Remembrance Day

Lest we forget the Great War's pacifist legacy

Anti-war histories have been pushed to the margins of Remembrance Day
Photo: Owen Benson

“War can so easily be gilt with romance and heroism and solemn national duty and patriotism and the like by persons whose superficial literary and oratorical talent covers an abyss of Godforsaken folly.” – George Bernard Shaw, Common Sense About the War

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As the demand for red poppies breaks records across the country, Canadians are commemorating the sacrifices of our Armed Forces on the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. A solemn anniversary though it is — 16 million people died from 1914 to 1918, 58,000 of them Canadian — the date is always portentous.

Canada’s military prestige was solidified, albeit at a tremendous human cost, in the trenches of France. Our soldiers braved shelling, poison gas and bayonets in an attritional conflict where the front line did not move more than 100 kilometres. The Battle of Vimy Ridge is commonly recalled as the moment when Canada came of age, the bombed-out hill the place upon which this nation’s soldiers gained international recognition.

Canadians, of course, were involved in many other significant engagements throughout the twentieth century and continue to exert a presence in various corners of the globe. One Royal Canadian Legion spokesperson linked this particular day to Canada’s ongoing entanglements in the Middle East:

“It’s everything from the operations and the end of the war in Afghanistan this year, to the current [airborne bombing] operations against ISIS,” he said. “And then, obviously, the lone-wolf homegrown terrorism aspect.”

Indeed, the perennial holiday has many meanings to different people. The little red poppy, on the one hand, is a thoughtful and apolitical memento to many. The sale of poppies contributes to the long-term care of elderly veterans and counselling services, representing a discreet salute to those who perished at war.

To others Remembrance Day is a political event, an opportunity to blend sensitive memories with renewed patriotism to galvanize support for missions against new enemies in far-flung places. In the lead-up to this year’s centenary, for example, the Conservative government announced plans to erect more than 200 replica LAV IIIs — the Canadian-made armoured vehicle deployed with mechanized infantry since 1999 — as monuments to Canada’s war in Afghanistan. The replicas will be delivered to communities at a cost of up to $20,000. They will memorialize a symbol of an unpopular war, one from which veterans continue to return without adequate funding to treat their post-traumatic stress and other mental health disorders.

It is through triumphalism that war is commonly understood. Narratives of victory, the fight of good against evil — not the horrors of industrial killing, the plight of veterans and injustices we needn’t repeat — enter mandatory school curricula and pervade the popular imagination.

Voices of peace are too often marginalized and pushed to the periphery of alternative histories.

Conversely, voices of peace are too often marginalized and pushed to the periphery of alternative histories. Remembrance Day must be a commemoration of all sacrifice in the face of war. Survival, courage and heroism, after all, have many different faces.

When the Military Service Act was signed in 1917, introducing conscription, deep scars within Canadian society painfully reopened. Prime Minister Robert Borden had campaigned on a promise never to introduce mandatory military service, and by breaking it he instigated two days of fierce violence in Montreal. A demonstrator was killed in Philips Square, rail lines were uprooted and store windows smashed. Violence intensified again on Easter weekend the following year when four unarmed civilian protesters were killed by a cavalry regiment in Quebec City.

Canada’s francophone communities already felt disconnected from Britain and Canada’s larger role in the war, compounding frustrations that still festered since the banning of French in Ontario schools four years earlier. Borden’s introduction of the Military Service Act in the House of Commons was opposed by almost every French-speaking member, but passed with relative ease. French Canada saw this as a victory for imperialism, a rude imposition that would have lasting political significance for generations.

Where the conscription crisis of 1917 reflected profound French–English animosity, elsewhere it became the focal point of a nascent pacifist tradition of historic nonresistance and non-participation. Contrary to popular folklore and public memory, the First World War faced immense pressures from religious groups, humanitarians and sectarian radicals of the working underclass. They opposed industrial warfare, experimentation with new military technologies such as the machine gun and anti-intellectual jingoism.

Two distinct traditions formed Canada’s wartime peace movement: Separational and integrational pacifism. The former, represented by Mennonite and Hutterite religious groups, was perceived as including social radicals and miscreants. Their state-recognized religious freedom, however, granted them exemption from military service as conscientious objectors.

There was no allowance, however, for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists or even Tunkers who periodically faced charges of treason and served time in prison. The latter included Quakers, Protestants and other liberal pacifist minorities, including the Methodist James Shaver “J.S.” Woodsworth.

Woodsworth attempted to integrate the philosophies of pacifism with broader social democratic and secularist principles, promoting international arbitration and conciliation as diplomatic tools to end the conflict. He was a fierce critic of conscription and later broke with the Methodist church over its eventual promotion of the war effort. Nevertheless, he spearheaded Canada’s peace movement in Ontario and constructed the political foundations of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. He would become its first leader in 1932.

In Witness Against War: Pacifism in Canada 1900-1945, former University of Toronto professor Thomas Socknat writes, “Unlike most peace advocates as well as the large number of Quebec men who resisted the war effort basically by hiding from authorities, conscientious objectors exercised the ultimate in pacifist dissent. Directly challenged by conscription, these young men steadfastly refused to undertake military service, regardless of the consequences, thereby setting an important precedent for Canadian pacifists in the future.”

Julia Grace Wales was perhaps the most vigilant and prominent female Canadian pacifist during the Great War. Raised Presbyterian, Wales wrote many articles expressing her moral, religious and indeed political reservations about war and patriotism. A professor of English literature at the University of Wisconsin, she was disturbed by reports and letters of carnage from the front lines.

Clear about the immorality and malfeasance of the war, she published her views in the Wisconsin Plan (originally called the Continuous Mediation Without Armistice) in February 1915. The 15-page document proposed the assembly of a delegation of neutral countries, led by the United States, to mediate between the warring nations and draft peace proposals designed to not humiliate or degrade any one of them. It was a desperate appeal for peace in a precarious stage of “impartiality.”

“Such has been our second flight into the realm of the imagination; and we return to Earth to find the neutral nations though not apathetic, though eager to mediate when the belligerents shall be willing to to pause, yet in the meantime officially silent. We find public opinion, though roused, unorganized and ineffective. We find the people, though full of compassion, paralyzed by a sense of futility of trying to stem the tide of disaster that threatens to overwhelm the Western world.”

Wales’ proposal was eventually presented to the U.S. Congress, where it garnered interest from President Woodrow Wilson. However, the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat three months later, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 passengers, crippled any chance of it succeeding. Despite the efforts of Wales, the tenets of neutrality, peace and mediation withered under the shadow of emotional response.

Governments continue their submission to base emotional responses not dissimilar to those which sent young men to war 100 years ago.

The Wisconsin Plan reflects lucidly the political difficulty of preaching peace and non-violence in periods of fervent militarism. One does not have to pile through the archive very long to find recent examples: the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the 2011 coalition intervention in Libya, the ongoing mission against ISIS. Each has been met with anti-war, humanist criticism. Each time, however, it is confined to the periphery of news media and categorized as “alternative” or “radical,” effectively isolating its wider political appeal and engagement. Governments, meanwhile, continue their submission to base emotional responses not dissimilar to those which sent young men to war 100 years ago.

This Remembrance Day let us commemorate those throughout history who fought, survived and perished. May we never forget those voices of peace whose clarity of mind and conviction must not be neglected or belittled, but rather taught and cultivated. Above all else, let us educate our children about the many faces of heroism and always cherish the value of peace in the face of war.

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