I recently listened to a Manitoba Member of Parliament offer his narrative on the meaning of the Great War. He affirmed that the soldiers of the lost generation went into combat to preserve the Canadian values of “freedom, democracy, and the rule of law”. This is a familiar refrain from many politicians, including our Prime Minister. I wish to challenge this notion. I think it is important to look at another version of this history for a couple of reasons.
For one, no serious military historian would accept this version of the Great War without a generous sprinkling of caveats and footnotes. The second is that the glorification of the First World War is a popular theme with many politicians. This concerns me, especially when the community I live in recently participated in a flag waving contest sponsored by our Member of Parliament. Flag waving arm chair warriors preaching about the lessons of World War One make me nervous. History doesn’t offer lessons. It offers precedents that we evaluate and consider. What was the actual legacy of the Great War for Canadians?

Canadians did not “flock to the flag”. Two-thirds of the first Canadian soldiers to arrive in France in 1914 were born in Britain. Nearly half of all our serving military members in the Great War were from the British Isles; yet they comprised only 10% of Canada’s population. Most Canadians eligible to fight did not volunteer for the war. Of the 400 000 conscripts called up in January 1918, 94% of them requested exemptions from military service. And finally, World War One was not a fight for democracy against German dictators. By 1914 Germany had extended the franchise to a greater proportion of its citizens than Great Britain. Prior to the war, overtly anti-militarist Socialist parties held 35% of the vote in Germany. In Great Britain, these same parties held only 6% of the vote. The assertion that the war was a popular one with noble aims just doesn’t ring true.

At war’s end Asian-Canadians, Inuit, and First Peoples were effectively barred from participating in elections. The rift between English-Canada and French-Canada widened over conscription, sowing the seeds for notions like separatism. The 1919 amendments to the Naturalization Act actually made it more difficult for foreigners to immigrate to Canada. Entrance to Canada could be denied if the persons entering Canada held “peculiar customs, habits, modes of life and methods of holding property” contrary to the norm. This was a handy way to punish “undesirables” like the 4000 Ukrainians put into prison camps during the war, and a further 80 000 labeled as “enemy aliens”. It is also important to note that soldiers from reserves were treated poorly, being largely excluded from the Soldier Settlement Act, War Veteran’s Allowance Act, and the Last Post Fund. The last exclusion is particularly galling as it was created to ensure that dead veterans were not interred in unmarked graves.
Ukrainian veteran Filip Konowal, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, ended his war with brain damage and a job cleaning toilets in the House of Commons. Francis Pegahmagabow, decorated three times for gallantry in the face of the enemy, was labeled a “mental case” by Indian agents for daring to question the relationship between his reserve and the Government. Tom Longboat, in 1914 the “fastest marathon runner in the world”, served his country in the very dangerous job of dispatch runner. He spent his post-war days as a street sweeper in Toronto. Glory on the battlefield did not translate into glory at home.

The Great War story floated by our government doesn’t exist. If the war had genuinely improved the relationship between the government and its citizens we might rightly say the war created a new Canada founded on the democratic principles of freedom and democracy. It didn’t. For me, the lesson of the Great War is a simple one; be wary of politicians holding flag waving contests.

The Brooks family, England, circa 1908. My grandfather is the youngest in the photograph. His brother Cecil is at his right.

The Brooks family, England, circa 1908. My grandfather is the youngest in the photograph. His brother Cecil is at his right.

Cecil Brooks, Winnipeg, circa 1917. Enlisting underage, he was wounded in 1917. Sent back into combat he was killed near Amiens in the summer of 1918. He was 19 years old.

Cecil Brooks, Winnipeg, circa 1917. Enlisting underage, he was wounded in 1917. Sent back into combat he was killed near Amiens in the summer of 1918. He was 19 years old.

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2 Responses

  1. Sheldon

    It may well have been the dumbest war ever fought – & that’s saying something. I’m just grateful my grandfather came back from it alive after having been wounded twice.
    This is not meant to diminish the courage & the sacrifice made by those who served. Certain wars have been necessary for the preservation of freedoms & great ideals. This was not one of those wars – it was an unnecessary, horrific bloodbath for all involved.
    It is right to honor the memories of those who served in The Great War. It is not right to sanctify the myth of it being a war that advanced any notion of freedoms or ideals. When historical blunders are made, they should be owned up to – preferably by those who made them, but, if not (&, may I add, sadly, usually not) then certainly by the succeeding generations. Historical myth making is not just erroneous in & of itself – it is a lie. And lies about history have been proven to lead to dire & dangerous consequences further on down the line. One need look no further than the Iraq War & its many parallels to the Vietnam War.

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  2. Carol

    Your grandmother’s half-brother, Leslie Thompson, was in the war, too. He was drafted by the US Army in North Dakota, even though as a Canadian he was supposedly not eligible. After the war, he was a railroad telegraph operator in Oklahoma.

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