“At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” In the 95 years since the First World War armistice was signed, the routines of Nov. 11 have attained an almost clockwork precision, a predictability extending to the reflections Canadians are expected to have.
By Sean Howard and Lee-Anne Broadhead
NovaNewsNow.com, November 10, 2014
“We” are free, we tell ourselves, because of “their” sacrifice, a claim emotionally cemented by the recent heinous murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial. Above all, it is the myth and aura of the “Great War” — the war that supposedly made Canada a great nation — that oils the machinery of national “memory.”
But what if such remembrance was in fact a forgetting? What if the day, instead, revolved around the following nationally inconvenient truths?
1. The First World War was the opposite of a “noble fight for freedom.” It was an internecine struggle between European powers united in their desire for imperial expansion, convinced of their right to deny rights to others.
2. Support for the war was sustained by shameless propaganda. As losses mounted, the amount of over-the-top cajoling necessary to maintain a steady supply of cannon fodder steadily grew. By February 1916, for example, Lt.-Col. Allison H. Borden, commanding officer of the Nova Scotia Highlanders, was warning the province’s schoolchildren that if their fathers, uncles and brothers “do not cross the sea to fight the Germans in France, the Germans may come to Nova Scotia and take or destroy our farms and houses.”
3. Many volunteers were shocked by the deliberate brutality of military life. It wasn’t just the atrocious conditions at the front, the criminal folly of many orders, or the execution of often shell-shocked “deserters,” but the dehumanization of everyday discipline that appalled the troops. Even before leaving training camp in Aldershot, N.S., Pte. Will Bird had encountered sufficient sadism to change him “from a soldier proud to be in uniform to one knowing there was no justice whatever in the army.”
4. Conscientious objectors endured vicious persecution. By the time conscription was introduced in July 1917, many thousands of Canadians had bravely defied all efforts to draw them to the killing fields. For the remainder of the war, they had to plead their case to often hostile tribunals. As Amy Shaw notes in “Crisis of Conscience,” a book about conscientious objection in Canada during the First World War, “many young men spent time in jail and at least one died because they did not qualify for exemption.”
5. Vimy Ridge was not a major strategic achievement. As Pierre Berton concedes in his classic study “Vimy,” the battle was “at best, a limited tactical victory. It’s hard to believe it greatly affected the outcome.”
6. Vimy was not “the birth of a nation” — a phrase first coined by Brig.-Gen. Alexander Ross as late as 1967. Historian Jean Martin argues that each time those words are repeated, “we become a bit more convinced that they actually reflect the general state of mind on the day of the battle.” The claim rests on two exaggerations: The military significance of Vimy Ridge, and the independence of Canadian forces. However, as Scott Taylor points out, while Gen. Arthur Currie “may have had tactical command at Vimy Ridge, he still answered to the British Imperial Chief of Staff.” Politically, in fact, Vimy helped split the country, the huge casualties accelerating the drive to conscription so fiercely opposed in Quebec.
7. The slaughter at Passchendaele was a preventable disaster. Canadian forces were ordered to attack after the definitive failure of Allied artillery to cut the German barbed wire. “At this point,” historian David Stevenson writes, “all commentators agree” that the offensive should have been halted. Instead, “the Canadians took Passchendaele, but suffered at least 12,000 casualties.”
8. Canadians were cynically sacrificed until the last moment. From the onset of hostilities, prime minister Robert Borden’s government used the war to boost Canada’s status and influence. In the last weeks of fighting, Currie’s relentless hounding of the broken German army led to a vast and unnecessary loss of life, enemy and Allied. Will Bird remembers the final rush before the armistice was signed: “Five or six men were shouting at us to turn around and attack our headquarters. The officers were worse enemies than any German.”
9. Canadian troops committed numerous war crimes. In Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves wrote that the “troops with the worst reputation for acts of violence against prisoners were the Canadians.” By 1918, “Johnny Canuck” was also known for killing troops, often young and desperate conscripts, trying to surrender. This is the sinister subtext to British prime minister David Lloyd George’s description of Canadian infantry as “storm troops,” stating: “Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line, they prepared for the worst.”
10. The “peace” was as botched as the war. By the draconian terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, France and Britain sought to permanently punish and burden Germany, while retaining their own imperial possessions and ambition.
Hitler’s deputy leader, Rudolf Hess, insisted: “The Third Reich comes out of the trenches.” A progressive peace, sowing the seeds of a post-colonial world order, may have produced a different harvest.
11. The “heroes” returned to hardship, neglect and attack. Solemn promises of state aid for soldiers, many broken in body and spirit, were quickly broken. In addition, the repression of the veteran-led Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 signalled a brutal crackdown on organized labour, while indigenous troops resumed a struggle for survival on squalid reserves, and African-Canadian and Asian-Canadian returnees continued to face insuperable barriers to prosperity and dignified citizenship.
Digesting these bitter truths is not to forget but rather lament the wasted sacrifice of 1914-18. Remembrance Day shouldn’t make us proud to be Canadian, but rather determined, as human beings, to win the victory so many of “the fallen” desired: A world without war.
Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science and Lee-Anne Broadhead is professor of political science, both at Cape Breton University. Both are also Peace Quest Cape Breton members.
Finally, some intellectual honesty in Canada concerning World War I. Let’s pray that more will be forthcoming soon from people of this calibre regarding world War II, along with publishers who have the balls to print it, and citizens who have a desire to know the truth, rather than having regurgitated lies and propaganda rammed down their throats each year at this time. God knows we Germans are sick of having them rammed down ours. And then, in knowing the truth, that they will act upon it and finally demand justice for Germans.
But more than this, I pray that the people of this world stop being sheeple, learn from the past, and stop falling for all of the same old lies and false flags that have always been used in order to convince our young to run off and kill, or to be killed, in unnecessary wars, which ultimately only benefit the International Bankster Gangsters and their New World Order agenda.
Only then will we start having some peace in this world.