Rory Gilfillan is the head of social science at Lakefield College School.
By the end of 1914, the Allied forces had a problem. In the early months of the First World War, casualties were high. But as the conflict stabilized into a deadlock of trench warfare, soldiers were being taken off the front without any visible wounds. Able-bodied troops, outwardly untouched by shrapnel or bullets, were losing their capacity to fight. They arrived at triage stations in catatonic states, some with tremors so intense they no longer could load or fire their rifles.
The first industrial war of the 20th century demanded that soldiers endure the unendurable not for a single day of battle, but for weeks at a time – a new phenomenon in the history of conflict. They cowered in trenches under relentless shellfire, lived in constant fear of snipers, and subsisted below ground, often among corpses and always among rats. At first, their psychological suffering was mistakenly attributed to concussions created by artillery rounds – a new condition called, at the time, “shell shock.” But further research led to the discovery of post-traumatic stress disorder, and touched off a new trend in psychological intervention for those affected by war.
In the Great War’s maelstrom, innovation took on a velocity unheard of during peacetime. Military aviation had advanced from frail kites capable of only minutes of low-level flight to high-powered fighter aircraft that could duel at 12,000 feet. Soldiers with faces disfigured on the battlefield underwent pioneering work in the nascent practice of plastic surgery. Social changes on the home front occurred at dizzying speed. Women’s floor-skimming skirts and long hair did not mix well with work in wartime factories, and were replaced almost overnight with pants, boiler suits and bobbed hair; fashions that would have been scandalous only months earlier now foreshadowed seismic social changes to come.
But the biggest innovation would be in the way in which the world viewed war itself. No longer something to be taken lightly, the generation that endured the futility of the Somme, and fought through the mud of Passchendaele, would try to build a world where countries would never raise arms against each other again.
It’s easy for us today to look back on the carnage of the 20th century, and the violence that still afflicts us today, and think of these notions as naive. It’s also easy to believe that conflicts of the past and the men and women who fought in them, while noble, have very little to teach us.
Perhaps. But I suspect that the stark truth is this: The men and women we honour on Remembrance Day understood things that we do not.
They enlisted when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troops slaughtered Belgian civilians in August, 1914. They enlisted when the Nazis overran Poland in 1939 and then turned toward France, and when North Korea threatened to drive Allied forces into the sea, and in the decades that followed when democracy was at stake and Canada’s allies needed our help. They didn’t send thoughts and prayers and they didn’t express pious hopes for peace and then go about their day. They loaded up and they fought.
They squinted through binoculars looking for the telltale wakes of U-boat periscopes on the North Atlantic run. They flew bomber raids into the beating heart of Nazi war production. They held the line, and advanced under fire. They worked in factories, collected scrap metal, grew Victory Gardens and bought war bonds. They served and sacrificed because they understood the axiom that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. And when the last shots were fired, they put down their arms and helped rebuild.
Those we honour on Remembrance Day understood that totalitarianism in faraway places threatened the same social fabric and democratic ideals that allowed them to vote at home, and protected their rights to free expression and free assembly. It didn’t matter that events in Europe and Asia were far away and it didn’t matter that these events were unlikely to affect them personally. They had a stake in world events because they weren’t just Canadian citizens, they were the heirs to the Magna Carta, the beneficiaries of constitutional democracy. These ideals, encapsulated by the sentiments that human beings have inalienable rights that are not beholden to any arbitrary rules, nor are the exclusive domain of the strongest, the better armed or the most powerful, were their torch to carry. It is not without irony that, in these modern times, despite being connected in ways that previous generations could scarcely imagine, their sense of global responsibility seems to far exceed our own.
The men and women we honour on Remembrance Day are the ones who didn’t come home. They were beloved family members, friends, neighbours. They fought the good fight and kept the faith. We must honour them today and every day that we enjoy living in a free and democratic society.