Reporter: Chris Burrows
We shall grow old, and tainted with the rotten effluvia of the peace we fought to win, the bright deeds of our youth will be forgotten, effaced by later failure, sloth, or sin.
This is an excerpt from Bernard Freeman Trotter’s poem, Ici Repose (Here Lies). Born in Toronto, Trotter served with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) during the First World War until he was killed in 1917. And even though he never made it home to witness the treatment Canadian soldiers endured from their own government, friends and families, what Trotter wrote seems almost prophetic for the time.
This August marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War. We will be reminded of the honourable stories of heroism of our great-grandfathers. We will learn about the strength and fortitude the Canadians had that helped our new, undisciplined army hold the line while our allies fled during the first gas attacks at Ypres. We will hear about the Canadians taking Vimy Ridge when no one else could – some historians believing this was when Canada became a nation. And then there was Passchendaele where, according to J. L. Granatstein, author of Hell’s Corner an Illustrated History of Canada’s Great War, a man could fall in the mud and never be seen again.
These battles, and all those before and after, gave Canada’s army elite status amongst their allies and a reputation with German troops as a force to be feared. But the reaction our great-grandfathers received when they returned home was not one you would expect for an army that garnered such fear and respect from their enemies.
This is something we need to remember about the First World War, the war the soldiers faced at home. In hindsight it’s easy to see why the civilian population could not understand what their fathers, brothers, sons, all went through in the war. How could they? Mustard gas, fighters, bombers, tanks and machine guns, some new to the battlefield, but all used on an epic scale. No one had ever heard of the term “shell shock” before WW1, either, and before it became a recognized medical condition it was simply looked upon as cowardice. According to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, by the end of the war more than 9,000 Canadian soldiers were treated for shell shock. All-in all, the Canadian War Museum reports that 619,636 Canadians enlisted for the CEF, and close to 61,000 died.
When our great-grandparents returned from the war, they were met with a cold reception from a civilian population ready to forget the war, who wanted nothing more than to tell their returned loved ones of the hardships they endured with the rationing. Some soldiers found that their wives and girlfriends could not stand the unknown fate of their loved ones and had therefore moved on. Even Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie was not exempt from this treatment. While British generals were receiving large sums of money for their service, Currie received nothing more than a promotion to general and a posting as Canada’s inspector-general.
“Canada’s greatest soldier deserved much more from the country that he and his men had made into a nation,” Granatstein said in his book.
These days it’s easy for us to honour our Canadian Forces. Remembrance Day has been celebrated on Nov. 11 since 1931, so we’ve all grow up observing a moment of silence on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh month, on the eleventh day, and in recent years it became commonplace to see the people crowd the overpasses on Hwy 401 to honour fallen soldiers as they travelled from Trenton Air Force Base to Toronto, prompting the government to rename a stretch of the highway the Highway of Heroes in 2007.
However, these honours we bestow on our veterans today came at the high cost of our veterans 100 years ago, and as we take the time to recognize their battlefield accomplishments, remember too the cost they paid when they came home.