This year’s Remembrance Day marks the 90th anniversary of the conclusion of the First World War—a fitting time to ponder anew the significance of the supreme sacrifices of all the members of the Canadian Armed Forces who fought to defend our freedoms in that horrific conflict.
No one exemplified the heroic qualities of those soldiers better than Lt. Colonel John McCrae, a surgeon attached to the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It was during a break in the second battle of Ypres on May 3, 1915, that he penned his immortal poem, In Flanders Field.
The Germans opened the battle with a surprise poison-gas attack. While thousands of Allied soldiers fled in terror, British and Canadian troops promptly filled in the gaps and held their ground. The cost was horrific. During the first 48 hours of this battle, the Canadians incurred 6,035 casualties, including more than 2,000 dead.
McCrae was appalled by the slaughter, but undaunted. As he pondered the poppies blowing between the crosses of hundreds of his hastily buried Canadian comrades, he imagined the dead heroes urging from the grave:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of other Canadians did take up the quarrel. Close to 418,000 Canadians served overseas in the First World War. Altogether, an appalling 56,638 died in action and another 141,000 were wounded—more than twice the number of Canadians killed and wounded in action during the Second World War.
No one doubts the valour and prowess of the Canadian military. They rank among the best in the world. Andrew Roberts, the distinguished British historian, testifies in A History of the English-speaking Peoples Since 1900 that during the Second World War, the Canadian Armed Forces “more than earned [Gen. Dwight D.] Eisenhower’s (necessarily off-the-record) remark that man-for-man the Canadians were the best soldiers in his army.”
Most Canadians agree that the dreadful costs of the Second World War were well worth the benefit of defeating the Axis Powers. But what about the First World War?
Since the 1920s, most intellectuals have thought the First World War was pointless. Pierre Berton was no exception. In Vimy, his gripping account of the heroism of the Canadian soldiers who won the epic battle of Vimy Ridge, he concluded: “Was it worth the loss of thousands of limbs and eyes and the deaths of 5,000 young Canadians at Vimy to provide a young and growing nation with a proud and enduring myth?… The answer, of course, is no.”
That judgment was grievously wrong. Roberts persuasively argues that “far from being a futile, unnecessary conflict, Britain went to war in 1914 for the noblest possible ideal and best possible reason: her honour and self-defence.”
And the same was true of Canada. In an address to Canadians in December, 1914, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden warned: “If the militarist and autocratic ideals of the Prussian oligarchy can assert themselves in worldwide dominance, the progress and development of democracy will either have been stayed forever or the work of centuries will have been undone and mankind must struggle anew for ideals of freedom and rights of self-government which have been established as the birthright of the British people.”
The Canadians who fought in the First World War did not just leave us with “a proud and enduring myth.” They made a vital contribution to the defence of freedom. And the same can be said for their worthy successors in the Canadian military who have distinguished themselves in every succeeding conflict, including the war in Afghanistan.
Let us not break faith with our heroic dead in Flanders fields. Let us forever revere them and all the other valiant members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have fought—and continue to fight—to defend our freedom.
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