Remembrance Day: Past and Present

Every year, SMUS commemorates Remembrance Day with a service that includes music, drama and prayer. This morning’s service included a song from Head Boy Brian Christiansen, which was sung by his maternal grandfather while he was at war. The dramatic readings from five students focused on more recent conflicts in Afghanistan. Below, history teacher Mr. Tony Goodman talks about the origins of war and remembrance.

A Brief History of World Wars
by Tony Goodman, teacher

In September of 1914, the great Empires of Europe, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, England, and France, went to war. Their colonies, Canada following the call of Britain, leapt to service. The people who lined up to enlist were happy with prospect that their own Empire would win.They believed God and leaders willed it to, because the best and brightest of the generation would go and make the great sacrifices of courage.

Standing in the Unter Linden Street in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II made a speech to eager soldiers going off to war. “You will be back before the leaves of these trees have fallen to the ground,” he promised.

Those leaves would fall four times, through years of the most senseless bloodshed ever to have gripped humanity.

And the Kaiser’s promise was fulfilled in a gruesome way. As the men at the front faced howling bombs and tearing bullets, gas that choked and burned, cold and disease, they died as quickly as leaves in autumn. They went into the soil, stuffed it with their remains, and still others fought on through seasons of killing. Gallipoli, Ypres, Passchendaele, Verdun, Vitoria Veneto, Tannenburg, Caporetto. The harvests were relentless. Each one brought on more suffering.

July 1st is now a day that we remember Canada’s birthday. In the first years after WWI, July 1st was remembered for a different reason. At the Somme, early in the morning of July 1st, a whole army of British soldiers received the order to push forward and take the positions that the Germans were holding. The British had warned the Germans that they were coming by bombarding the German defenses for four days of continuous shelling.

The Germans, deep in their dugouts, weathered the storm as best they could. And when the shelling stopped, they scrambled out of their warrens and manned their machine gun posts. The order came for the Brits to go over the top, to leave their own trenches and to run towards the German placements.

The Germans trained their guns on the gaps in the barbed wire that had been cut by the English so that their troops would have a clear run. The attacking soldiers fell. Their bodies piled up as more and more men ran towards those German machine guns. Row upon row of people dropped to the ground.

Thousands fell. In 12 hours, 21,000 British soldiers were killed and 35,000 were wounded. Only 600 soldiers were taken prisoner. For years afterward, this date was an anniversary of the worst kind.

Sometime, during this collective insanity that was called the Great War, people started to ask themselves what they were fighting for. That this carnage was for imperial greed, expansion of spheres of influence and market share, made no sense. Eight million people had given their lives. They called this war “the war to end all wars.” Who would dare wish this kind of destruction on anyone? And so, when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, a great hush fell over the world. We would not, could not let this happen again.

A generation later, a second Great War began. Whole societies geared themselves to the transport, arming, feeding, killing, and entombing of men. While the first war was about empires, the second was about stopping tyranny. Most people thought that there was a reason to fight again.

And the leaves fell for five long years. So many that to count would choke the mind. Concentration camps, The Blitz, Barbarossa, El Alamein, Tobruk, The Coral Sea, Midway, Stalingrad, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge. 40 million dead.

Not only soldiers this time, but whole civilian populations as well. One bomb, the biggest dropped in the history of war, killed 80,000 people of the city of Hiroshima in a flash. Over the next year, another 70,000 would die of a new disease – radiation poisoning.

And our quest for peace has continued at times to elude us: Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Rwanda, Angola, Algeria, Israel, Kuwait.

This century has seen many autumns. We have seen too many leaves fall. We hold ourselves in silence to honour our war dead, to hear the lessons they have taught us at such great personal cost. Everywhere you look today is a legacy left by those people. How we govern ourselves, how we trade and prosper, how we apply laws, how we collectively strive to maintain peace.

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