Reclaiming Remembrance Day
Remembering Those Who Couldn’t Come Back Instead of Celebrating Victory
On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice was signed that ended the fighting of the First World War.
It’s also on that day that Canada, as well as the rest of the British Commonwealth, celebrate Remembrance Day. It’s celebrated in other countries, too, albeit under different names, to commemorate all those who died at war. The angle it often takes is that these people died doing the right thing, serving their country proudly while fighting wars.
What a frustrating way to look at the death of people who, often unwillingly or unknowingly, signed up for one-way tickets to the worst experiences of their lives. Unwillingly because of the forceful nature of conscription, used towards the end of both World Wars in Canada but on much larger scales across the world; unknowingly because until one has actually seen combat, can they really know what war is going to be like outside the recruitment office?
Romantic views of war were the selling point for war at the start of the WWI. Yet these old romantic views of the gallantry and honour of war died with the soldiers in no-man’s land when faced with the brutal reality of industrial warfare. Even outside the Western Front and its trench warfare, the old ideas and traditions of Europe came to a bloody end.
Remembrance Day shouldn’t be about the glory of war; it should be about mourning those who died in conditions no one should be asked to endure. I’m not saying people who went to war can’t have a day dedicated to them and those who didn’t come back, far from it. If anything, the on-paper intent of Remembrance Day is positive, yet I can’t help but feel we’ve turned a day to mourn the dead and injured into a day to commemorate the army.
There is nothing to celebrate about World War I, besides the fact that it eventually, and mercifully, ended.
It was supposed to be the end of all war, because of the never-before seen brutality of the conflict. For four years, millions of people were killed or injured. All in all, more than 16 million people died at war and at home, and millions more were injured.
Entire countries either imploded or changed dramatically due to revolutions from populations that could endure no more fighting. Four empires of Europe collapsed during or after the end of the war.
Populations across all nations at war were devastated, so much so that the generation that came of age before and during the war was dubbed the Lost Generation.
History books will tell you the Allied Powers (including Canada) soundly defeated the Central Powers (Germany and its colonies, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria). But no one actually won the war, really. All of these nations were scarred and ruined.
Too many died, and those who came back were changed forever, both physically and mentally. The scarring was so bad, it can be argued that the period following the war, the Roaring Twenties, was the West throwing itself a giant party to try and forget what had just happened.
War had never been like it was during the Great War. Many couldn’t handle it, and developed what they called shell shock. We now know this as post-traumatic stress disorder. Who could blame them, considering what WWI was like? Yet, those who were accused of cowardice, often because of PTSD, were shot for cowardice or desertion by all nations in the war.
Nothing could have prepared anyone for the horrors of World War I. In turn, nothing can make us truly realize the hell people went through day after day after day. We have books and first-hand testimonies from that time (thanks to the rapidly modernizing ways of communication, including radio, telegraph, and mass-circulated newspapers), but even those can’t legitimately let us know what it was like to be on the battlefield.
Despite all of this, the fighting never ended. There would be more wars, many of which were directly or indirectly caused by the First World War and its aftermath.
So on Remembrance Day, remember that those who lived, and those who died, were victims of circumstances that they often didn’t have control over. They often weren’t willing ones, either, due both to conscription and to the deadly punishments that came with perceived acts of cowardice.
I always hope that, in looking back at the horrors of wars past, we can see the continued, albeit different, horrors of war now. This may be naive, but hopefully we can move past the need to go to war at some point in our lifetimes.
I won’t add in any flowery quote from an anti-war song, or a speech from a politician who’d be all too happy to go back to war.
All I’ll say is, let’s just try to make this world a little less awful. The War to End all Wars couldn’t end war, but maybe we can.