Signifying the coming into effect of the armistice that ended the First World War, the words have a striking resonance: eliciting solemnity, dignity and the sense of something very important.
Much more so than VE Day or VJ Day, Remembrance Day is the commemorative occasion that engages our imagination. And although the formalities now incorporate recognition of all military sacrifice, it’s still the First World War’s red poppies that symbolize the moment and tug at the emotions.
But it’s reasonable to ask some questions.
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One is whether we really understand what we’re commemorating. Another is whether, rather than actually paying tribute to those who sacrificed, we’re simply appropriating their memory to serve a modern narrative of our own.
Take, for instance, In Flanders Fields.
Written in 1915 by John McCrae of Guelph, Ont., In Flanders Fields has acquired iconic status over the decades. It’s haunting and melancholy, grabbing at your throat and sending shivers down your spine. It’s also become inextricably intertwined with Remembrance Day.
There is, however, a small problem. While we now view the First World War as senseless carnage, In Flanders Fields has a very different perspective. As the third and final stanza makes unequivocally clear, the poem’s message isn’t about war’s futility. It’s about the need to keep the faith and carry on to victory.
The music associated with the era of the First World War, 1914-18, displays a similar temporal dissonance.
Those songs written in recent decades – think And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda or The Green Fields of France – have a decided anti-war stance. Listening to them, you’re struck by a sense of the futility, even the evil, of it all. To the extent that you’re encouraged to feel anger, your ire is directed not at the ostensible enemy but rather at our own hapless leaders, who are blamed for letting it happen.
But the actual popular music of the First World War was a different kettle of fish.
It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag were cheerful pieces. Keep the Home Fires Burning was unmistakably patriotic. Over There was almost jingoistic. And Keep Right On to the End of the Road – written by Harry Lauder after the 1916 battlefield death of his son – expressed a resolute stoicism consistent with the spirit of In Flanders Fields.
There’s also the matter of how we evaluate Canada’s participation in the events of 1914-18.
Although the war itself generally gets a bad press, historians have come to see it as a seminal episode in the formation of a distinct Canadian identity. To quote a much-quoted veteran: “We went up Vimy Ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians. We came down as Canadians.”
As I argued previously in Did the Great War really create a distinct Canadian identity?, I think this contention overstates the case. But that’s not to say it’s entirely without merit.
Still, it’s useful to ask ourselves how the nearly 620,000 Canadians who served in the war saw it. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that more than 80 per cent of them were volunteers.
I imagine their motivations were many.
Some surely thought of it as a bit of excitement that offered relief from the boring humdrum of everyday life. Add in the male affinity for adventure and you have an intoxicating cocktail.
Then there’s the matter of patriotic fervour. Recounting English-speaking Canada’s emotional tenor at the time, historian Desmond Morton expressed it succinctly: “Women wore badges inviting men to Knit or Fight.”
But the impulse behind this patriotism – enthusiastic loyalty to the concept of king and empire – doesn’t resonate for many 21st century Canadians. Some are more likely to feel vaguely embarrassed. Others might even find it disreputable.
None of these contradictions mean that Remembrance Day shouldn’t be respectfully commemorated. Those who served did so honourably. Whether we think it was a good idea in no way detracts from their sacrifice. Our predilections and prejudices don’t obviate their reality.
In The Go-Between, the English novelist L.P. Hartley hit on an essential truth. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.
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