The psychology of war
What are the lessons learned, 100 years after ‘The Great War’ ended?
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, according to 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, 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 and converting print copies of the Charlottetown Guardian from 1914 through 1919 to digital.
He notes newspapers of that day indicate clearly that the social elite were very much behind the war, as were 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 under age 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 finger-wagging 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 a 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 of 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 the Depression.
They moved away from the region, 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,” Tennyson says.
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.’”
Posters like these, published across Atlantic Canada, encouraged young men to enlist.