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opinion

Wade Davis is the author of Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest.

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One hundred years ago, in the spring of 1915, the German army attacked at Ypres in Belgium using poison gas for the first time in the history of warfare. If the Germans had stooped to a new low, the reputation of the Canadians soared to new heights, for it was only their suicidal defence that stopped the assault and held the British line, even as troops on all sides panicked and fled the field. This was the beginning of what can only be seen as the transformation of a country due to the martial skill and courage of its soldiers.

As the Canadian Expeditionary Force grew into a corps of four divisions, with more than 400,000 men serving overseas, it proved to be not just a formidable fighting force but arguably the most innovative and imaginative command in the Allied armies. The battle roll reads as a complete record of the Western Front.

At Arras, France, in 1917 the Canadian Corps, fighting for the first time as a single force, took Vimy Ridge in three days, an objective that had defied British and French armies for three years. By the summer of that year, the greatest security challenge for the Allied command was concealing the location of the Canadians, whose presence at any sector of the front implied to the Germans an imminent assault.

In August, 1918, the Canadians spearheaded the Allied counteroffensive at Amiens, France, the battle that turned the tide on the Western Front. It was the beginning of what became known as Canada's Hundred Days, a non-stop engagement as the Allied forces, with the Canadian Corps in the vanguard, pushed the Germans east until their final surrender.

Then came another war, more horrific than the first. A new generation of Canadians responded with equal valour and sacrifice, in the Atlantic and in the air over France and Germany, at Dieppe, Normandy and in the liberation of Holland and the Low Countries.

Our fathers and grandfathers fought so that we would never know or experience what they endured. Because of what they achieved on the battlefield, Canada acquired a reputation that in the wake of the wars allowed our leaders with dignity to embrace the path of peace, which they did, earning the respect of all countries.

Canadian troops became the core of United Nations peacekeeping operations in countless lands, highly trained professional soldiers who monitored truces, mediated between violent foes, and maintained the flow of humanitarian aid to innocent victims of conflict in all the war-torn reaches of the world.

Our sterling military reputation, first established in the agony of Flanders, Belgium, gave us the credibility to forge the vanguard of a new kind of army, one whose mission was to stanch the flow of blood, and whose military honours would be measured not in battles won, but in conflicts averted. In 1957 when Lester Pearson accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, he did so in the name of all Canadians.

Of course, much has changed in recent decades, and there are any number of reasons to increase support for our armed forces, not the least of which is the need to proclaim our sovereignty in the High Arctic. But this is no reason to repudiate the Pearson legacy, as the Conservative government did over the past decade, even as it forsook our independence, and chose instead to walk in lockstep with the United States as it pursued a foreign policy that shattered every land it set out to save. The people of the world have yearned for the Canada of old, and happily, with the election of Justin Trudeau, there is a good chance that they shall have it back.

When the poet John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields, he chose as a symbol of remembrance a delicate flower, unaware of the cruel irony that poppies flourished in the fields of Flanders only because constant shelling and rivers of blood had transformed the chemistry of the soil.

Only by embracing the power of peace will we honour today what our fathers, grandfathers and their fathers before them did for us, for Canada, so many years ago in their time of sacrifice and desperate trials.