Canada’s part in World War I began at the same time as Britain’s: on August 4, 1914, when the latter declared war on Germany after what was considered an “insufficient” response by Germany to a British order not to violate Belgium’s neutrality by passing through it en route to France, against whom Germany had declared war just the previous day.
Contrary to Sir Robert Borden’s claims that it was a war “not for lust of conquest, not for greed of possessions”, it was very much a clash of imperial interests. One has only to look at how many of the key players in the whole ungodly mess were emperors, and how many of them had recently annexed territory that wasn’t theirs (Austria-Hungary), or were claiming to “defend” the same, with an eye to annexing it themselves (Romanov Russia). And one has only to look at how many key players lost their emperors around the war’s end to realize that imperialism-disguised-as-honor was a load of bullshit that the common folk of those lands were no longer buying.
And Canada? Well, we’re still wrestling with that one. We’re no longer “Children of Empire”, a phrase that fell out of fashion after the end of the second world war — a war made inevitable by the unsettled animosities of the first, and especially by the ruinous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. But back then, according to official accounts, “our boys” were all gung-ho for king and (distant, overseas) country. There was the usual clichéd appeal to honor and glory on this side of the Atlantic, and Anglo-Canadian enlistees were quick to sign on. (Non-Anglo immigrants and their sons, not so much. Especially not those who happened to be German. Perhaps because theirs was a kind of third-class citizenship to begin with, and because on top of this bigotry, they faced a lot of persecution from snobby twits with English names, and so felt, with justification, that the glorious British imperial cause was not worth dying for? Oh, probably.)
And speaking of clichéd appeals, if you were to have a drinking game based on the use of the word “gallant” (often in conjunction with “little Serbia”) in news and propaganda of the day, you’d have died of alcohol poisoning. The British Empire actually couldn’t have cared less about “gallant little” Serbia back in 1908, when it was first annexed by Kaiser Franz Josef. It was just some barbarous little backwater in the Balkans, its annexation largely ignored for a full five years. And it quickly fell by the wayside in the clash of imperialists, aside from its usefulness as a propagandist’s talking point. After all, you couldn’t sell imperial wars as a “noble cause” if you didn’t have a gallant little thing to squabble over, now, could you?
When I was 18 and obsessively devouring Rilla of Ingleside, a sequel to the Anne of Green Gables books (Rilla being the youngest daughter of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe), I was blown away by all the noble turns of phrase in the passages describing the war. Those phrases, I now know, were not actually the author’s own, but were simply passed along without analysis or criticism. Although L.M. Montgomery was supportive of the war effort in her capacity as a dutiful Presbyterian minister’s wife, she privately agonized and suffered many doubts. Knowing where those howlers come from might not lessen my enjoyment of the overall story (which is, after all, just that of a teenage girl at home, looking on in helpless frustration and fear as her brothers, school chums and boyfriend get caught up in all this imperial background noise), but it kills my willingness to believe that there was anything at all noble about the war. The hearts of the boys and young men who went, yes, they were noble. As were the hearts of the families, friends and girls they left behind. But the emperor-kings and the countries they squabbled over, with no regard whatsoever for the millions of lives their imperialism would cost? Ugh. The wartime saying “lions led by donkeys” is most applicable here.
And frankly, the sheer brutality of the trenches, the barbed wire, the machine guns and the gas-shells is the very opposite of nobility and gallantry, and the destroyer of both. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) got its first official mentions in those days, when it was known as “shell shock” — a bit of a misnomer, since there was a lot more than just shelling to demoralize and destroy the minds of soldiers and civilian casualties alike.
Propaganda initiatives also played a devastating role in the barbarity, ushering in the modern era of psychological warfare. One of the most ignoble of these was the White Feather campaign, in which the “manhood” of those reluctant to enlist and fight was impugned, and women were brainwashed (by a British admiral, no less) into doing the impugning. (The irony of a big, brave man of the elites sending women to do his warmongering work of calling frightened lower-class boys sissies should not be lost on anyone. Neither should that of upper-class suffragists being man-talked into abandoning their work of campaigning for the vote in order to promote a most undemocratic, sexist and classist imperial war!)
While World War I may have given Canada an opportunity to prove its collective mettle (especially at Vimy Ridge, where Canadians notably triumphed after British and French forces both failed), I tend now to regard it as an opportunity largely lost. This country could have gone the same way as Germany and Russia in throwing off the yoke of royalty and empire, and it still has not. And we have been dragged into every bloody mess our “commonwealth” overlords have made ever since. In that sense, the real fight hasn’t ended yet…even now, 100 years after the first time we got dragooned into one of Britain’s imperial disasters. Our democracy and institutions are poorer for it.
Where our collective mettle has done much more for us, it has tended to be in peacetime, at home, and with challenges to the human-rights abuses of our colonial elites. The patriation of our constitution in 1982, along with the attachment of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, was the real marker of our coming of age. And yet our so-called government will not honor or even recognize it, preferring instead to point back to the myth of Vimy Ridge while trampling human rights here and now. We still have so much work to do on this front, and it won’t be glamorous. No bugles will call us to this battle from “sad shires”, only the increasingly atomized and isolated voices of the powerless. And I fear that they will not be heard.
I am bracing myself for a fresh onslaught of “patriotic” tripe about how we “came into our own” 100 years ago when we answered a distant foreign call to war in the affirmative, instead of standing up in opposition to it, like a country that has truly come of age. Once I used to believe the noble lie; no longer. And I’m not holding my breath for much in the way of serious analysis. If there is one thing that “noble” and “gallant” propaganda does very well, it is to drown out all criticism of empires and the twits who run them.