Remembering the War of 1914

by Jim Clifford on November 13, 2012

Vimy Ridge Memorial – Dedication Ceremony

By Jim Clifford

It is very strange to celebrate the start of a war. Nonetheless, this is exactly what we have done here in Canada over the past year. The War of 1812 spanned from June of 1812 through to February of 1815, but this did not stop our government from starting their celebrations of the “Fight for Canada” during the 200th anniversary of the first months of the war. Perhaps they felt the need to keep the schedule open to celebrate the start of another war in 2014.

Canadians commemorate the end of the First World War yearly on Remembrance Day (November 11th), and with memorials, from Vimy Ridge to village cenotaphs. These monuments and sites of remembrance generally bring a somber tone, focus on the sacrifices of war and provide limited space to celebrate the glories of victory.

I hope that any additional events and publicity will bring the same tone, but considering the fanfare for the War of 1812 and the historically dubious claims that we stood side by side and “won the fight for Canada,” I worry that we’ll face an even bigger celebration of Canada’s role in World War One. The United Kingdom government recently announced plans to spend £50,000,000 to commemorate the war starting in 1914 and the Australian government has budgeted $83,500,000. Assuming the Canadian government will spend a similar sum of money, the question remains: Which First World War will we commemorate?

Was it a wasteful and fruitless effort that left millions dead and resolved little? Or was it “a forgotten victory” and a necessary effort to halt German aggression? Did anyone win the war or were there simply different degrees of losers? Was all the death necessary or did the aristocratic generals carelessly throw away hundreds of thousands of lives in their battles of attrition? Was the victory at Vimy Ridge really the ultimate birth of our nation (nudging out 1812 and 1867)?

In Britain, negative view of war, presented by poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon during and after the war and by numerous historians throughout much of the twentieth century, has come under attack by a group of British revisionists historians. General Haig has new defenders and these historians argue the British, and their allies, were justified in standing up to German aggression to protect liberty and democracy (see Sheffield and Todman).

Unlike Britain’s poetic and historical traditions of denouncing the senseless slaughter, Canada’s war myth is significantly more positive. We focus on Vimy Ridge, the victories of the final one hundred days of the war and the superior quality of our general. Some recent scholarship has argued for a reexamination of these positive interpretations of the war (see Hayes and Sharpe). Other historians refute this revisionist trend and continue to defend the uniquely Canadian competence during the war (see Cook).

Dealt with in all their complexity, these are important historical debates and when I teach the history of Britain and the First World War to university students, I present both sides of the debate. I am worried, however, about one sided and simplistic perspectives being presented in a 30 second fake movie trailer.

We have reached a point in history where there are no veterans of the First World War still living and the numbers from the Second World War are declining. This creates a new distance between the conflicts and young Canadians. Many will worry that it increases our chances of forgetting the sacrifices of those who fought and I’m sure we’ll hear “lest we forget” repeated endlessly. This transition also increases the chances that the tone of remembrance might shift from somber reflection to celebrating victories. Veterans, with complex, ambivalent and sometime negative memories of the events, were a powerful restraint on myth-making and on the political misuse of the war.

From a very personal perspective, I feel a lot more invested in resisting the misappropriation of our commemoration of the First World War to bolster a warrior nation narrative. Claiming that the War of 1812 was a “Fight for Canada” is silly and not particularly effective, as so few Canadians are at all engaged with this distant conflict. The First World War, on the other hand, was very important in the development of many Canadian’s historical consciousness. From elementary school Remembrance Day assemblies, to family stories of lost uncles and shell shocked great grandfathers, and high school or undergraduate history courses, all help Canadians formulated their understanding of twentieth century history. Hopefully this means much of the public will already have some opinions on the war and this will limit the effectiveness of propaganda efforts to recast this complicated history as a moment of nationalistic triumph.

[I would like to thank Brian MacDowall for helping understand the current state of the Canadian historical literature, which I in turn have overly simplified. This would be a great topic for an ActiveHistory.ca paper.]

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Valerie Deacon November 13, 2012 at 11:16 am

I enjoyed reading your post, Jim. – you ask some really important questions. I would encourage you to think a little more about the fact that the sentence ‘Lest we forget’ is the first part in a two part sentiment…WWI was supposed to be the ‘War to end all Wars’. So, even when it has (and is) venerated by those who are rather more militaristic and bombastic than we are, there is very little denying that the commemoration of the war carries within it a seed of pacifism -even when people argue that it was a ‘good’ war. And, perhaps even more importantly, this element of WWI is commonly taught to our youth – certainly in Canada and the US (I am not so sure about GB??). Because of all this, I actually think that 1914 is a much complicated date to commemorate (than, say, 1812) – as you point out in the blog. But you might do well to explain further why you think a population that has always been fed a semi-pacific narrative of the war will be swayed by any new propaganda efforts of the CDN government. Even with the death of veterans, this war simply can’t do what 1812 can do. Part of the reason for this (in my most humble opinion) is that revisionist historians can try to make their mark, but the visual historical record for this conflict is such that the frailty of human life and the suffering endured by veterans simply cannot be denied. 1812 can be twisted to act in whatever way the government wants because we have no conception of its horrors and no visuals to remind us. I certainly didn’t learn anything substantive about it in school (though this might feed into the clear difference between people who went to French schools vs. people who went to English schools).
Anyways, these are just a few thoughts.

Dew89 November 13, 2012 at 11:28 am

What is with the title? War of 1914? No historian has ever labelled this particular conflict the War of 1914.

I think this article is a great first thrust into looking into the fact that the Government of Canada decided to fund a bunch of substandard projects (funding museums in tory-friendly ridings, printing more Parks Canada pamphlets, and creating historically inaccurate Heritage Minutes) on the War of 1812. Despite what Harper and the Tories want us to believe, a conflict that killed only 10,000 combatants (most due to disease), was not a conflict for the freedom of Canada. It is interesting to note that during the centenary celebrations (1912) Canada celebrated a hundred years of peace and friendship – now, the American friendly Harper wants to portray the Americans as aggressors in 1812. I suppose the Conservative government has never heard of patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Heritage Canada would have been much better spent recognizing the Centenary of Great War. During the conflict Canada contributed 620,000 men out of a country of 7.4 million people. Over 140,000 were wounded, and over 60,000 died. Modern Canada was born in this conflict, the rift between English and French Canada were ripped open in 1917 after the conscription crisis, women were given the vote during the war, and Canada became an international player in WW1 (sending troops to fight communism, Forcing the British Hand in Greece) and taking an active role in British Commonwealth foreign strategy.

Unfortunately, I think that in this period of austerity, there will be no money for any focus on Canada in the Great War.

Jim Clifford November 19, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Thanks for the comments. The title was intended to draw a comparison between the War of 1812 and the First World War and was not intended to suggest we use it as the new label for this conflict.

Maurice Robson November 23, 2012 at 1:02 am

I was a child living in London, England, during WWII, and I have always been interested in history. So in the late 40′s I would ask my parents, relatives, even teachers about “The Great War” (WWI) but I could never get any coherent answers. When I was old enough I would go to the Imperial War Museum in Central London and they still had all their WWI exhibits intact. Britain was bankrupt in the 40′s and did not have the money to upgrade the exhibits. So I learned quite a lot about The Great War at the museum.

It was some years later, that I realized why people were so reticent about WWI: It was so horrific that nobody wanted to talk or even think about it. WWI was a war of men. WWII was a war of machines.

Don Wilcox February 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Don Wilcox Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 63, Collingwood Military Museum
This information is a help as we are working on a display that remembers WW1. If anyone out there wants to loan us some artifacts we would appreciate it. Contact museum@collingwoodlegion.ca

Leave a Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: