I was lying in bed, only half asleep, when the windows began to vibrate, and an unseen fly past of multiple aircraft powered by piston engines roared overhead. I looked at the clock: 10:52. By 11 AM they’d be downtown. In today’s context, the low moan seemed evocative of both sadness and regret.
When I was a child, they made a big deal of Remembrance Day in school. Back then, the Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was still mounted on the wall above the P.A. speaker, and there were maps tacked to bulletin boards that showed the extent of the British Empire, with the good English bits shaded pink, always pink. On November 11, we were instructed to stand for a minute of silence at 11 AM, and expected to wear poppies, which were delivered to us in class. It was also part of the program to get us to read Wilford Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, surely the finest poetry ever written about what was then the Great War – they didn’t know it would soon be necessary to number World Wars – and of course In Flanders Fields.
They had us read Owen’s poem because they were determined that war, and Canada’s role in the great conflicts of the 20th Century, should not be romanticized, and they couldn’t have picked a better way to make their point. When you first read these words you might not really get it, but you could never forget them either:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
If you want to take a couple of minutes today to really pay homage to all those who suffered, you can’t do better than to read the whole of the poem they made part of my Grade 6 curriculum:
Owen knew whereof he spoke. He’d seen it with his own stinging eyes. It was thoroughly disheartening to learn he was killed in action on November 4, 2018, just a week shy of victory; perhaps the most terrible characteristic of wars is the way the killing persists long after the outcome is decided, whether on Okinawa, in the suburbs of Berlin, or all along the Western Front. On November 11, 2018, over 2,700 men were killed on all sides in the few hours of morning before the guns fell silent. The mind reels at the uselessness of combat that day, but they fought right up to the deadline, right until that first moment of peace and deliverance, which must have been the most blessed instant ever experienced by the millions of soldiers who still crouched in their filthy, soggy trenches. This is from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut:
I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one and another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
For trying to teach us that war was in fact ugly and stupid, back in the day when all boys my age played Army with replica weapons or fantasy death-dealers like this:
– a very real and highly coveted item known as the Johnny Seven One Man Army – I can only salute those teachers. It was a bit of a shock to the system, that poem, but we needed it, even if, as in my case, it took several years and repeated readings to really sink in. I wonder if they still teach it today?
The Canadian veterans of the Great War were an aging lot even when I was a pre-teen, and Wikipedia tells me that the last of them, John Babcock, died in 2010. The last who saw combat, Charles Laking, went five years earlier. It’s a pity that it never occurred to anyone to have one of them come in to talk to us, back when that was possible. He could have told us what they never teach you in school, how Canadians fought with such discipline and tenacity that they became the shock troops of the Allied forces, their mere presence near any given salient an alarming signal to the Germans of imminent assault; how in 1917 they did what all others had failed to accomplish, and took the impregnable Vimy Ridge at the cost of over 4,000 dead and 7,000 wounded; how the unified Canadian Corps, four divisions totalling 100,000 men under the command of Sir Arthur Currie, tore through 47 German Divisions, over 700,000 soldiers, in a series of vicious battles from August to November in 1918, Amiens, Arras, Cambrai, Valenciennes, and finally Mons, crossing the Canal du Nord, breaching the Hindenberg line, and damn near winning the war all by themselves in what came to be known as “Canada’s Hundred Days”.
That was worth knowing too, I think, but it was the Sixties, times were changing, the Queen’s portrait was soon to be taken down, and that sort of learning was on the way out, perhaps because it seemed to veer too close to glorifying war, or maybe because the teaching of history by getting kids to memorize dates and places was thought outmoded. My Grade 4 teacher was a flower child, with a hippie boyfriend in bell bottoms who sometimes picked her up on the school steps. She was all about what was then the New Math, not the musty, best-forgotten details of nasty old wars.
Anyway, what am I thinking? It’s silly to imagine us sitting up straight, listening to the insights of somebody who’d been there, since if they had hauled a veteran in to try to inject something valuable into our scattered brains, we’d have utterly failed to show him the respect he deserved. I remember what we were like. We would have gained nothing from the experience, while we jabbered and shot spitballs at each other. We were a hyena-like pack of little villains, really. We might have watched shows like The Rat Patrol, and movies like Hell Is For Heroes, but really, we didn’t care.
It was at home, surrounded by Mom’s and Dad’s books, that I eventually became interested in such things. These days I’m so steeped in the stuff that I can tell you with some assuredness that the planes that flew over while I lay in bed were T-6 Harvards, advanced trainers of WW II vintage. Years of watching air shows have equipped me to recognize the engine noise. There would have been four of them, in classic “finger four” formation, and if they had their wits about them they would have transitioned to the “missing man” formation when they reached the cenotaph in front of Old City Hall. The Harvard is a reliable but unremarkable aircraft, by no means representative of the powerful fighter aircraft of WWII, but they can’t all be Spitfires. I’m sorry I missed them.
Today, on the centennial of the day the carnage stopped, Trump is over in Europe, putting his foot in it like always, probably not quite certain whether what he calls Veterans Day was about Viet Nam, or World War II, or what. Our own Prime Minister, though, demonstrated some grasp of the history, and did what every right-thinking Canadian leader would do – he visited Vimy Ridge, where stands a stunning memorial of unrivalled beauty and solemnity. The land around it, 250 acres, was granted to Canada by perpetual lease, a tribute by the French people to the nation that fought so hard to secure their liberty. When visiting, you need to keep to the pathways, lest you step on the unexploded munitions that still fill the landscape. Volatile unexploded artillery shells are buried all over the European theatre, the residue of the many millions that were fired each week, and people still sometimes lose their lives to them. One hundred years later, World War I keeps claiming casualties.
The Vimy Ridge memorial is so impressively moving that even Hitler, upon conquering France, personally saw to the special arrangements for the Weremacht to keep it guarded and safe.
Mother Canada, downcast and inconsolable, stares across the blood-soaked landscape and mourns the loss of so many of her children.