I’m writing this in October, as I prepare for a November trip to Flanders, Belgium to attend events marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. I did a similar trip in 2015, so I have some idea what to expect.
I’ll see battlefields where the wheel of history turned. I’ll see poignant memorials, marking the spots where thousands of young Canadians died horribly, choking and bleeding, screaming for their mothers. The monuments will be stark and solemn and splendid, monoliths of granite marked with inspiring quotes and names of the fallen: a timeless roster of heroes. Those sites were deeply moving in 2015 and they will no doubt move me again.
When I last visited, it was a few weeks before Remembrance Day, and we had most of the museums, historic sites, and memorials to ourselves. The memory of standing at the site of the bloody Battle of Passchendaele in the early morning mist, without another person in sight, still makes me shiver.
This time will be different. We’ll be there over Remembrance Day; visitors from around the world will throng to every site. Politicians will give heartfelt speeches. Ordinary people will make pilgrimages to honour their ancestors. Flags will flap, anthems will trumpet. There will be talk about the importance of remembering the sacrifices of the people who fought and died.
It will be the same in Halifax and across Canada. People will reflect on the terrible price paid by those First World War soldiers and the men and women who followed them in conflicts across the past century. “Lest we forget” is the theme and it’s most apt. I’d love to be able to write about the lessons we’ve learned since that war ended. How we’ve learned to embrace our differences, to solve conflict with compromise and civility. But we know that’s untrue. The world is a darker place than it’s been in decades. Whole populations are on the move, fleeing conflict and famine. The world’s great democracies are fractured, squabbling with each other and their own citizens. The threat of conflict dominates headlines daily.
As we reflect, 1914 and the war’s beginning is where we should be looking, not the dénouement of 1918. By the time the war had ended, Canada was taking steps towards becoming the progressive liberal democracy it was by the end of that century. Canada was becoming more multicultural, less fearful of outsiders; women were slowly becoming part of civic life, voting and entering politics.
And where are we now? Xenophobia is on the rise. Quebec has just elected a government that threatens to test citizens’ values and reject those it deems unworthy. America, that self-described “shining city on a hill,” strains under a corrupt and authoritarian government that reviles many of its own citizens. Misogyny remains an ugly stain on public discourse. Talk of the global village has given way to ugly tribal nationalism, a need to put our country, our group, ahead of all others.
Looking at Canada and the world today, I see 1914 and the fears and prejudices that sparked history’s bloodiest (to that point) war. I don’t see peace or optimism. I don’t see 1918. Lest we forget? Indeed. But people and their sacrifices are nothing if we don’t remember what they, either by design or by accident, began to build a century ago.
We must remember the hate and inequities that started the war, not just the valour and sacrifice that ended it. Don’t just remember the people who wore uniforms. Remember why they wore them. What they accomplished. What they built for us.
In November, visit halifaxmag.com for Trevor’s Remembrance Day dispatches from Europe.