Nearly a century has passed since the first Armistice Day, following what was then known as the Great War, but which we today call the First World War. That first commemoration had an immediancy to it, as there were many wounded soldiers present who had returned home from the conflict. They were a visible reminder of the horrors of war and the price that had been paid to bring about peace. The memory of the ultimate sacrifices by Canadians was still indelibly fixed in the minds of relatives, comrades-in-arms, sweethearts and friends, who had lost cherished ones on the killing fields of the so-called “war to end all wars.”
The Armistice, which we now commemorate as Remembrance Day, ended the First World War on the 11th-hour of the 11th-day of the 11th-month 1918. On its first anniversary in 1919, the entire city came to a standstill, reported the Manitoba Free Press. “All over the city, people in stores, offices, or on the streets, stopped at the appointed minute ... and remained rigidly at attention, expressing in their own minds the thankfulness they felt for the coming of peace ...”
At the Congregational Church, during a ceremony organized by the Women’s Canadian Club, Rev. Dr. T.B.R. Westgate, a Church Missionary Society member imprisoned by the Germans in East Africa during the war, said the world was in the twilight after the darkness, when the flower of Canadian manhood lay in overseas graves. He said it would be a “wicked thing” to barter away the glorious liberty they fought for, which offered an opportunity to improve the lot of the living.
“Our duty to the living is to make Canada a purer, nobler, and better place to live in,” he added.
The Canadian Club met in the dining room of the Royal Alexandra Hotel to honour those Manitobans who received Victoria Crosses, the ultimate British Empire award “For Valour” on the battlefield. Among those attending was Capt. Robert Shankland, one of three men awarded the VC who lived within a block of each other on Pine Street. While Shankland was present, Corp. Leo Clarke and Sgt.-Maj. Frederick William Hall were among the thousands of Canadians killed. In their honour, Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925.
During his Canadian Club address, Isaac Campbell, a leading lawyer of his generation, remarked that a booklet handed out contained the passage: “Pine Street, Winnipeg, is the world’s most distinguished thoroughfare. It lies in the suburban part of the city. Rows of neat framed houses line its side. In the summer sweet peas and asters bloom in the garden plots, and children play on the pavements. To the passer-by it looks like any other suburban street where flowers bloom and children frolic, but as we pass between St. Matthew’s and Lawn avenues, we travel hallowed ground ...
“These boys (Shankland, Hall and Clarke) went to school together, were in the same history class together, talked of the great deeds that had been performed in the old wars — and, when their time came, when the supreme moment of danger arrived, not one of them flinched or faltered ...”
When Dr. Westgate continued his address, he turned to the others present who received the VC during the war, saying, “No word that I say can do you justice. We are glad you are all attaching yourself again to civil(ian) life. You may find that irksome. There is not that sense of common danger and comradeship which binds you together in the field. You may say to yourself ..., ‘What is the use?’ But do not be discouraged ... There are no doubt sufferers from wounds among you. I hope these wounds will heal without leaving any twinges.”
On the first Armistice Day, Dr. Westgate quoted U.S. Admiral Alfred Mahan, who was asked whether the “very awfulness of this war would make war impossible.” He replied, “I fear not. In 50 years, much water will run under the bridge. Grass will have grown over the soldiers’ graves. The squalor and horror of this war will have been forgotten. Then, some nation with a militaristic spirit, some future Germany ... may again throw the sword into the scale and disturb the peace of the world.”
Actually, Mahan, who died of a heart attack on December 1, 1914, when the bloody carnage of trench warfare was in its infancy, displayed a remarkable degree of intuition, although it was a scant 21 years — not 50 — before the world forgot the horrors of war, and peace was again disturbed by Hitler’s mad drive toward conquest.
In 1919, the horrors of war were still fresh in peoples’ minds, and R.W. Craig, the president of the Canadian Club in Winnipeg, when speaking of the fallen, said: “We have pride in the achievements of these men and we remember the gratitude of service they have given their country.”
At Earl Grey Junior High School, principal John St. John told his pupils: “We celebrate today, first, the armistice and then the league of nations, the consummation of the hope of the teachers of humanity; what they saw in vision, we see in living embodiment.”
The students sang the Hymn of Peace, which contained the words: “Nation with nation, land with land/Unarmed, shall live as comrades free;/In every heart and brain shall throb/The pulse of one fraternity.”
Unfortunately, the League of Nations and its promise of world-wide fraternity was a hollow hope. The league could not stop the invasion of Manchuria by the Japanese nor of Ethiopia by the Italians. Pleas for peace fell on deaf ears, and the world was yet again plunged into the darkness of conflict. Had there been some unity, perhaps Hitler could have been stopped in 1936, when he sent his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland.
But in 1919, there was reason to believe the world would recognize the folly of war. While the first Armistice Day was a clarion call for peace, it was also a day to honour the sacrifices made during four years of warfare by Canadian families — 60,383 loved ones lost. They were not forgotten on November 11, 1919, and are honoured still on Remembrance Day, as are the thousands of others who have fallen during the many conflicts involving Canadians, including Afghanistan, where 158 Canadians fell before the troops were withdrawn.
This year’s Remembrance Day has the added significance of also honouring two soldiers who were recently killed. Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a reservist from Hamilton, was gunned down at the National War Memorial — built 75 years ago in memory of the Canadians who died during the First World War — in Ottawa while serving as an honour guard. Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent died after being intentional struck by a vehicle in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec.
Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper has acknowledged that the significance of this year’s Remembrace Day ceremony at the National War Memorial has been altered by the two deaths. Although he was to attend APEC’s economic leaders’ meeting in Beijing, he has cancelled his participation and will be present for the ceremonies in Ottawa. As in 1919, there is an immediancy to this year’s Remembrance Day observances.