Whom Do We Remember?

As the artillerymen swung three abreast down Main Street, traffic stopped and people watched from the sidewalks. Some stood in silence. A few wept. Some cheered a bit or called out to soldiers they knew—to an officer who had for years devoted his spare time to the militia battery, to a genial giant from the slums, to a farmboy from Taylor Village, to a man with a police record, to a teenager leaving the prettiest girl in town.3

RCAF pilots in front of Sopwith F.I. Camel aircraft during First World War.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 2792)

When war has come, time and again Canadians have been quick to volunteer to serve their country. From farms, small towns and large cities across the country, men and women signed up, motivated by reasons like patriotism, ideological belief, family tradition, the seeking of adventure, or just to escape unemployment. They join Canada's war effort prepared to defend, to care for the wounded, to prepare materials of war, and to provide economic and moral support.

War has always meant death, destruction, and absence from loved ones. But in the initial surge of patriotic fervour, these play a secondary role. For the men and women who rally to support their nation's cause, the threats of war seem far away and unreal. For example, in the fall of 1914, as the First Contingent of Canadians left the shelter of the St. Lawrence for the open Atlantic, some of the realities came into focus. Nursing Sister Constance Bruce wrote:

Those who came forward had not stopped to count the cost, for the excitement was thrilling, the lottery alluring, and the cause glorious; but now that the confusion was passed, and the fulfilment of vows alone remained to be faced, things took on a more sombre aspect ....4

Workers assembling instrument panels for "Ram" tanks, July 1942.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 116080)

How could they have known that four long years of death and destruction were ahead?

Again, in 1939 when the mobilization orders came for the Second World War, Canadians flocked to enlist. The new troops included Veterans of earlier wars, boys still in high school, and thousands of unemployed. The recruits came from many regions and from varied backgrounds. Eighteen-year-old Aubrey Cosens, a railway section hand at Porquis Junction, Ontario, was rejected by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), but did get into the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Robert Gray joined the Navy as soon as he graduated from the University of British Columbia. John Foote, a 35-year-old Presbyterian minister, joined the chaplain corps. All were typical Canadians and all distinguished themselves by earning the Victoria Cross.

Even while immersed in the brutality of the war, some men take time to question the forces that bring the hostility between countries to such terrible ends, and to ask whether life can ever return to normal. Donald Pearce wrote these words from a front line dugout:

An airman prior to the Dieppe Raid (Library and Archives Canada PA 8227)

When will it all end? The idiocy and the tension, the dying of young men, the destruction of homes, of cities, starvation, exhaustion, disease, children parentless and lost, cages full of shivering, starving prisoners, long lines of civilians plodding through mud, the endless pounding of the battle-line.5

Those who experienced the blood and carnage of battle believed that their efforts had made the world a safer place. Yet only a few years after the end of the Second World War, Canadians were again called to uphold the cause of peace and freedom. From 1950 to 1955, Canadian men and women served under the United Nations flag in Korea. They included new recruits as well as Veterans from the previous war. Along with various army units, the navy and the air force provided vital support and endured months of hardship in the hope of maintaining world peace.

Since the end of the overt hostilities in Korea some 60 years ago, Canadian soldiers have come to play a different, yet essential, role on the world stage. Our commitment and skills as peacekeepers has gained Canada respect and influence the world over.

For all of these conflicts fought in far-off lands, there is much to remember. Foremost are the people, the men and women who served wherever they were needed. They faced difficult situations bravely and brought honour to themselves, to their loved ones and to their country. They were ordinary Canadians who made extraordinary sacrifices.

Canadians in a front line trench during the First World War, February 1918.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 2468)

HMCS Swansea in rough seas, during the Battle of the Atlantic, January 1944.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 116839)

A man being operated on in a Canadian Field Ambulance within an hour of being wounded, October 1916.
(Library and Archives Canada PA 988)

Date modified: