Canada’s Vimy Ridge narrative, more trope than truth

Some Canadian politicians, journalists and historians claim that Canada was born in the 1917 battle at Vimy Ridge. Not so.
Canadian war graves at National Vimy Memorial.  Photo by Dennis Gruending

In recent weeks, there has been a wave of media coverage surrounding the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The splendid Vimy monument in France provides a perfect backdrop for television anchors. There was also a crowd of thousands on the site, including the descendants of soldiers who fought there against the Germans, grizzled veterans of the Second World War and other conflicts, and hundreds of Canadian school children many of whose teachers had given them assignments related to the Vimy battle. One of the adolescents interviewed on television said that the Canadian soldiers had fought to preserve her freedom at Vimy in 1917. Continue reading Canada’s Vimy Ridge narrative, more trope than truth

Canadian churches and World War I

Canadian war graves at Vimy, France
Canadian war graves at Vimy, France

Canada followed Great Britain into war with Germany and its allied powers 100 years ago this week. Tens of thousands of young Canadians, most of British descent, enlisted either voluntarily or due to prevailing social pressures. By 1917, however, others had to be conscripted by the wartime government. Canada had a population of five million at the time. By war’s end 420,000 Canadians had served in the military overseas and 60,000 of them died. Author and historian Gwynne Dyer says that loss of life would be comparable to Canada’s losing one million dead in the recent war in Afghanistan.

In a commemorative ceremony held at the War Museum in Ottawa, the Prime Minister has celebrated the sacrifice of those who went off to fight in the trenches in 1914. This is a quote from his speech: “Justice and freedom; democracy and the rule of law; human rights and human dignity. For a century, these are the things for which our fellow citizens fought. And this is the ground on which we will always take our stand.”

Unfortunately, this is not true, at least not as applied to the First World War. It was not a war for justice, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a war about the competing empires of Europe and the arrogant stupidity of the monarchs and rulers of the day. Their bungling led to the death of 17 million people and the wounding of 20 million others. That is a number roughly equal to the entire population of Canada today.

War from the pulpit

I mentioned above the social pressure exerted upon young Canadian men to enlist in 1914 and the following years. That pressure came from every corner, including the pulpit at a time when churches were more powerful forces in society than they are today. One of those preachers – and among the most extreme — was Rev. Thomas Todhunter Shields, the pastor of Jarvis Street Baptist Church in Toronto. He was a fiery orator who championed all things British and had little tolerance for liberal Protestantism, Catholics or French Canadians. Early in 1915, as the war dragged on, Shields preached a series of sermons, using scripture to demonize the Germans and to exhort Canadians to enlist and fight.

What follows here are excerpts from his sermon of February 21, 1915. He called it, “The Kaiser and Beelzebub” – comparing the German Kaiser to a “mad dog” and to the devil.

Excerpts

I must tell you plainly that I am not now and never have been a pacifist. In respect to my British citizenship, the perpetual clanking of the Kaiser’s sword forbade the intellectual somnolence essential to sweet dream of peace; and in respect those deeper considerations which concern the prime source of all human envy, and jealousy, and strife, I never have been able, and am not now able, to see how war can be banished from the earth while anywhere in the universe “the strong man armed keepeth his palace.” The Kaiser and Beelzebub, and they are not unrelated, forbid my crossing out of my Bible this word of Him with Whom they both are at war. “And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one”  . . .

Satan is more than a religious philosophical abstraction . . . the devil is not yet gone; or, if he were, I do not know how such a monster as the Kaiser is to be accounted for. The only satisfactory explanation of such a mad and blood-costly ambition as the Kaiser’s is found in the Biblical doctrine of a personal devil . . .

You cannot reason with a mad dog. Eloquence is wasted on a tiger from the jungle. The only effective argument is a gun of the largest possible calibre, an army of the maximum striking power.

Oh, we all have failed here. We have argued with the devil: we have made speeches to principalities and powers! Young men, you have parleyed with the wolves of hell, with the devil’s dogs of war. You have thought to match the devil with diplomacy! Your only safety is in fighting!

In this moral and spiritual warfare Paul was no pacifist. He did not recommend disarmament. He said, “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is no other way.

And now let me enlist you for this war. I tell you, you must be trained, and disciplined, and armed, to the highest possible state of military effectiveness . . . Take Christ and He will clothe you with Himself, His righteousness, and truth, and peace, and faith. The strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods are in peace only until a stronger than he cometh upon him. Satan has beaten everybody but Christ. He is our only hope in this war. “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(Source: Revelations of the War: Eight Sermons, T.T. Shields. Toronto: the Standard Publishing Co.1915).

War as tragic folly

The First World War is best understood as tragic folly. It is easier to argue on behalf of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War, when justice and freedom, democracy and the rule of law were much more arguably at stake. Sadly, that same list of worthy attributes cannot be used to describe our participation in most other wars of the past century – the Boer War, the Korean War and that in Afghanistan.

One does not have to be a pacifist to be reluctant, very reluctant, to support wars foisted upon us by leaders who are vainglorious and corrupt.