Remembrance Day 2016

By Nick Brunt

 

The morning of November 11, 1918 began like any other in the trenches of the Great War. Their long lines of sandbags and barbed wire, cut like wounds at the edges of the bare, earthen battlefields of Europe, lay quiet save for the distant sound of firing artillery. The previous four years, five months, and twelve days had been some of the darkest in human history: a horrific manifestation of the worst of which man and his killing tools are capable. Each day, waves upon waves of young men charged endlessly into a meat grinder of twisted metal and spilt blood, through rains of artillery and machine gun fire, all for the gain of merely a few muddy yards. Countless lives were lost in each costly, if marginally successful, maneuver, only to see the meager ground that had been won on the day instantly and endlessly lost, then won, then lost again.

But for the first time in four years, there would be no futile tomorrow. There would be no further days of bloodshed, and the world would no longer bear witness to the horrors wrought by the newest instruments of death. That very morning at 5 o’clock, the leaders of the Allied and Axis powers signed an armistice agreement ending the war that exact day in precisely six hours. As the news slowly reached the public in the following hours, celebrations began in every corner of the Allied world. The soldiers in the field, for the most part completely aware of the impending peace, were nonetheless instructed to fight on until the clock struck eleven. At 10:58am, a mere two minutes before armistice, the Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot by a sniper just north of Mons, in Belgium. While the Allied leaders toasted their victory with the rejoicing populace in the streets of Paris and London, Private Price lay dying in the mud of Flanders, the last Commonwealth casualty in a war that claimed nearly five million on either side.

On each November 11th since, we Canadians along with our Commonwealth brethren observe Remembrance Day to commemorate “the men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace”. We do not celebrate or glorify war, but remember the sacrifices of the individuals who died far from home simply because their country called on them. We do, however, celebrate the causes they died for: however mired the conflicts themselves were in imperialism or petty squabbling, the soldiers of the both World Wars and Canada’s subsequent entanglements fought in the defense of liberty and freedom for all sovereign peoples. In spite of the cruel futility and horror of war, the Canadians we remember on November 11th proved beyond a doubt that there are some causes worth fighting and even dying for.

The grave of Sir Arthur Currie in Mount Royal Cemetery. Currie was the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps in the First World War, and later served as Principal of McGill from 1920 until his death in 1933.

The grave of Sir Arthur Currie in Mount Royal Cemetery. Currie was the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps in the First World War, and later served as Principal of McGill from 1920 until his death in 1933. Photo taken by author in August of 2016.

In the national capital, the prime minister and other dignitaries lay wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a Canadian about whom we know nothing else besides that he died in the First World War in the environs of the fabled Vimy Ridge in Northern France. This nameless victim is at once just a single person and all the unidentified men and women who did not return home. The peacetime death of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, barely two years ago, while standing guard at that very monument is yet another reminder of the continued threats to the peace and freedom Canadians have fought so hard to preserve. It is fitting, then, that the Tomb lies just beside the National War Memorial. On a pedestal of Canadian granite, larger-than-life bronze figures of all stripes and colors move through the memorial arch from war to peace. That peace, forged from war, is only made possible by commitment and sacrifice, and it is exactly this commitment and sacrifice we continue to honor and remember.

The portrait of George Irvine Baillie, currently hanging on the fourth floor of Schulich Library. Baillie, a chemical engineering student at McGill, enlisted in the Canadian Corps in May 1916 and was killed near Amiens in August of 1918, one of the 363 McGill students and staff who perished during the war. This portrait, completely posthumously, once hung in the Baillie LIbrary of Chemistry, a gift of John Baillie to McGill in memory of his son.

Although it was called “The War to End All Wars”, the First World War was, as its name suggests, not last, bloodiest, or longest worldwide conflict of the twentieth century. The wars that came afterwards were perhaps more righteous or justified, but they still left immediate legacies of conflict rather than enduring peace. Even the often-celebrated “triumph of freedom” that was the Second World War cast a long shadow of belligerence and confrontation on the following decades. Despite the best efforts of diplomacy and peacekeeping, and despite the fact that in the past seventy years, we have entered into the most peaceful period in world history, war persists and will always persist somewhere. Though Canada has not faced an immediate territorial and existential threat since the War of 1812, we continue to be involved in conflicts around the world in recognition no longer of an imperial duty, but a moral obligation. The fields of Flanders might once again be covered with sweeping grasses and flowering poppies, but other downtrodden fields around the world still echo with the sound of gunfire and the cries of the fallen. On Remembrance Day, wear our poppies to reaffirm our solemn appreciation for the sacrifices of the past, and the necessity of our continued fight to preserve the ideals for which so many Canadians died, just as did Private Price and Corporal Cirillo. Lest we forget.

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