This year the world is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War – hardly a cause for celebration, more so a time for reflection.
This global conflict started on July 28, 1914 as the Austro-Hungarians fired the first shots in an invasion of Serbia, where a month before their Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, had been assassinated. Within weeks the dispute had escalated globally.
It was the start of a conflict that would eventually claim 16 million lives, 60,000 of which were Canadian and over 1,000 from Winnipeg.
Included in that total were 47 young men from St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church and another 15 from St. George’s Anglican on Grosvenor Avenue.
I mention this as I’ve just read two excellent books about the so called ‘War to End all Wars.’
The first was a novel, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, which the BBC turned into a televised drama series. It’s a story of love and the horrors of life in the trenches.
The second was Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War. This well-researched book explores why the average man in the street not just went off to fight, but did so with gusto.
It also detailed how the gross incompetence of the military command of the day sent countless men to their deaths as they went “over the top” and straight in to the line of enemy machine gun fire. Whole regiments were wiped out. And the procedure would be repeated the following day in the hope that eventually a breakthrough would be made. It never was.
Remember this was an age before modern communications, no Twitter, internet, TV or even mainstream radio. The main mode of communication was newspapers, which were often late with the news and heavily sanitized to hide the horrors of war yet stoke up nationalistic fervor.
People’s values were different back then, too. A sense of duty to King and country was an accepted state of mind and young men, barely more than children, would gladly march off to war because of a sense of loyalty and an ignorance of the horrors awaiting them. It was an adventure, a game almost.
Men who did not subscribe to that mindset, for example conscientious objectors, were easy to spot because they wore no uniform and were still at home. And they were vilified. Women would walk up to them in the street and present them with white feathers as a symbol of cowardice. Enlisted men would do worse.
Soldiers fought for freedom, with God on their side. Yet that’s just what the Germans were told, too: That freedom had a high cost.
I am from one of the first generations to grow up in an age where men were not compelled to go off and fight. If that’s freedom, I’m grateful. Lest we forget.