Will Canadian troops stay the course in Afghanistan? Will the Canadian public continue to support our troops even when the coffins have to be stacked on top of each other as they are flown into CFB Trenton, Ontario?
If our history is any indication, you may as well ask if we like hockey. Every Remembrance Day, with its quietly passionate crowds attending ceremonies at cenotaphs across the country, is an annual reaffirmation that Canadians do not go back on their word and that we are prepared to bear the cost of our decisions even after we have begun to doubt them. We are loyal to a fault.
In April 1915, a combined front of French, Algerians, and Canadians at Ypres, Belgium, were subjected to the first large-scale poison-gas attack in human history. There had been plenty of warning that the Germans might resort to inhumane weapons of mass destruction, but the Allied command made no effort to prepare troops for lethal clouds of chlorine gas.
The story is that Canadians spread the word that the uric acid in urine would neutralize the chlorine in the gas, and the Canadian First Division held its section of the front because our soldiers pissed in their handkerchiefs and held them over their faces to preserve their lungs long enough to hold their positions. The fact is that if such a tactic was tried, it was only among isolated units, and when the British counterattacked to halt the German offensive, they found hundreds of Canadians “still writhing on the ground, their tongues hanging out”, according to David Shand of the Gordon Highlanders.
Left in the line despite enormous casualties, the First Division was again gassed a couple of days later and again held, this time issued with cotton cloths and washtubs of water the soldiers were careful to piss in. It was not because of makeshift methods for counteracting gas attacks—attacks that resulted in far fewer casualties than from the murderous artillery fire the Germans laid down—that the Canadians held. They held because Canadians do not run away. They do not retreat from privation, not from cold, not from bad governments or evil weapons, and before the Second Battle of Ypres was over, the Canadian First Division had lost more than 6,000 men killed, wounded, or missing.
It is said by many military historians that they saved Paris. It is agreed by all observers that Canada proved that a peaceful, unmilitary nation is capable of producing soldiers of unparalleled bravery.
Although not yet Canadians then, the Newfoundland Regiment drove home the point that “colonials from the Dominions” could stay the course. In 1916’s Battle of the Somme, the Newfies suffered heavily from artillery fire before even reaching the frontline, then attacked despite their losses. In the bloodiest battle of the First World War in terms of Allied losses in a single day, no other regiment could match its sacrifice: 68 men were left alive out of 801 who had left the Rock to do their bit.
And the survivors volunteered to attack again, in one of the stupidest wars humanity has yet conceived.
A quarter of a century later, Canada did not hesitate to send the Royal Winnipeg Rifles to Hong Kong when Britain said Japan might be soon joining the other fascist aggressors in all-out war. Undertrained, under?equipped, and under incompetent leadership, Canadians earned their share of medals before the surrender of Christmas 1941, and we do not regret the sacrifice that became necessary before the liberation of our starved remnants in 1945.
Meanwhile, Canadians were the first to defy Adolf Hitler and dare to try poking a hole in the Atlantic Wall of the fascist dictator’s Fortress Europe. In August 1942 at Dieppe, the naval bombardment was halfhearted, air support was insufficient against a still-effective Luftwaffe that actually won one of its few victories of the European Theatre, and the debate still rages about whether our soldiers were sacrificed for obscure geopolitical objectives or misplaced national pride.
The Canadians who were there had little time for such fine points. When they found that few enemy emplacements had been destroyed—with the exception of some shore batteries neutralized by British commandos—that their air support was missing, and that their tanks had either been destroyed or had had their treads clogged by shale on the beaches, they did an incredibly illogical thing. They attacked.
A tad fewer than 5,000 men against the entire continent of Europe, each with a few pouches full of cartridges and a clutch of hand grenades. They doggedly took heavy casualties against concrete-pillbox machine-gun emplacements and heavy fire from mortars and artillery, and some reached as far as seven kilometres into France before turning back to be captured or slaughtered in the botched evacuation. They only got so far because the Germans hesitated to counterattack against what their on-the-ground intelligence evaluation told them was a full division instead of a few decimated battalions.
Some historians say Dieppe was necessary to teach the Allies lessons that would be crucial in the successful D-Day invasion in 1944. Some say it was a fiasco in which Canadians were sacrificed to test contentious theories among egomaniacs in the Allied high command.
Canadians know that Dieppe was where we lost more than 900 dead, more than 1,900 taken prisoner, with a total, including wounded, of 68- percent casualties. The soldiers then imitated the Newfoundland Regiment by immediately clamouring for another chance to attack. Given Canada’s distance from Europe and its growing friction with Britain’s military, this determination in its own little way threw a bit of a scare into the Germans, who remembered Ypres.
That the Germans were impressed became manifest in December 1943, when they elected to throw in their most professional veterans to contest the battle for Ortona, Italy, against Canada’s Second Division in what British Eighth Army commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery thought would be a walkover. He thought the best German troops would be defending against the U.S. armies on the western side of the peninsula, who were trying to take Rome directly.
Over the space of a month, Canadian casualties passed the totals of Dieppe in what the world’s press dubbed “Little Stalingrad”. There were more than 4,000 Canadians killed, wounded, or “incapacitated” (suffering from shell shock to the point of dementia), on top of the prisoners and the missing, and we got a couple of Victoria Crosses.
But the Germans’ misapplication of their best troops led to their collapse on the western coast of Italy. Most historians eventually deemed Ortona to be a sideshow. The Allies, supposedly without Canadian help, liberated Rome on June 5, 1944, and you might have heard what happened the next day, June 6, when the invasion of Normandy followed up on the Dieppe raid in fine fashion.
It’s less likely you know that the Canadians landing at Juno Beach were the first among Allied troops to reach their inland objectives, and also coordinated well enough with British troops in the successful assault at Sword Beach to secure an overall beachhead despite the horrendous difficulties that the U.S. famously, in film and also in fact, suffered at the Omaha Beach landing.
The story of Canadians unselfishly laying down their lives continues on through the liberation of the Netherlands in the Second World War, our voluntary support of the United Nations (and, of course, the U.S.) in the Korean War, a dozen lethal peacekeeping operations since 1956—especially our losses in the territories of the former Yugoslavia—and, finally, the supposed reconstruction of Afghanistan.
We will do what we have to do. It would be a sacrilege to the memory of too many Canadians, who went overseas for the sake of justice and peace, to give up now on the ideals for which so many died, and for which many still proudly suffer, as we have seen from families of slain Canadian personnel these past months.
It is simply not in the Canadian soul to give up, and especially not to give up support of our own citizens overseas. But Remembrance Day has a purpose deeper than simply remembering. It is supposed to bring to mind just what it was we have been fighting for over the past century.
We have always supported what we thought was right. But our contribution to the First World War was futile, our contribution to the Second World War was forgotten, and the Canadian-born concept of peacekeeping troops has been corrupted into the travesty of poor nations stocking overseas garrisons at starvation pay in order to collect U.S. dollars from the United Nations, risking the possibility of corruption, rape, and negligence in the presence of ethnic cleansing.
Afghanistan looks very much like Ypres, or Hong Kong, or Dieppe. For the geopolitical purposes of other nations, we will pretend they actually believe what they are saying, and we will stake the lives of our young people on their goodness. And we will perform our duty to a standard higher than that of either our allies or our enemies.
We will be brave. We will suffer maiming and death. As you can hear from all Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, and every member of their families who are interviewed, we believe that this is all done to make the world better, and not one of us will ever doubt the duty, no matter how much we doubt the wisdom of those who have made all of this so horribly necessary.
We will gather around the cenotaphs, passionately praying for peace. We will never forget the children we have sent to other lands to fight for justice. And we will wonder, as we have ever since Ypres, whether our sacrifices have truly been on the side of right. And despite our doubts, we will stay the course.
Lest we forget those who have gone before.