On November 11, 1918, the habitually chaotic city of Toronto was immersed in the same unfamiliar silence as the Western Front. “That first day of peace we looked forward to through many tears . . . we exulted it quietly,” recalled Captain J.E. McKay. “[We] forgot the self-made promises of delirious joy on the day of the war’s end.”[i] The two reverent minutes became the foundation of Armistice—later Remembrance—Day.
For Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) Commander General Sir Arthur Currie, it was a sanctified yearly occasion to “look back to a hallowed past that we may face with higher hearts the unknown future.”[ii] Currie envisioned the day as a moral teacher—an opinion shared by Second World War Canadians who considered it part “of a continuous effort required to make real the dreams generations of men died to save.”[iii] In the twenty-first century, the solemn minutes are considered ceremonial tradition rather than a moral teacher. However, the World Wars that forged the greatest generation still have lessons to teach its inheritors about peace, remembrance, and national leadership.
A perusal of history textbooks from various countries show the selectivity of collective memory. An American account chronicling the War of 1812 proclaims victory for the United States with the same insistence Canadians declare that their ancestors won. Over 200 years later, the countries continue to disagree about the war’s outcome. For generations born in peacetime, this selectivity applies to the cost of war and the difficulty preserving peace. Prior to 1914, people relied on the Concert of Europe to balance the great powers’ authority and ambitions. They expected contained skirmishes, not a devastating world war, but history is rarely dictated by expectations.
Human memory relies on hindsight to judge past events and to approach future situations; in the early twentieth-century, military doctrine was built on tradition gleaned from wars lasting a few months or years and generally fought without the aid of sophisticated weapons. The First World War shattered these expectations with the introduction of mechanized warfare and gassing, forcing commanders to invent new tactics or adapt existing ones to counter these developments. Then the Second World War produced weapons of mass destruction with the capability of erasing life so completely it left only a snow-like ash. These innovations comprise one of the World Wars lessons: the nature of armed conflicts evolves and, as one Cold War US Senator observed, if humanity can build it, it will use it even without considering the consequences. This willingness makes the careful election of national leaders vital.
Inside the House of Commons, the portraits of wartime Prime Ministers Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King only bear the dates bordering the World Wars despite leading a young Canada beyond that time. In the First World War, Borden established Canada’s autonomy from Britain and demanded a separate seat at the Versailles Peace Conference but nearly caused a civil war by introducing conscription in 1917. Meanwhile, Mackenzie King achieved a greater international voice for Canada and pacified the stirrings of public unrest that plagued Borden at the reintroduction of conscription in 1940. Yet, King said that Adolf Hitler was “one who truly loves his fellow man” in 1937.[iv] Both leaders succeeded with the same intensity they failed and made unpopular decisions that ultimately earned Canada a favourable position in the post-war eras. However, it is likely that neither would get elected in the twenty-first century even though history recalls them as great leaders.
Sensationalism drives modern-day elections rather than an individual’s platform, and articulate, intelligent candidates are not always selected for party leadership. Political debates are cringeworthily more appropriate for a television program possibly titled Keeping up with the Nations than a house of governance. The public has little influence over these practices, but it can endeavour to discern reality from rhetoric instead of participating in election sensationalism. It is tempting to elect an individual that agrees with the present whims of society that might have little to do with the economic, defense, public, international, or educational health of a nation. Some voters may lean towards selecting a candidate with familial pedigree or financial influence, which is not problematic until it becomes the primary factor in the decision-making process. The World Wars emphasize the need for careful selection of leaders, as part of making “real the dreams generations of men died to save.”
Beyond the development of warfare and the election of government officials, the World Wars attest to the courage of the armed forces and its veterans. They fought to preserve freedom, liberty, and the values of their nations. Canadians believed they lived in a “fireproof house” because of North America’s distance from Europe, but they enlisted to defend their land and protect someone else’s home. They held dying friends in the mud of battlefields, lost limbs, and carried scars that were not always visible. When they returned, there was no one to talk to about the horrors and many carried them to their graves.
History recalls the World Wars as an epic of heroes and villains, but they were about ordinary people. The Allies fought just wars to defend freedom, justice, and peace, values many nations celebrate. The veterans from both sides returned carrying memories of humanity’s goodness and depravity but had to carry them quietly because countries were ready to rebuild and wanted to forget despite the promise to remember. Remembrance Day is a continuous reminder of this last lesson from the World Wars: our veterans stood for us, our armed forces stand of us, and they should never have to do so alone.
Desarée Rosskopf is the Associate Editor of Kazingram Dialogue. She received her Master of Arts in History from Western University and a BA Honours in History from Tyndale University College. She specializes in contemporary military history as well as collective memory and mythmaking. She is currently researching the legacy of Canada’s Normandy landing from 1944-2017 as a Fellow for the Juno Beach Centre in France. @DesareeRosskopf
[i] “Soldiers Tell of Armistice Day in the War Zone,” The Globe (Toronto, ON) November 11, 1919, 9.
[ii] “Whole Dominion Recalls Memory of Fallen Heroes,” The Globe (Toronto, ON) November 12, 1924, 1.
[iii] “Remembrance Day,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, ON) November 10, 1945, 6.
[iv] William Lyon Mackenzie King, Dairy Entry, June 29, 1937. Library Achieves Canada, Ottawa.