, Lloyd says, a “very jaunty” Guardian ar­ti­cle head­lined “Mil­i­tary Roundup” re­ported mil­i­tary po­lice had gone into the Prince Ed­ward The­atre in Char­lot­te­town as the night’s per­for­mance ended to search for mil­i­tary-aged men who had not en­listed.

“Women and chil­dren were told they could leave first so ev­ery man who was there could be stopped by the mil­i­tary po­lice and have his pa­pers ex­am­ined, to show he was ei­ther un­der­aged or he had con­scrip­tion ex­emp­tion pa­pers.

“It’s as­ton­ish­ing to think of that hap­pen­ing now. And the Guardian (ar­ti­cle) didn’t say any­thing about hu­man rights or civil lib­er­ties; it was a kind of fin­ger­wag­ging con­clu­sion, say­ing this drive should have a good ef­fect on ed­u­cat­ing young men to have the proper pa­pers on them at all times.”

The pa­tri­otic fever and rhetoric are pe­cu­liar, mea­sured against modern Cana­dian so­ci­ety.

To­day, Lloyd points out, the me­dia – and cit­i­zens – are more apt to be crit­i­cal and ask ques­tions. And there is greater will­ing­ness and free­dom to do that.

Re­tired pro­fes­sor Brian Dou­glas Ten­nyson taught his­tory at the Univer­sity of Cape Bre­ton and has writ­ten sev­eral books on the sub­ject of Nova Sco­tia in the First and Sec­ond world wars.

He says there were harsh lessons from the First World War.

“There was a tremen­dous dis­il­lu­sion­ment,” he says, at the end of the war. “Peo­ple be­gan to re­al­ize the whole thing had been a ter­ri­ble mis­take – and a bloody costly one.”

Yet, it was such a hor­ri­fy­ing thought – to think that the sol­diers, the boys from the fish­ing vil­lages and farms had died in vain – that no one wanted to say it.

Still, there were reper­cus­sions, po­lit­i­cally and so­cially.

With so much money in­vested in the war, Canada had lit­tle left to help sol­diers rein­te­grate.

Re­turn­ing At­lantic Cana­dian sol­diers found lit­tle em­ploy­ment in a coun­try head­ing into De­pres­sion.

They moved away from the Mar­itimes, head­ing to the United States and West­ern Canada to live and work the rest of their lives.

“Peo­ple lost faith in politi­cians, and it was after the First World War that the two-party sys­tem breaks down and you have a third party en­ter the scene.”

And it was be­cause of the First World War that Bri­tain, and its al­lies, hes­i­tated so long be­fore be­ing drawn into a war against Ger­many in 1939.

“That was the rea­son our politi­cians kept mak­ing con­ces­sions to Hitler,” says Ten­nyson. “Pub­lic opin­ion was, ‘No more war; don’t sell us any more bull­shit about stand­ing up for free­dom’.”

SUB­MIT­TED IM­AGE

On Nov. 12, 1918, The Guardian car­ried what was surely its most ea­gerly-an­tic­i­pated story ever, un­der the ban­ner head­line, “PRAISE BE TO GOD WHO GIVETH THE VIC­TORY: PEACE WITH HONOR”. News of Ger­many’s ar­mistice sign­ing reached Char­lot­te­town early on the morn­ing of Mon­day, Nov. 11. Char­lot­te­town pro­claimed a civic hol­i­day, and thou­sands turned out for an af­ter­noon pa­rade. To read more about this his­toric day and other news from P.E.I. in No­vem­ber 1918, turn to Si­mon Lloyd’s col­umn, P.E.I. at War, on page C3.

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