The Implications of First World War Commemorations

Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.

The end of July through to the beginning of August saw a series of centennial anniversaries regarding the First World War (WW1). Macleans has recently published a number of articles on the subject, including ‘Canada was forged in the fires of the First World War.’

Lone Canadian soldier crossing the muddy, barbed wire-ridden battlefield, Passchendaele, 1917.

While the “War to End All Wars” officially started on July 28, 1914 in Europe, in Canada it began on August 4 with a telegram to Governor General Prince Arthur, (Duke of Connaught, third son of Queen Victoria). He informed Prime Minister Robert Borden that Britain was at war with Germany—and that was that. Just before 9pm that night, Canada declared war on Germany as well, much to the Canadian public’s excitement. This enthusiasm would quickly wane however as the I’ll-Be-Home-By-Christmas mentality vanished as the war stretched out into a long, bitter stalemate. The fighting lasted well over four years, officially wrapping up on November 11, 1918.

Prime Minister Harper marked this moment at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, stating that, “amid the appalling loss, by any measure, Canada, as a truly independent country, was forged in the fires of the First World War.” *Cough* More like forged in the mud of WW1. *Cough* He went on to speak about how nothing has changed as Canada still readily supports its allies and that we stand up for our values and democracy. Do you agree?

Canadian soldiers following their victory at Vimy Ridge, 1917.

I am more interested in why Harper said what he did than I am in what he said. I have always found public historical memory and how we commemorate the past to be a fascinating topic because of all the questions it stirs up. For example:

1. Is it right to commemorate a global conflict that led to the death of over 9 million combatants, 7 million civilians, and help to pave the way for the Second World War? 61,000 Canadian soldiers died during the war and 6,000 more followed afterwards due to their injuries.

2. We all know the ideas behind commemoration and remembrance: “Never forget.” Preserve the stories of the past to educate the future, so that the sacrifices made will not be in vain; so that events like WW1 will never happen again. But aside from teaching us about the past, how deep does commemoration educate? Does it really  lead to better choices? On my more cynical days, I would be declined to agree when looking at what followed WW1 and the actions of today’s governments and leaders.

3. What factors shape our memories of historical events and what is the agenda behind official commemorations? Harper’s rhetoric matches the dominant historical representation of WW1 in Canadian history; that WW1 is when Canada came into its own and really became a country because we shed our colonial identity both at home and abroad. If this is true, where does Confederation, the War of 1812, or even the Statute of Westminster fit into our national identity?

I don’t have the answers, but the latter question and WW1 in general is something I look forward to exploring further with this blog.

Canadian nurses aiding the wounded at Passchendaele, 1917.

For those interested in another quick (well, semi-quick) read, the Globe and Mail has an excellent article on recruitment for WW1 in Canada by Tim Cook, a war historian.

For more pictures, check out this page by Library and Archives Canada.



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