Sunday 11 November 2018

A Sad Happy Anniversary or a Happy Sad Anniversary?

Great-grandmother Florence is why we're short.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and also the 100th anniversary of Polish independence. This makes it a happy day for the Poles, who can spend it marching, eating, and squabbling about what Poland should be, but a sad day for just about everyone else I know. (In case anyone resents the fact Poland's independence was the byproduct of a war that cost millions of foreign lives, I'll point out that the Poles had to fight the Russians to keep it five months later.)

The First World War was otherwise a civilisational catastrophe, destroying a large part of a generation of  young men from the British Empire and Western Europe, impoverishing millions, ending many ancient Catholic monarchies, and shaking the world's faith in a good God. It also led to the destruction of countless historic buildings, even in the United Kingdom, because here relentless "death duties" (super-tax) on the landed class led to the razing of priceless country homes bereaved families could no longer afford to pay tax on. 

(Say you are the 9th Duke of X, and you lead your regiment to battle. You die childless, so your brother, the 10th Duke, pays your death duties. But he's also in the regiment, so he dies too. His eldest son, the 16 year old 11th Duke, pays the death duties on his father, and then goes into battle two years later. And so on. Even if you do not care about the English and Scottish aristocracy, you might care about the houses. The reason the National Trust and then the National Trust for Scotland were founded was to preserve the nations' architectural patrimony. )   

In Canada, whole villages were depopulated of men. Per capita, the First World War did more damage to our nation than the Second World War.  And although we can agree we had to fight the Second World War, there was no authentically compelling reason to fight the First World War. The Belgians may disagree, of course. However, the First World War led inexorably to the Second World War, and the number of deaths of soldiers in both these wars, let alone the civilian casualties, is much more than the current population of Belgium. 

My Scottish-Canadian great-grandfather didn't have to fight. He was over 30 and had a wife and four children in 1914.  However, he was so sickened by stories of the German invasion of Belgium, that he signed up. His regiment was at Vimy Ridge, whose name, to a certain kind of Canadian, has all the power of Henry V's "St Crispin's Day" speech.

When I was in elementary school, the Canada-is-Multicultural mind-set hadn't quite entirely replaced the infant nationalism that was born (I was taught) of Vimy Ridge. Before that, Canadians were just happy to be fortunate members of the British Empire (went the narrative). But by September 11, 1918, we were much more CANADIAN and a lot less British (especially the millions of those monolingual French-speaking British). 

This sense of being CANADIAN fell apart in the 1960s, when the intelligentsia started asking "What is a Canadian?" and a sense that whatever it was, it could not exclude anyone or anything, began to take hold. But that is a different story about a different era. For now all I'll say is that my interest in Polish nationalism (for example) comes from the sense (or mythos) that for the fifty years following November 11, 1918, Canadians were a people--a weird bilingual people, but a people all the same.  Like the Belgians.


  1. Certainly it was one of the great disasters to befall western civilization in the last 500 years, along with the French revolution and the reformation. We've never quite regained our self confidence, even after 100 years.

  2. No....and, worse, we've turned out backs on the strengths of "Victorianism."