Canada went to war. But why?

What really drove a generation to sign up for war

A tidal wave of First World War centenary celebrations -- set to unfold over the next four years -- is now upon us. Canada, like other nations, will spend many millions of dollars commemorating Canadians' participation in the war that was supposed to "end all wars."

But what will these events tell us about the meaning of that cataclysmic war and its lessons for today's world? We can probably guess the answer from statements that key figures have already made.

Canadian Veterans' Affairs Minster Julian Fantino has characterized the Great War commemorations as "a unique opportunity to reflect on our country's long and proud military history." Meanwhile, at a ceremony in Ottawa in February, Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson picked up on this idea that the deaths of over 66,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders in the trenches of Europe share a mutual purpose with contemporary Canadian military engagements. The goal both then and now, he said, has been "to defend freedom and democracy."

To summarize: conservative forces are telling us to forget about the longstanding view of the Great War (largely informed by the reflections of disillusioned soldiers who witnessed its vast carnage) as an appalling waste of life for no real purpose. Young people today, they say, would do well to reflect on the valour of a now-lost generation and to be more like them. They should support the call to arms whenever it arises, with trust and enthusiasm. Yesterday and today, Canada and its allies have only fought for "freedom and democracy."

In Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War, author Stephen Dale examines a fascinating piece of First World War era youth culture -- a 'boys' annual' called Young Canada -- to uncover clues about what kind of values really drove a generation to sign up in huge numbers for one of the bloodiest episodes in human history.

An acceptance of violence as the primary instrument of order in the world; a social Darwinist view of Britain as the saviour of the 'inferior' peoples of the world; a determined commitment that our side was unfailingly moral -- all these have been offered as explanations for the vast popularity of the war, and for the apparent impossibility of ending it through negotiation. These ideas are all clearly, explicitly on display in Young Canada, as we see in the following adapted excerpt from Noble Illusions.

 

The boys who lived on my street in the 1910s -- the ones who attended the school around the corner and then, if they were old enough while the war was still on, donned a uniform and headed off to the trenches of Europe, likely passed many of their leisure hours reading children's annuals (hard-bound collections of monthly magazines, issued at the end of a year) like Young Canada: An Illustrated Magazine for Boys.

What is most startling about the Young Canada books is their acceptance and even sanctification of often-savage violence. The most visceral indication of this comes from the black and white line drawings and photographs that leap out from between the dense-packed type. By my count, the Young Canada volume produced in 1913 -- a year of calm when Britain and its colonies were at peace and not fully alert to the storm that would suddenly break on the continent the following year -- contains 51 illustrations with either explicit or implied violence -- where weapons are visible, or where violent confrontation is either overtly depicted or unmistakably suggested.

The blood-and-guts quotient is particularly high in a series entitled "Pictures from the Book of Empire." Let's wander down this side street for a while to witness what this series was telling Canadian boys about Britain's imperial mission. We can start with an installment called "Omdurman, and the fall of Khalifa," which is graced by illustrator John F. Campbell's full page scene of spear- and shield-wielding natives looking up from ground level to face, at close range, the gun fire and thundering hooves of an attacking cavalry. This is meant to depict the battle of Omdurman of 1897, the "last and greatest feature" of Britain's attempts at "taming… a wild and savage piece of garden ground" [i.e., Sudan].

This Young Canada story is mostly concerned with how the British commander Colonel Kitchener (who as Lord Kitchener would become a key figure in the Great War) overcame an insurgency against British rule in a segment of the Middle-East. Kitchener's strategy was to build a military railway into Sudan, bolster Egyptian forces with 8,200 British troops, and equip them with the most modern weapons. The British-led force moved into Sudan, decisively winning two preliminary battles and extending their rail corridor further into the country, before the final, bloody reckoning at Omdurman. The Young Canada report revels in the scale of the British victory. During the final episode of that battle, "a two mile line of steel and fire swept the routed Dervishes back across the plain and into the broken country beyond… The Mahdist army was irrevocably beaten. Between nine and ten thousand killed, a larger number wounded, and some 4,000 prisoners attested the severity of the defeat. Our own losses were almost ludicrously small in comparison."

The text makes it clear to Young Canada's readers that wiping out and maiming this many people was not wanton slaughter but a glorious bloodletting for a higher moral purpose, the triumph of civilization over savagery. "The taming of the Sudan is a long story, a story full of disasters and ‘regrettable incidents,'" the writer allows, "but also full of heroic deeds and patient, splendid work." Without a trace of irony -- and decades before George Orwell commented on the brazen nature of propaganda with his portrait of a fictional totalitarian society that has convinced its subjects that "war is peace"-- this boys' magazine finds in the battle of Omdurman proof of the peace-loving and compassionate qualities of the British imperial adventure. With the defeat of the Sudanese, "all knew that [the Kalifia's] power to challenge the new order of things had gone. Mahdism had drawn the sword and it had perished by the sword. Peace and order, mercy and justice had come at last to the Sudan, and the old days of bloodshed and rapine, of ignorance and excess had passed away like a nightmare."

We see a similar characterization in a Young Canada story about a confrontation between British and Sihk forces in India in 1848. Immense violence unleashed by British forces is justified on the grounds that Britain is by definition a humane force in the world. In contrast, the inhumanity of the Sihk warriors (perhaps the most formidable foe the British had faced, who after defeat would work for their conquerors to help uphold that Pax Britannica) is conveyed by the statement that this dreaded enemy "went into battle mad-drunk with bhang and the slashing blows of their razor keen tuwars shore off heads and limbs with frightful ease." The British certainly shore off their own fair share of limbs and heads, but this is described much more matter-of-factly, in a passive voice, with no references to intoxication or madness. As the end of the battle approached, for instance, "the remainder of our cavalry were let loose upon them, and there ensued such a stampede that Shere Singh's great army was cut to pieces."

The early 20th century Canadian boy -- reading about these historical encounters and their political contexts by gas lamp in his bedroom -- would have absorbed some inescapable lessons from these accounts. First, he would have learned that the British side inevitably prevailed because of its superior character and the moral nature of its missions; second, that the momentary bloodshed involved in their conflicts was merely a punctuation mark in the methodical climb towards a better world, towards the expansion of civilization.

These are ideas that would have served that boy extremely poorly as he faced the choice of whether to enlist in World War One -- a war where success, failure or stalemate would be determined not by character but by the efficiency of the war technology (which was actually the deciding factor at Omdurman, where the British victory had been described by Winston Churchill as "a matter of machinery"), and where the carnage -- far from having a clear goal or a moral purpose -- became a new definition of the word "futility." Of course, that boy would have no reason to imagine the reality that would await him on the battlefield. He had read all about how the favourable outcomes of previous wars had been decided by British cunning, resolve and moral commitment -- and how these had led to the creation, by degrees, of a more just and calm world under Pax Britanica. It would be only logical to assume, in 1913, that any new war on the continent would follow this (mostly fictional) pattern.

Years later, Rudyard Kipling, who lost his only son in the Great War, would acknowledge the falsehood of this promise with the haunting line "If any question why we died/tell them because our fathers lied."  

Did that excerpt make you want to read the whole book? Well lucky for you from now until the end of August, Fernwood is running a discount on this title! Enter in the code nobleillusions at the Fernwood website and receive 20 per cent off!

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