The Cost and the Legacy

The Cost and the Legacy

Posted on November 9 by Roger Gunn in News, Non-fiction
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As we pause to remember, on November 11, 2018, the centenary of the end of World War One, we should reflect upon not only the incredible bravery of those who fought in that conflict, its overall cost  and the war’s legacy to future generations of Canadians.

One hundred years later it is hard to imagine the conditions under which the men and women involved in the war went through, whether it was the crash of shell fire and the mud of the trenches or whether it was the blood and cries of anguish as nursing sisters ministered to the wounded in casualty clearing stations behind the lines.

It was truly a world war. Battles were fought in three continents and on the high seas. Six continents sent soldiers, sailors or airmen. By the time the armistice was signed, all the countries involved in the conflagration had suffered over ten million war dead. In 1914 the entire population of Canada was less than eight million people. More than the equivalent of the entire population of Canada perished in the war. Of the 425,000 Canadian men and women who served overseas, over 61,000 were killed and 138,000 were wounded, some blinded by gas, others missing limbs as a result of shell and machine gun fire. The casualty rate was unheard of compared to any other time in history. At Vimy Ridge alone, on Easter weekend 1917, there were over 10,000 Canadian casualties. At the battle of Passchendaele, in October and November 1917 Canadians suffered over 16,000 casualties.  

These battles saw Canadian Divisions fighting side by side and, in the case of Passchendaele, under a Canadian commander, General Arthur Currie. They created a sense of Canadian patriotism amongst the troops who fought there. Canada was coming into its own as a nation.

The Vimy Memorial, unveiled in 1936, bears witness to the fallen Canadians in that battle but has become, in many ways, a shrine to Canadian independence. It is symbolic of the birth of the Canadian nation. Canada participated in the post war negotiations with Germany resulting in the Treaty of Versailles. Canada was a signatory to that treaty, recognition she was a sovereign nation.

In many ways World War One was a revolutionary war because by its end warfare had been drastically changed. The advances in submarine warfare, the use of tanks and aeroplanes, artillery and machine guns made killing much more efficient than ever before.

By the armistice, four great empires had fallen. The Russian revolution led to the collapse of Czarist Imperial Russia. The Habsburg Empire of Austro-Hungary was carved up as a result of the Treaty of Versailles. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to Holland leading to the creation of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the Ottoman Empire fell like a house of cards by the end of the war. All that remained of it was what is now present day Turkey.

The treaty forced Germany to pay millions in reparations when she could least afford to. Germany struggled in the post war era like all combatant nations did. The seeds of the Second World War grew out of the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles. Adding to the negative impact of the treaty was the great influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, known as the Spanish Flu. Some estimates place the number of dead, caused by the influenza, at twenty million, double the number who died as a result of the war. Returning soldiers, if they survived the flu epidemic, had to find jobs.  Some took up the Canadian government’s offer of free land for farming. Some returned to their pre-war employment while others, who had lost limbs or their sight, could not. Many suffered from the after effects of war, known today as PTSD. The nightmares, the depression and the isolation led many to drink, jeopardising the jobs they had.

The war to end all wars was such a devastating one that never again would those affected by it partake in another one. Many in Europe and North America felt that way. This pacifist element of society in the western world fed into expansionist plans of Nazi Germany, allowing Hitler to conquer nations of Europe with ease, precipitating the Second World War.

So when we reflect back on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, let us think not only of the horrible cost of war, but how the sacrifices of Canadians long ago helped create the Canada we live in today.

Roger Gunn

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
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Roger Gunn

Roger Gunn is the author of Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight, the first comprehensive biography of Canada's second-highest-scoring ace in the First World War. Roger lives in Edmonton.