Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Ninety years ago today the war to end all wars ended. And ninety years later Canadians are fighting a war that seems to have no end. One of the chaplains speaking at the Ottawa Remembrance ceremony noted that "we all hate war" but "we love our troops". Perhaps that's the best way to think about the bloody futility of the Great War. The utter senselessness of that war need not diminish the sacrifice of the Canadians who died. And so too, celebrating the victories of the Canadian troops in that war need not diminish our hatred of war.
Remembrance Day is an opportunity to bemoan Canadians' lack of knowledge about our war history, particularly the First World War. Margaret Wente's column today in the Globe & Mail is an example of this. But I look to my own school-age kids and I know that Canada's war history is being taught in schools, that they know very well what Remembrance Day is all about.

But we could all know more of course. Tim Cook, the Curator of the National War Museum, has published the second volume of his excellent history of the Canadians in the First World War: Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918. This volume tells of the Canadian battles at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, and the Hundred Days campaign. The first volume, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, tells of the terrible costly stalemate of the first years of the war.

One of the first regiments raised for battle in the First World War was the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. The Patricias went to the trenches on January 6, 1915. On January 8, Norman Fry and Henry George Bellinger of PPCLI became the first Canadian soldiers to be killed in action in the Great War. The Patricias were one of the units fighting at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. Make time to go to the film Passchendaele, a fictionalized look at the battle, partially funded and filmed in Alberta, from actor/director (and U of A grad) Paul Gross. He has also published a novelization of the film, Passchendaele. Calgary historian Norman Leach was the historical advisor for the film, and he has published a photo-heavy history of the battle: Passchendaele: Canada's Triumph and Tragedy on the Fields of Flanders. A full-length history of the battle is available from the Library, Legacy of Valour: The Canadians at Passchendaele by Calgarian Daniel G. Dancocks. This book was published in 1986 by Hurtig Publishers of Edmonton. (I'm reminded yet again what a cultural hero Alberta and Canada had in Mel Hurtig during his Edmonton heyday. We miss him (he retired to BC years ago).) It is clear that Albertans have done and are doing their part to remember the Great War!

Another Albertan, David Bercuson, Director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, wrote a complete (to that point, 2001) history of the PPCLI: The Patricias: Proud History of a Fighting Regiment. Today, based in part out of CFB Edmonton, the Patricias continue to fight for Canada. A new book by Chris Wattie, Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, the Taliban and the Battle that Saved Afghanistan tells the story of one of those fights, the Battle of Panjwayi in the summer of 2006.

Finally, what we remember today (from CBC):
More than 100,000 Canadians soldiers have died in various conflicts since 1899, including:
  • More than 240 in the Boer War.
  • More than 66,000 in the First World War.
  • More than 44,000 in the Second World War.
  • 516 in the Korean War.
  • 121 in peacekeeping missions.
  • 97 in Afghanistan.


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