Some thoughts on war, remembrance, and modern society
This is Commemoration Day, 2022, the official Newfoundland and Labrador remembrance of those from Newfoundland and Labrador who gave their lives in the Great War and in conflicts since.
Established by the Government of Newfoundland in 1917, the day is linked to the first day of July because of the great sacrifice the small country made on that day. But like the non-sectarian university Newfoundlanders established in the 1920s as another memorial to its war dead, Commemoration Day is about much more than a single event. It was the national remembrance of the first truly national venture.
Memorial Day is a post-Confederation fiction, part of the cult of victimhood and victimisation that is Newfoundland nationalism of the late 20th century. An invented memorial to invented events, built on a nub of truth but distorted into the misshapen horror that most people know these days.
The inspiration for this reprint is the speech Spencer Barnes gave as the master of ceremonies at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s annual Beaumont Hamel mess dinner on June 30 each year. Like all regiments in the British army tradition, the members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment remember their collective past as a way of sustaining themselves as a community.
The Beaumont Hamel dinner is a bit of fiction itself. The officers and men of the regiment did not have a formal dinner the night before the opening of the major British offensive in 1916. As Barnes notes in his speech, the soldiers got a warm meal from nearby kitchens. By 1916, the oldest of the soldiers was well used to army life. In the field, men ate either canned food. If they were lucky, they might a cooked meal slopped out of a metal container - commonly called a dixie or a haybox - into their individual set of metal boxes called mess tins. The kitchens were well to the rear, as the smoke from the fires would attract enemy artillery fire. - commonly called a dixie or a haybox - carried first by horse and cart and then by men struggling under the weight from kitchens far to the rear.
The dinner itself is not a fiction. It is an integral part of the regiment’s life today. Those of us who do not and have not ever worn the same uniform and same capbadge as the men and women of the regiment should tread lightly should we be fortunate enough to attend. There is too much going on about both the current day and the past days for the soldiers collectively and individually. The dinner itself and the traditions associated with it not not trifles.
Spencer Barnes began his career as a reserve army soldier when he was aged 30, or as he jokingly used to refer to himself, the oldest private in NATO. He joined after the first Gulf War when, like many of us, Barnes was jolted out of his comfort and complacency by a country going to war for the first time since a decade or more before he was born. Most of the people on his basic training course would have been easily 10 years younger than him.
Barnes not only got through basic training but finished his army career as a Master Warrant Officer, one of the highest non-commissioned ranks in the army. He also served a tour in Afghanistan. The last few words of his speech carry that much more meaning as a result. Before this bit, Barnes mentioned some soldiers from the Regiment: one currently serving and one from a Second World War artillery regiment from Newfoundland, both of whom died this past week, and another - Private John Lambert - whose remains were only recently identified and re-buried on Thursday with proper honour in France.
The Newfoundland media of the day during WWI referred to the Newfoundland Regiment as “OURS”. I’d like to ask each former or currently serving member of the Regiment and Band, and each Newfoundlander who is a former or currently serving member of the Canadian Forces to stand. These people, too, are “OURS”. Thank you, please be seated.
Tomorrow, when we stand in Remembrance for those who made the Ultimate Sacrifice, I ask that you have a special thought for Pte. Lambert and his family, a thought of gratitude for those who have completed their service, and of support for those who still serve. We’ve gathered tonight in Remembrance to remind each other of the stories we know so well. To remind each other to pass on these stories to our children, and to those who will follow us in service. We’ve gathered tonight as we have each Memorial Day since, as we will gather again each Memorial Day hence, to continue the memory of “OURS”.
As long as there is one soldier from Newfoundlander and Labrador on the list of those with no known grave, as long as there is one soldier from Newfoundland and Labrador serving in Canada’s uniform, we will gather to “Keep the Home Fires Burning”.
To go with that, following are two pieces from Sir Robert Bond Papers that deal with the Great War and the way we remember it today. It isn’t going to become a common practice to reprint early work but the subject and these two pieces are worth making an exception for. Well, at least I think so.
Enjoy your coffee this morning and mark Commemoration Day as Sar-Major Barnes would have it, by reflecting on those who went before and how we use the memory of the times and their deeds.
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War, Memory, and Society
(first published at Sir Robert Bond Papers, 13 Nov 2013)
Part way through her interview with historian Margaret MacMillan last September, the Globe’s Sandra Martin turned the conversation to the lessons we might draw for today’s world from MacMillan’s understanding of what led the European nations to war in 1914.
MacMillan does more than oblige Martin. She goes into a lengthy discussion of how the situation in Syria looks somewhat like the conflicts in the Balkans before the Great War. She winds up with the admonition that “what history can do more usefully is offer you warnings, give you ways of thinking about the present and help you formulate sceptical questions so you can say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s think of examples where that action didn’t turn out well.’”
To that extent, MacMillan is right, even if her discussion of the similarities between Syria in 2013 and the Balkans in 1913 is rather superficial and ultimately useless. What’s more useful to think about for a moment in the days after Remembrance Day is the tendency people have to interpret the past to fit modern circumstances.
The War of the Paradigms
A half century or so ago, John Kennedy did much the same thing during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as Martin and MacMillan did the other day, using the same the same historical events. The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s account of how the First World War started, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1962 and, as the story goes, influenced John Kennedy’s thinking during the Cuban missile crisis that October. He reputedly gave copies of the book to members of his cabinet, senior government officials and, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
MacMillan notes that people who do this are often looking for excuses to justify something they believe. “You can find any lesson in history you want,” she says. But that is as true of the example she cites – George Bush and the Iraqi invasion – as it is for people who look for cautionary tales or warnings in history of the sort that MacMillan offers with Syria.
What we often wind up with in arguments like this is a battle of metaphors that looks rather like history as Calvin described it to Hobbes. As the boy told his tiger, “History is the fiction we invent to persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction. That's why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices.”
In that sort of understanding, history is not about what happened but what we imagine it was. In 1962, Kennedy and Tuchman could look at the Great War as the inevitable result of war plans set by the generals and take from that belief a warning that the world could blunder into war despite the very best intentions. In 2013, Margaret MacMillan can raise the caution of how local instability in Syria looks like the regional instability in Balkans that set the fuse for the Great War.
To you from failing memories, we throw…
In that sense, we can also think about history as less about what happened as it is about what we remember. The difficulty with memory, though, is that it can be faulty. You can see that in the way some people talk about Remembrance Day itself. Even veterans are not immune to faulty memories or of re-inventing the past to suit their current beliefs.
Harry Leslie Smith is a Second World War veteran. In a Guardian piece (linked by Drew Brown), Smith says that in the past he has worn a poppy because he can “recall when Britain was actually threatened with a real invasion and how its citizens stood at the ready to defend her shores.”
“But most importantly,” he writes, “I wear the poppy to commemorate those of my childhood friends and comrades who did not survive the second world war and those who came home physically and emotionally wounded from horrific battles that no poet or journalist could describe.”
All that will change in 2014. Smith won’t wear a poppy any more on Remembrance Day because the modern ceremony is a glorification of war, as far as he is concerned. All the worse according to Smith, starting next year, Britain will mark the centennial of the Great War “as a fight for freedom and democracy” even though “many of the dead from that horrendous war didn't know real freedom because they were poor and were never truly represented by their members of parliament.”
What Smith is doing is doing nothing more grand or, indeed even more true, than pitting his interpretation of modern commemorations not against the reality of the two great wars of the last century but of popular ideas of what the wars were about.
His version of the Great War, for example, is the one that gained currency in the 1960s and 1970s. Likewise his view of the Second World War is, in part, of the good war. It was a big affair that encompassed the whole world and saw the country pull together from the threat of a real invasion, presumably not like these lesser events of today. Both are fictions built around a kernel of fact.
They are all different. They are all the same.
Veterans of the First World War - were they still alive – would likely take issue with Smith’s view that the war was not about freedom and democracy. The veterans would challenge the idea that they didn’t want to go to war, that they didn’t believe in the fight, and only suffered through the mud and slaughter because they were forced or hoodwinked into going. If that was the case, it’s doubtful the British Army could have lasted to the middle of 1915 let alone make it – intact - to the victory in 1918.
Veterans of Korea or more recent wars would likewise challenge the view that their war was somehow less virtuous than the Second World War. By the same token, they’d note that their war was no less horrid, no less full of death and misery than the trenches or, for that matter, North Africa, Italy, the jungles of southeast Asia, or the air over Germany and occupied Europe. Korean veterans, in particular, remarked during the war and after of the similarity between their war of trenches and stalemate and the one 40 years before it.
The major difference between a World War 2 veteran and one from another war is often that the guys from the good war need to be alone, to be away from their comrades, and with a trusted companion in order to talk about the darker aspects of their experience. Those memories don’t fit with the popular image of the war so they tend not to get expressed as often.
As for the idea that Remembrance Day glorifies war, that one is an old chestnut. It’s no more true now than it was 30 years ago in the depths of the Cold War when only a handful of people showed up at the memorials in St. John’s or Ottawa or anywhere else across Canada.
What changed 20 years ago in Canada was a string of wars in places like the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, and lately Afghanistan. War, death, injury, and the hardships of military service stopped being stuff in books and movies. They stopped being imaginary and became part of our lives. The sepia tones, as Smith called, washed away and with them went the distance Canadians enjoyed from the suffering that sadly remains all too common a feature of human life in too many parts of the world.
There’s no surprise that Canadians whose sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters went to war in places like Kandahar looked at the past differently after the bodies came back or after the men and women with physical and mental injuries stepped off the planes and onto our streets. When your cousin has been defusing bombs in the dust of Kandahar province or you watch two small children laying a wreath in memory of the father blown up by one they didn’t find in time, you look very differently at the old fellow who you know slogged his way up the hills and valleys of Italy that summer of 1944.
The Great War and Newfoundland Nationalism
(Originally printed at Sir Robert Bond Papers, 04 July 2012, revised and reprinted 01 July 2013)
Mark Humphries is an historian at Memorial University. He spoke with CBC’s Chris O’Neill-Yates on July 1, 2012 about the impact of Beaumont Hamel on Newfoundland and Labrador. Humphries does an interesting job of putting the 700 dead and wounded on that day into a larger context. He likened it to 161,000 Canadian males between 19 and 45 years of age dying in 20 minutes today. Then, in response to a question from Chris, Humphries turned it into a unifying event for the country.
To be sure, the military involvement in the Great War was the first event for Newfoundland as a collective, national effort that wasn’t divided along sectarian lines. Not that the authorities didn’t try to appoint officers based on sectarian quotas, mind you. But, they ran into resistance from the soldiers themselves, for one thing, who firmly rejected the idea. A man's religious beliefs were not the basis for leading they said. His character was more important, the soldiers told the politicians and community leaders back home.
But is there a single connection between the slaughter at Beaumont Hamel and the more recent nationalism? That would be even more of a stretch than imagining that the dead and wounded at Beaumont Hamel came from across the country called Newfoundland.
The sectarian origin of Newfoundland’s war effort should not be so easily glossed over, for starters. For another, there are very few signs that Newfoundlanders - at the time - looked on themselves any differently after the war than they did at the beginning. In 1919, for example, Newfoundland had the choice to sit at the Paris peace conference as an independent country. The Newfoundland government opted to sit with the British while the other Dominions took separate seats.
Predominantly, Newfoundlanders saw themselves as British before, during, and after the war. They paid more attention to domestic issues after 1918. When it did take a shot at international dealings, the country’s government consulted with the British, and more often than not went along with the British government's suggestion. The contrast to Sir Robert Bond’s pre-war treaty-making could not have been more pronounced.
The dominion government never did implement the Statute of Westminster (1931). By that time, the country was so heavily in debt the government could think of nothing much beyond keeping the government afloat financially. Instead of taking a step toward independence, the country’s legislature voted itself out of existence in 1933 instead.
Even in the National Convention (1947-48) that would determine the future of the country, the delegates did not strive for an independent country as so many other nations did at the time. Around the same time that Israel became an independent state and the millions of the Indian sub-continent became Pakistan and India, Newfoundlanders were looking for someone else to backstop their country financially. The London delegation found the British government deaf to its demands for financial support. Canada was more willing to listen.
You won't hear much discussion of that aspect of the National Convention from people like Greg Malone. They prefer to hunt Sasquatch rather than see things as they were. Malone and the Nationalists view is the more recent interpretation of July 1 as a national day for Newfoundlanders. It is a post-Confederation contrivance. It fits neatly in the same category with the pseudo-nationalism that arose in the late 20th century waving the flag of a sectarian benevolent association as the historic emblem of a republic that never was nor ever dreamed of by anyone.
July 1 is supposedly Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador. This is the day when, according to one newspaper, people “show their respect for the men who died at Beaumont-Hamel and the battle of the Somme.” This too seems to be a more recent contrivance. The provincial government’s Shop Closing Act includes “Memorial Day or Canada Day (July 1)” but other than that, there is no reference to in the provincial government’s own legislative record of a dual meaning for the same day.
There is, however, reference to Commemoration Day, established by a law passed by the House of Assembly in 1917 - and amended a few times since - that sets down all you need to know about the day.
The second clause of a two-clause Act says it all:
In each year Sunday when it falls on July 1 but otherwise the Sunday nearest to July 1 shall be kept and observed in the province as and under the name of Commemoration Day, so that the deeds and sacrifices of those men and women of the province who took an active part in the World War of 1914-18 shall be kept in remembrance with honour and respect.
Before the war ended.
Even before people knew when the Great War would end, the Newfoundland government created a day on which to honour all the dead from what was then the Dominion of Newfoundland in a war that had not ended when they established the day.
The day is supposed to be set aside not just the for the men who died at Beaumont Hamel, but for all the dead from their homeland. That’s significant when you go to the service in St. John’s on July 1. It remains a travesty that the provincial government ignores its own law from the time when this was an independent country, a law established by the people at the time , and with the sole focus of honouring those who sacrificed all that they had.
What you are seeing is not the national day of remembrance created in 1917 and intended to last in perpetuity. The memorial day has been hijacked by people with their own political agenda. They talk of the past but what they are on about nothing more than today’s fashion.
A once-solemn occasion has become a pantomime. In St.John’s, a group of people gather and go through the motions of a ceremony that long ago stopped having any real relevance to the modern day. The Great War-era patriotic association for women disappeared decades ago, yet someone still lays a wreath on its behalf each year as part of the ceremony in St. John’s.
Even the significance of the site has diminished. The cenotaph between Duckworth and Water Streets in St. John’s is the national war memorial site. The photograph of its unveiling tells us much about what people in the years immediately after the war thought about the war and its meaning. These days, a few hundred will likely turn out to what many regard as nothing more than the St. John’s memorial. Even the provincial government cannot get it right, officially, as a 2010 news release demonstrated.
These days, Beaumont Hamel has become just another artefact of our plastic history. Whatever meaning people attach to it has little to do with what happened or what the events of almost a century ago meant to the people who lived the events. It’s like the efforts, starting in the 1920s, to blame the country’s involvement in the war on foreigners: nothing could be further from the truth.
In that respect, the mythological version of Beaumont Hamel and July 1 are like a lot of other things in Newfoundland history: some people invent a story to go with a set of circumstances. In the process of re-telling the story among themselves, they displace reality. Their fabrication becomes the accepted ‘facts’.
The official flower of Commemoration Day was the forget-me-not. They are everywhere, growing wild, by July 1. There’s no small irony in that. So many have forgotten the Great War, the men and women who fought it, and those who died as a result of it.
Perhaps before we reach the hundredth anniversary of those events, things will change. A people who have no real sense of their own history, who prefer instead an entirely fictional story in place of the truth, cannot lay claim to being a nation at all, now or ever.