01 July 2010

The Last Post

There have been seriously conflicting emotions in Newfoundland about 1 July ever since we joined confederation. On 1 July 1867, Canada moved from being a British possession to being a country. Naturally, 1 July is Canada Day - a day to celebrate the country and what it means to be Canadian.

However, Newfoundland sees the date rather differently. On 1 July 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme in the Great War, 801 soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont Hamel in France. The Regiment was almost eradicated in 30 minutes by German crossfire. Yet, despite the mounting numbers of dead and wounded, the Newfoundlanders still fought hard to achieve their impossible objective. “The only visible sign that the men knew they were under this terrific fire,” wrote one observer, “was that they all instinctively tucked their chins into an advanced shoulder as they had so often done when fighting their way home against a blizzard in some little outport in far off Newfoundland.” Over 500 of the 710 casualties died, but as they were being carried to field hospitals, or lying near death, the Newfoundlanders only had one concern: Is the General pleased?

At roll call the following morning, only 68 members of the regiment answered the call. "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." said the Divisional Commander of the Regiment’s effort. For this single action, the Regiment was granted ‘royal’ status. But the cost was huge: a significant portion of the small dominion’s generation.

Naturally, 1 July became Newfoundland’s memorial day. That is, until we joined Canada. Ever since, we have been torn; do we celebrate or mourn?

The answer is, both. Currently, activities on 1 July go as follow: sunrise ceremony making Canada Day, as we are the first province to get dawn. Then, morning activities consist of wreath layings and memorial services. Afternoon reverts to Canada Day celebrations. Every year, though, people complain about this combination.

For me, I see no problem with doing both. Beaumont Hamel must be remembered, marked, reflected upon. But I can guarantee that those who fought on that day, being Newfoundlanders, would have loved an excuse for a good party. Likewise, we should be proud of being Canadians. Canada is a wonderful country. A nation built upon understanding, consensus, compromise, and agreement. Every province joined by signature, not force. This sets the tone for the nation; we work things out, find appropriate solutions, and do not resort to force. Our reaction to those who do take up violence to make their point tends to be swift, harsh, and condemning. As with the FLQ Crisis, Oka, and most recently, the G20 summit, Canadians do not accept violence as a means of protest. If there is any one thing which is likely to unite opinion from coast to coast to coast, it is this. We don’t fight. We work things out.

Which is why the combination of Memorial and Celebration on 1 July makes sense to me. No one can help that 2 very different and very significant events occurred on this date. To relocate one event to another place in the calendar would be to do a disservice to that event. So we mark both, we mourn and remember and party and celebrate. And that’s as it should be.

A final word on The Great War. This is perhaps the most important conflict in human history, yet it is frequently overshadowed by other conflicts, particularly World War II. We would rather remember the second war. Owing to Nazi atrocities, we can safely and comfortably declare that the Allies were not only victors, but just in their victory. Hindsight lets us justify our violence, World War II in Europe clearly had good guys and bad guys and the good guys won. A wonderful epic which has been used by governments ever since to justify sending troops.

The Great War is very different. There is no clear reason for its beginning. It ended with capitulation rather than victory. There was really no right or wrong side, no good or bad, no black or white. Most of the war involved people dying over stretches of land no further than the corner store. Horrible weapons were used: machine guns, gas, flamethrowers. Millions died. And, in the end, nothing was really achieved by either side.

This makes remembering that war very awkward. We don’t like to be confronted with the idea that war may be useless, that we can never achieve anything by force. We desperately want to have faith that fighting will fix things. Negotiating and compromise is hard; fighting an easy default. We want heroes and villains, not a bunch of similar people dying because a monarch or government is unreasonable.

But this is exactly why The Great War is so important: it proves war’s futility. It also proves that we are not so different. Frequently, opposing forces would exchange pleasantries during breaks in the fighting. Troops singing to each other across no-mans-land. Christmas celebrations were enemies met and exchanged gifts, had pictures taken with each other. Post-battle analysis, when commanders would give credit to the enemy for a battle well fought, like teams shaking hands after a game. Soldiers would die and kill for their countries, because that was their role, but, despite the hatred that is inevitable for one who is trying to kill you, soldiers were also able to stand around, shake hands, exchange knowing looks that said, “I don’t know why we’re fighting either.” And this is a very important lesson. Soldiers, men and women, are unique and should be honoured for their ability to answer the call, to risk everything, because we have asked them to do so. But in honouring them, we, as citizens, must ensure that their sacrifice is meaningful and necessary, not dumb and futile. We must watch our governments closely, guard our emotions carefully, and ask if we cannot find a better alternative to combat.

During the Great War, in Gallipoli, Turkey, fighting was intense and fruitless. British forces - among them, Australians, New Zealanders, and Newfoundlanders - tried to force their way uphill and overland, attacking entrenched positions. Above, in the hills, the Turks held the high ground but were under supplied. Fighting was intense, supplies scarce for both forces. Commonwealth troops displayed many acts of bravery, as did the enemy. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkish commander, told his soldiers at the opening engagements of Gallipoli: "I am not giving you an order to attack, but I am ordering you to die!" Which the Turks did in great numbers, their sacrifice buying time for reinforcements to arrive.

Is their sacrifice any less significant than that of the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel? Is it less than those of the ANZACs at Gallipoli? No. And that is most significant - both forces are equally capable of bravery or atrocity, both are human and equal. Is it not true, then, that war should be needless?

In 1934, Ataturk erected a monument for Gallipoli. The inscription read: "Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us, where they lie, side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well." I have not seen any similar tribute, any equal monument, which honours and respects both sides of a conflict. (If you have, e-mail me, please!)

Canada is a nation of settlement, of agreement, the nation which invented peacekeeping. We all fundamentally believe that violence is wrong and that it must stopped, even if we need to become violent to do so. While we mark Canada’s nationhood, it is only fitting that we also reflect on this fact. Newfoundlanders and Canadians all, we should take time today to think about our military, the cost of conflict, and the meaning of the Great War. If you cannot attend a memorial, take time to think, make an effort to learn, search out information on the Somme, play the Last Post on your ipod. One thing is absolutely sure: The first day of the Battle of the Somme did as much to shape Canada as the British North America Act.

And we will remember.

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  1. Interesting article, added his blog to Favorites

  2. Thank you! A very good read, full of truth and thought provoking words in reflection of war.