By Bob Stubbings, Fergus Legion Branch 275
WELLINGTON COUNTY – In a civil society the essential rituals of remembrance within families is recognized because of the universality of bereavement. Grief, a very deep personal emotion, is expressed through the visible conventions of mourning.
Although publicly displayed, mourning is a private cultural observance to which public access and participation is strictly defined by the living, as they reconcile the death of a loved one and reinforce memories to become part of their family’s history.
Commemoration is the tradition by which the public pays homage to the individual who has passed, through actions ranging from the celebration of their life to the renaming of local landmarks and the building of monuments.
War disproportionately increases the frequency of these solemn ceremonies and thereby places the onus on communities and nations to bear witness to the sacrifice of their war dead.
The remembering of this enormous loss of life creates a national family of collective Canadian Remembrance.
Because the dead could not be repatriated during the Great War, their public commemoration was achieved through the building of cenotaphs and the dedication of a Day of Remembrance.
The continuance of this reverent memory is contingent upon how well we know the dead or, in lieu of this, how well we can identify with their experience.
The challenge here is to honour those who died in war without glorifying war itself. In Remembrance, it is only the names of the dead that matter.
At the family level, the death of a veteran from any era is punctuated by the letters, photographs and medals of their lost loved one. These mementos have special significance to the family and serve to quietly remind all of their sacrifice.
Mementos become heirlooms
Commonly, they become heirlooms passed on to succeeding generations along with the account of their deeds.
Regrettably, with the passage of time, this linkage can be broken as these keepsakes go astray.
The First World War is now over five generations from today’s youth. Furthermore, citizens new to this nation either by immigration or birth do not have an obvious lineage to our national war veterans.
How do these individuals identify with our country’s war legacy? How do they connect with the meaning of Canadian Remembrance?
Our awareness of the world around us is gained through our five human senses.
Their collective sensory input organizes the framework and clarity of our memories. The greater their aggregated input and intensity, particularly if they are unpleasant, the greater the imprint of that memory.
We have all experienced the adrenaline rush associated with fear. Fortunately, these moments are usually of short duration.
In contrast, air, land or sea combat exposes all of our human senses to a simultaneous and overwhelming endurance. Thus, it is not possible to replicate the horror of battle because all of our senses cannot be artificially engaged at the same time.
Unless present, it is not possible to associate the din of battle with the stench of spent cordite.
Touch and taste cannot be duplicated by any means.
So we are left with our sense of sight as our principal means of conceptualizing the experience of warfare.
Here we have the written word and the visual image to serve us and though not without limitation, they can leave powerful impressions when delivered true in thought and deed.
Millions of words have recorded the contradiction, the chaos and the carnage of war. Paramount for readers today are those which recount the daily extremes in suffering, fear, boredom and fate of our battle warriors.
The writings of Canada’s war veterans, based on their own experiences, would have to be considered the most reliable and truthful observations of any published works.
When well written, the imagery revealed through our mind’s eye enlightens us to the volatility of their world.
The breadth of authorship extends from the unschooled yet detailed and sensitive memoir of John Harold Becker’s Silhouettes of The Great War through to And No Birds Sang by one of Canada’s literary sons, Farley Mowat.
Absurdity and insanity of war
Even though of different world wars, their journeys are uncannily similar as they portray the absurdity and insanity of war.
While written for all to read, they were intended to pay tribute to their respective platoon mates who shared their surreal experiences.
Very quickly after the world wars the physical scars of battle were erased as cities were rebuilt and public symbols were restored to their former prominence.
While necessary steps for each country’s recovery, they permanently removed the savagery of war from the sight of future generations.
When one embarks upon ‘battle tours’ it is very difficult to visualize the events which took place.
Dated photographs and film preserved the evidence and are the visual proof of what came before.
Photos against orders
Although photography was against army orders during the First World War, some soldiers did sneak ‘snaps’. Certainly these shots are compelling however, they were limited by the skill of the photographer and the geographical location of the soldier.
In 1916 official photographs were commissioned which permitted a more inclusive representation of the war. Of these, the most telling are the photographs of enlisted men.
Look into their eyes. The eyes tell all. See the set stare of men who have just come from sheer gruesomeness. See them trying to hide the weakness of their fears under the courage of their smiles. Seared in those faces are sights which they may try to forget but will forever stare back at them through closed eyelids.
If the eyes are the gateway to the soul, then witness the soul-shock extracted by the darkness of war.
The First World War appeared just as the film industry became the center of entertainment. Because humans have always had a fascination with war and particularly with the recounting of its stories, motion pictures quickly became an important medium for disseminating war’s narrative, as they are today.
This is significant for as Tim Cook, historian at the Canadian War Museum, has observed “Sharing stories from the war on screen helps keep the experience alive in our social consciousness.” Film reaches beyond book-reading citizens and is attractive to a time-sensitive public.
War films intentionally leave no psychological stone unturned in their attempt to enable audiences to relive the conflict. The challenge for these films is in their accurate depiction of the events.
Unfortunately, when writers’ and directors’ artistic liberties are used to sensationalize or over-sentimentalize they not only mislead an uninformed public, but also insult veterans as they see their experiences inaccurately portrayed.
While Canadians were given just tribute in Second World War films like Captains of the Clouds and Corvette K-225, the American and British film industry overwhelmed the viewing public with their extremely biased perspective in films such as The Longest Day. Many films, for example The Great Escape, wrote Canada’s legitimate involvement out of the script entirely.
Canadian story in film
Others, as seen in The Devil’s Brigade, did acknowledge our participation even if the Canadians were not accurately portrayed. The Canadian story witnessed in Passchendaele, Storming Juno and Hyena Road best depict our contribution through their attention to detail and hard-to-watch reality.
As graphic as photo and film may be, some of the most striking images exposing the world at war are captured with pencil and brush. Many extraordinary works have been completed by both civilian and soldier artists. The subject matter is all encompassing, running the gamut of all things war.
Canada’s contribution has come from some of our most celebrated artists including A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Frederick Varley, original members of the Group of Seven. While commissioned as war artists, they reproduced memorable events connected to the Great War, now housed at our own Beaverbrook Collection of War Art.
Though art is a personal impression, one which gives pause to all is Jack Nichols’ Drowning Sailor. Nichols captures the struggling hopelessness of a terrified seaman. Death is near.
The human destruction brought by war was a recurring theme and few captured its essence better than Mary Riter Hamilton. Unique in her endeavour, Hamilton travelled to the Western Front in 1919 to reproduce battlefield landscapes before they were cleared.
Enduring harsh conditions, Hamilton literally painted on the sites of major Canadian battles, producing the largest collection of Canadian First World War paintings by a single artist. Portrayed in an impressionist style, her works displayed themes of destruction, devastation and renewal. One memorable piece, Trenches on the Somme, has been recognized by Canada Post.
Refusing to sell her work, she gifted some of her paintings to war veterans and donated many others to what is now Library and Archives Canada.
Since time immemorial, public monuments have been erected to commemorate notable individuals or events. As simple as a headstone or obelisk to as elaborate as a statue or memorial, their architecture is artistically designed to reflect the sentiment of an individual, a community or a nation.
Our National War Memorial in Confederation Square, Ottawa, is a tribute to all Canadians who have served in times of war.
Designed by Vernon March, The Response presents 22 bronze figures bursting through a Canadian granite arch surmounted by allegories of peace and freedom. Initially intended to recognize the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who fought in the First World War, it has been rededicated to now include all Canadians killed in all conflicts past and future. In 2000, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added to honour those Canadians who gave their lives for their country.
In everyday Canada we have our local cenotaphs to remind us of these events. Our own Fergus cenotaph carries the names of 68 servicemen, marking their sacrifice. The names of all Canadians who died in service of our country are respectfully ledgered in eight Books of Remembrance historically archived in The Peace Tower’s Memorial Chamber on Parliament Hill. The debit entries are many. The credit entry is but one word – freedom. Richly illustrated and solemnly presented, these tomes stand as poignant national treasures.
It has been said that war begins and ends inside each individual human being who experiences it. Accordingly, those of us who have not known war cannot relate to the physical, mental and emotional toll it extracts.
We, the uninitiated, will always be spectators to the netherworld of war’s barbarity. The disconnect between our notion of warfare and its actuality exists because the assumptions we create are influenced by our daily life experiences.
Consequently, the meaning and significance of these artistic and written works of war have a deeper purpose. They not only serve as touchstones to our national military heritage, but also intrude on all Canadians’ perception and collective memory of these events, regardless of their age or ancestry.
When we look back on our military history from our current vantage point, our vision should be filtered through the eyes of those Canadians who endured. Their horrendous reality is the human focus to our sight of Remembrance.
Identifying with their ordeal is difficult. Acknowledging and respecting it is not. Remember, you are here because they are there.
That is all you need to see.