As much as we rightly mourned the murders of two young Canadian soldiers last month, this past Remembrance Day inevitably lost some of its focus on the carnage that started it all. World War One ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, after four years of the most prolonged and terrible battlefield slaughter the world had ever known. That's why we wear our poppies and bow our heads on November 11.
This was to have been a special Remembrance Day, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the "war to end all wars". Instead, the cold-blooded killings of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and Cp. Nathan Cirillo, who was shot right at the National War Memorial, itself, overshadowed somewhat our remembrance of the First World War and the deaths of more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers far from home. It takes nothing away from the national outpouring of grief over the tragic loss of these fine young men, proud to wear the uniform of their country, to place them in the perspective of the many more who died before them.
Though it may seem odd to compare wars, the pointlessness, butchery and sheer hell of the First World War puts it in a category all its own. Instead of talking about the bravery and heroism of our troops, it would be refreshing to hear some words of candour, acknowledging the enormous waste of human lives in a war that could claim tens of thousands of young soldiers in a single, doomed advance into the teeth of lethal machine gun fire. That wasn't courage. That was commander-inflicted suicide.
At the same time, we tend to forget how much worse it was for France, where most of the dying took place. Other than Turkey, France, with 1.4 million killed, had the highest casualty rate among major combatants in the war. No village, however small, was left untouched. It was if a plague had swept through the countryside, claiming only young men. Many villages never recovered from the loss of an entire generation. The grim toll was an unsurpassed tragedy in a country that brought us the French Revolution and La Marseillaise.
All this was brought home to me, as I walked through rural France this September. Each village had its own stark, First World War memorial, commemorating their inhabitants who had "died for France". It was sobering to see the number of names, no matter how tiny the population. And also to note the comparative handful of dead from the Second World War, when France was beaten early.
Some memorials had inscribed in large letters the words "Verdun" and "The Marne", the worst of the war's vast killing fields for French soldiers, their casualty totals almost too high to be believed. By 1917, mutiny began to sweep the ranks of the French. Divisions began to refuse orders. But the ensuing crackdown was fierce. Several thousand were sentenced to hard labour. Fifty were executed, a time illustrated in Stanley Kubrick's powerful anti-war movie, Paths of Glory.
So the one hundredth anniversary of the First World War was a big deal in France, marked by special exhibitions in many town halls and libraries, featuring local newspapers from the time, letters from the front, vivid photographs, including horribly disfigured survivors, military histories and conditions on the home front.
I particularly liked a small commemorative garden by a central bus stop in the town of Firminy, west of Lyon. Placed among the flowers were regional newspaper reprints on stakes from the day war was declared. L'Humanité, the Socialist newspaper, featured, instead, the assassination the previous day of its founder and celebrated socialist, Jean Jaurés.
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