Three years ago, we lost Canada’s last living veteran of the First World War. John Babcock, of rural Frontenac County (near Kingston), enlisted in 1916 at the tender age of fifteen. He was sent to Europe, but never saw combat. He did, however, witness the psychological toll on soldiers, including two suicides and the mental illness of his brother, who also served.
With the passing of Lance Corporal Babcock, Canada’s last living connection to the horrors of the “Great War” was severed. And the human experience of that time can only be remembered indirectly, through words and thoughts and ceremonies.
This is why Remembrance Day is so important. The First World War was a horrible thing, a conflict begun over honour and nationalist politics rather than one of defence or humanitarian crisis.
Just under a century ago, the best young men of their generation lined up to get involved in what seemed like a chance for glory and to prove their manhood. Instead, many died horribly, in the rain and the muck — gassed, shot, bayonetted, blown up, killed by flu pandemic or drowned in the trenches by the crush of bodies.
This is what needs to be remembered. That war is hell.
As Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae famously wrote,
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Writing early in the war, in memorial to a comrade who died in the Second Battle of Ypres, John McCrae urged people to continue the fight and not break faith with the dead. In the years after Armistice, however, being faithful to those who fought and died for King and Country became more of a reminder to mourn their loss and to work to prevent another war like it. We’re not celebrating war today, we’re observing the peace that was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918
Of course, there were other wars. Many Second World War and Korea veterans are still with us. We honour them and thank them for fighting against aggression and genocide in the world theatre. Just as we honour our veterans of the cold war, UN missions, peacekeeping operations and most recently, Afghanistan. These are the people who can tell you what war really means, and why we all need to work towards peace while still being prepared to make a military stand against tyranny and the abuse of our fellow humans.
At 11:00 this morning, stop and remember. Many people died for the peace that today commemorates. It’s up to all of us to make sure that sacrifice means something to the next generation.
The image used for this post is from the “I Remember” photo gallery at the Veterans Affairs Canada web site.