“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.” – Laurence Binyon
This past summer I had the privilege of attending a special ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. It was a sombre occasion as additional names of those Saskatchewanians who lost their lives in this conflict were unveiled.
The names etched in stone were a powerful reminder of the dear cost of war. As people wandered through the memorial, some touching the names on the plaques, others quietly contemplating the significance of these markers, I was thinking of the faces and lives connected to those names.
When I was a teenager, my Baba and I were going through a box of old pictures when we came across a stack of photos featuring men in military garb. I wondered who they were and what their story was. My Baba told me that they had fought in the First World War and then she pointed out the ones who never returned. It was a moment that stayed with me. I closely examined those handsome, young faces that gazed confidently into the camera. Faces that did not and could not imagine what hardships lay ahead for them.
In 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, as part of the British Empire, was automatically at war. Young men eagerly enlisted (40,000 from the prairie west alone) with the belief that they would be back home for Christmas. What followed was a 4 year bitter struggle. This war, dubbed The Great War, would prove to be one of the most brutal conflicts ever fought.
The first Canadian Expeditionary Force set sail for England in October of 1914. After training, the soldiers were deployed to France where trench warfare was the tactic employed. The two sides hunkered down in trenches and faced each other across a barren stretch of “no man’s land” consisting of mud, craters and barbed wire. As a brutal stalemate developed, men endured terrible miseries such as dysentery, rats and lice, and foot rot (from the mud in which they stood). When the call came to go “over the top”, many were easy targets for enemy snipers.
But under these same horrible conditions, Canadian soldiers would earn the reputation of being “storm troopers”. At Ypres the enemy would release deadly chlorine gas, and while some of our Allies gasped, choked and ran, the Canadian troops rushed in to fill the gaps and hold off the Germans.
At Vimy Ridge, an escarpment in northern France, Canadians were called upon to do what the British and French had been unable to accomplish after several attempts – take the Ridge. This was key ground and the Germans had strongly fortified it with artillery, tunnels and communication lines. Yet working together as one advancing unit and carefully planning the attack, the Canadians were able to secure the Ridge. It was a great victory that many historians regard as a “nation-making moment”. One veteran summed it up by saying: “We went up Vimy Ridge as Albertans and Nova Scotians. We came down as Canadians.”
Again at Passchendaele, Canadian troops would be successful after a long, difficult slog through swamp-like conditions. At Amiens, they would advance 13 km in one day and from there they would enter The Last Hundred Days of the war ending in Mons.
But these victories would come at a high cost. Ypres resulted in 6000 dead, missing or wounded. Nearly 3600 men would be lost taking Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele resulted in 15,654 casualties in order to secure 5 square km of mud. With almost 61,000 killed and 172,000 wounded, this would go down as the bloodiest conflict in Canadian history.
The Great War finally ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. This is the day that we have come to know as Remembrance Day – a day that signifies all the sacrifices made by our veterans and armed forces not just in the First World War but all other conflicts and peace-keeping initiatives involving Canada.
Those names etched in memorials across this great nation represent the lives given to secure peace, freedom and democracy for Canada. Let us be mindful of their sacrifices and let us be vigilant in protecting those cherished ideals.