Monday, April 09, 2007


Solemn ceremonies were held today at Vimy Ridge, France, to mark the taking of a seemingly impregnable German-held position on the battlefields of World War I, by the combined forces of a Canadian army regarded, up until that moment, as a mere colonial adjunct to its British brethren. Most Canadians (who can remember) regard the taking of Vimy Ridge as the birth of Canada as a sovereign nation with a place in the accounting of world affairs.

At the centre of today's ceremonies stood Canada's queen (yes, she still is), Elizabeth II, and her gold-braided prince consort, flanked by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (the best thing to happen to the Canadian military in the better part of 20 years), and Vermin-in-Residence, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villain-pants, whom the Queen greeted graciously, without a hint of awareness that major cooties were being served up.

There are but two Canadian veterans of World War I -- The Great War -- still living (neither of whom served in combat), and Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute, wonders whether the rest of Canada is in danger of becoming a "nation of amnesiacs" when it comes to remembering the triumphs and sacrifices of past generations. A question to be asked, about most nations in what we call "the West."

Canadian troops now fighting the Taliban in Af
ghanistan paused to remember the feats of Vimy Ridge today, in the shadow of the death-by-IED of six of their comrades yesterday. And still some fool on CTV blathered on about how "things were different back at Vimy Ridge"-- because "that was total war." Perhaps he should take a closer look at the world map and mark the global reach of decades of Islamofascist terrorism. Tell the people of Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines (just to name a few) that what we face in the 21st century is not a brand of total war. Amnesia indeed.

Some years ago, Belgian musicians began a little "peace movem
ent" of their own based around the extraordinary amount of music which emerged from the Great War-- music that has always been considered a mark of the innocence with which the West entered into that "home-by-Christmas" scuffle, to emerge four years and 20 million dead (military and civilian) later, ushering in an age of desparate decadence and arid disillusionment which T.S. Eliot called a "Wasteland."

The Belgians established the "Peace Concerts Passendale" in 1992, later joined by a contingent of British folk-singers (of my acquaintance-- Coope, Boyes and Simpson), who have continued their participation annually. They have revived interest in remarkable songs and touching recollections that cannot fail to move the listener, and I'm always grateful to hear their work.

If I have a quibble about what these fine folks are up to, it is that deploring the conduct and circumstances of the Great War is basically a no-brainer. Most people who know anything about it are quite ready to pronounce it probably the most foolish and pointless and miserably-commanded war ever fought. (At least that has been the conventional wisdom for much of the last century-- one hears of a few historians who have begun to re-evaluate that position.)

But there is something very facile about automatically projecting the justified condemnation o
f a particular war onto the conduct of all wars everywhere, when the facts and circumstances of history do not suggest a legitimate parallel. Indignation on behalf of an exploited Tommy in 1914 is not reflexively transferrable to other soldiers in all other times and places. Perhaps, if the conventional wisdom is true, one would be hard-pressed to find a legitimate parallel to the Great War anywhere, ever.

There is hardly a voice left now to tell us how it was in 1917 (no Canadian veteran of the taking of Vimy survives). Not so long ago, there were many. Years back, I set down my own recollection of these men. I could never get anyone interested in publishing it (I did try!), but today seems like a
s good a day as any to drag it out again:


Victorians (British Columbia variety) have a number of cute sayings about their city which you pick up if you live there for awhile, as I did in the early 70’s. "Victoria: home of the newly wed and the nearly dead… The place where old people go to visit their parents.”

The epithets are fitting—a lot of people go to Victoria to retire. After the global wars of this century it became a popular choice among the military, with a special attraction for British ex-pats. They found it a little taste of “forever England,” with a mild climate and an abundance of flowers. They could see Union Jacks in every shop window, take High Tea at the Empress Hotel, and be sure of finding like-minded company.

Those of us ensconced at the university had little taste for High Tea and old townies.
But we did occasionally share some of the better watering holes with the locals. It was in one such establishment that we experienced a brief but unforgettable bridging across the generations.

Our spring theatre production was a musical, of sorts. Not the tap-dancing, boy-meets-girl genre, but a bitterly satirical music-hall pastiche about the horrors of World War I, called Oh! What A Lovely War. We went at it with all the zeal of smug twenty-somethings out to teach their elders the folly of their handling of the world, confident that we would have done better had we stood at the edge of that abyss.

The show casts a searing spotlight on the posturing commanders who sit at desks and send teen-aged boys by the
millions into the unspeakable hell of the trenches, while the ordinary citizens of both sides demonize their enemy in identical terms. The stage directions require some device for displaying the mounting body count, like a telethon total board, as the play progresses. But the glue that holds the sketches together is music— the songs that were on every Englishman’s lips throughout the whole ordeal. Some are parodies of popular songs and hymns, but even these parodies date from the wartime period.

They are great songs, perfect for a pub sing-along, like the one we were gearing up for one post-performance night. We hadn’t paid much attention to the table of old “geezers” nearby when we arrived, nor they to us at first—just kids laughing too loudly, as kids will do. But then we started to sing.

Soon one of the old boys turned to watch us.
Then he gestured to his friends, and they too stopped talking and took note. I wondered whether they were going to complain about us, but between songs we saw that they were smiling and offering soft applause. When we acknowledged their appreciation, one of them spoke to us. “You’re so young,” he said. “How do you know our songs?”

It dawned on u
s then that these were veterans of the “war to end all wars.” Far from being annoyed, they were stunned, and touched— we had caused them to sit up a little straighter, proud that what they had endured for their country had not been forgotten. We explained that we had learned the songs from our show about the war. They were delighted, and encouraged us to continue, their lips moving quietly to the words as we sang. Clearly they had never expected such a scene again in their lifetime.

We waved goodbye when the evening broke up; they thanked us for the concert. And I remember that even then, though too young to fully appreciate the meaning of the encounter, I still felt a little ashamed. The only reason we knew “their songs” was because we were engaged in an exercise whose message was that their war, with its incalculable cost, had been a thing not worth doing.

The common soldier actually comes off sympathetically in Oh! What A Lovely War. He is the victim of the grandiose schemes of an officer class which has command over him not because of training or talent, but more likely because the “right” families and the “right” schools gave them the connections to get a commission. The war effort as a whole is seen as a pageant of pointless blundering.But even if that picture were true, could our old drinking companions be anything but wounded by it? I secretly hoped that none of them would make the mistake of coming to our play, only to be handed a rebuke they hadn’t earned.

It was easy for us. We were just young enough to have been marginally touched by the Southeast Asian war which had made patriotism unfashionable. We were arrogant enough to think that the nature and experience of war were somehow different for our generation, that the rules had all changed. We thought our uniquely troubled society had invented “post-traumatic stress disorder” —little realizing that the geezers had called it “shell-shock,” and hadn’t known whether to treat it or punish it.

The old boys of 1970’s Victoria are gone now, sleeping under that abundance of flowers that still blesses the city. The next generation of old boys are my father’s age, the veterans of the second war—a war more sensibly conducted, in a more noble cause, but with every bit as complex a human story behind the maps, movies, and capsule histories. It is our task to teach succeeding generations that some things are worth fighting for, but that not every ideological or territorial dispute is fated to degenerate into killing. When armed conflict seems unavoidable, however, the “brass” are duty-bound to see that those burdened with the horrible front-line task of taking the lives of others are not left to feel ashamed of the part they played.

If the doughboys thought it was a long way from Tipperary to France, it was even longer to Victoria. And how surprised they were to find that, more than 60 years later, the home fires were being kept burning by a bunch of university kids in a pub. I hope none of them ever discovered that we were using their songs to bring the judgement of history freshly down upon them. They didn’t deserve that. They did deserve to be moved by what they saw as our tribute to them. And they deserve whatever honour it gives them that a bridge built across the generations for half an hour in a pub still moves me, to this day.