Have you forgotten yet?…

by Jamie Swift

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

The initial anniversaries of World War I are upon us. And it will surprise few Canadians that, at the centenary war’s beginning, Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in with blood-and-iron sentiments. These echoed the patriotic themes of the aristocrats and jingo politicians who started the war.

Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper

For Canada’s Prime Minister, it is all about heroes and honours. A veritable war of independence fought “to preserve the universal values of freedom, peace and democracy that we hold most dear.”

Of course, apologists for wars usually claim that they’ve been fought for the most high-minded reasons. To explain that the bloodletting was about which imperial alliance would grab the decaying remains of the Ottoman Empire would, of course, not sound very noble. Particularly when over 60,000 Canadians perished and the conscription crisis tore the country apart.

Better to indulge in conventional bromides of a nation-forged-in-fire.

Said the Prime Minister: “Amid the appalling loss, by any measure, Canada, as a truly independent country, was forged in the fires of the Western Front….When the great nations of the world gathered, we must never forget that our place at the table was not given to us.”

The moral of this way of telling the story? It takes a tough, fighting nation to grab its due share of the glory and the recognition.

The facts of the matter? In the wake of the war, Canada obtained little if any influence in dividing the spoils and sticking Germany with war guilt and reparations that brought on another war. These were agreed to by the so-called Great Powers (mainly the French, British and Americans) in back rooms where Canada had no role.

Canada did get a seat at the table at Versailles in 1919. But only as a junior partner to empire. The strategic thinking – both on the battlefields of the Somme and Flanders and in the postwar power plays – was never done in Canada.

Canada’s veteran military analyst Gwynn Dyer recent book Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014 provides a pungent summary of the way this unfolded. Canada was edging its way into the club a nations.

“By the time Canada joined, however, it was already obvious that the club was becoming a lethal madhouse.”

Again, no one expects speechifying politicians to admit to such realities. Yet the revulsion at Harper’s remarks was palpable in Newfoundland then still a British colony that was devastated by the war. At Beaumont-Hamel in 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out, suffering an 80 per cent casualty rate.

The Prime Minister’s guts-and-glory interpretation didn’t sit well with Russell Wangersky, news editor of The Telegram in St. John’s:

And, for an insight into what we remember about the Great War – and what is forgotten – we need look no further than the words of one of its survivors, written as the Great Powers were concocting the treaty in Paris.

siegfried sassoon

siegfried sassoon

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget

— “Aftermath” Siegfried Sassoon, 1919