By Douglas Phillips
Peace at last.
The guns had fallen silent on the Western Front. The Great War conflict was over in which millions of lives had perished. As silence fell over the trenches, birds could be heard singing again. In Canada there were celebrations all over the country. Church bells rang, trains blew their whistles and the newspapers declared victory over Germany. In Toronto crowds surged onto Yonge Street waving flags, cheering, singing God save the King and the Maple Leaf Forever.
Soon the troops would be sailing home, disembarking at the local train station and marching through the towns and villages to a welcoming homecoming. It was the nation’s hope that the survivors of the fighting would return to a normal life, marry their sweethearts, return to work, and have families. In many communities, people would meet the wounded that bore the marks of the war; missing limbs, scarred faces covered by masks, and shell shock. Many survivors spent the rest of their lives in veterans’ hospitals or were cared for by family members.
Not every person was celebrating. Canada had contributed six hundred and thirty thousand troops, nearly ten percent of its population in 1914 of seven and half million. Over sixty thousand were killed, one hundred and fifty thousand wounded – the “war to end all wars” was a war of sacrifice. Many men were buried in temporary graves in the battlefields where they fell in Flanders and northern France. Daily the local newspapers reported the casualties from Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele, Arras, Amiens and Vimy. Every community in the country had borne their share of loss. Sons, husbands and daughters were not coming home. The house was dark with curtains drawn; the last letter from their loved one and the “Missing in Action” telegram lay on the kitchen table.
Some families received a letter from the Imperial War Graves Commission advising that their son’s body had been recovered from the mud of Flanders and would be reburied in a new grave with a headstone. The family would be asked what words of remembrance they would like depicted on the stone. Twenty thousand bodies were never found and still lie beneath farmers’ fields.
“But scarcely had the armistice been signed when a wave of sympathy swept the land in their behalf, and an almost universal expression of grief and sorrow was heard that those who had made victory possible were not able to see the full fruits of their sacrifice, and the depth of thanksgiving for peace was only equalled by the desire on the part of all classes, societies, churches, institutions of learning, lodges, towns, cities and municipalities, to erect to the memory of those who had fallen some fitting token of respect and reverence.”
(Walter Herrington Napanee Beaver Press 1922)
There was a general outcry to build national and local monuments to help with the healing of the nation’s grief, a place where people could gather and pay their respects and remember the fallen. Memorial committees were formed to consider the design, where the monument should be placed, and how to raise the money needed for the land and material to construct the monument.
Families who had lost a loved one wanted a voice on the committees and many made their views through letters and the local newspaper. The government was asked to donate the land and provide a commission to approve memorial designs. The government decided not to fund local memorials but direct the funds towards the National War Memorial in Ottawa’s Confederation Square, the rebuilding of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, and the Vimy Ridge twin pylons in France which commemorates Canada’s greatest victory.
During the war women had worked in the factories and taken on the jobs of the men serving overseas. Patriotic organizations like the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire had formed volunteer organizations to provide hospital beds and medical supplies. After the war they applied their wartime volunteer skills to raise funds for war memorials, sat on committees and voiced their opinion on the design and location. The dedication of women’s groups on initiating memorial movements was matched by the Great War Veterans’ Association, the forerunner of The Royal Canadian Legion. The war had brought about many social changes, including the involvement of women in all parts of society, which would lead to the suffrage movement and their vote.
Most of the monuments we attend on Remembrance Day were constructed in the 1920s, but some were not completed until the 1930s, including The National War Memorial/Cenotaph in Ottawa. This was opened by King George VI in 1939. There are many different designs, statues, obelisks, cairns, towers, and cenotaphs. Some are built of stone from the surrounding area, but towns with deeper pockets contracted well-established Canadian sculptors and artists. They worked alongside noted memorial construction companies such as McIntosh Granite, Thomson Monument and William Rogers Foundry. To meet the demand, a hundred white stone statues of soldiers were produced by Italian craftsmen in Tuscany and imported. Monuments were erected wherever land was available, some donated by wealthy citizens, others in parks, outside schools, churches, townhalls and crossroads.
All monuments bear the names of the local men and women who gave their lives in the 1914-18 War. They are either cast on a bronze plaque or carved into the stone. Poignant words were often added, “Their Name Liveth For Evermore,” along with the names of the local regiments, patriots of the memorial and dedication date. After World War II other plaques were added with names of the fallen, and later those of the Korean War and the Afghanistan conflict.
Each monument is unique and there is a story behind them as they reflect the hope and spirit of the community and people who attended the opening. Mothers of the fallen were given a place of honour and were awarded the 1919 Memorial Cross, which is now known as the Silver Cross. This is part of our Canadian heritage, which has been passed down to us to preserve the memory of the fallen, and to ensure their legacy is passed along to the next generation. It is important that all War Veterans stories are not forgotten.
Many municipalities are raising funds to restore their monuments. This year the Cities of Markham and Barrie have rededicated their memorials, and these are now enshrined in new places of remembrance that will be preserved for the next hundred years.
We have no First World War veterans living and very few Second World War survivors, therefore it is important that our generation, and those who follow us, cherish their experiences, memories, photos, letters, and medals.
Robert Laurence Binyon, English poet. His 1914 poem “For the Fallen” is an important part of the Remembrance Day services throughout Canada and the Commonwealth. The full seven verses are rarely spoken, after a minute of silence we bow our heads and recite the fourth verse called The Act of Remembrance
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”
The words pledge that the living will not forget their sacrifice.