Lifestyles 55 Articles

In Winnipeg on Monday, November 11, 1918, the weatherman forecast warmer temperatures with a high of 28 F. On that day the headline of the Manitoba Free Press declared HUNS QUIT; WAR IS OVER. Four years of slaughter had finally ended in Europe. At two o’clock on that Monday morning, Winnipeggers who had already heard the joyous news from France were starting to gather on Portage Avenue to blow whistles and ring bells.

All day long the crowds grew, and the noise of celebration increased. Shops closed. Bands played hymns of thanksgiving. The people of Winnipeg poured out their relief, their joy, their pride. It was late 1919, before the boys began to come home. They marched up the main streets of our towns and cities, while the drums rolled and the bagpipes skirled– full of pride, but terribly aware of how long they had been away, how much they had missed, all the things that had changed, and the missing ranks of their friends who had not survived.

There were many here in Winnipeg and across Canada who would not share in the homecoming festivities: those whose loved ones would never return. There were the fathers who put on storm windows or, somehow made themselves busy, instead of going to the rail station to welcome home a son. There were mothers who tried not to think of the room upstairs that would never be used again. Young widows would sleep alone that night and would for so many years. Children sat in their classrooms, or lay in their bed at night, and tried to remember what their fathers had looked like.

It had been so different in the summer of 1914. The sequence of events which began with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in the obscure city of Sarajevo in June, built from crisis to crisis through the long hot summer. In early August, following the march of German troops into neutral Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. In 1914 Canadian links with the old country, the monarchy, and the Empire were very close. We read the British authors, celebrated Victoria Day with great enthusiasm and read the latest cricket and soccer scores from the old country in our daily papers.

Thus, when news of the outbreak of hostilities reached Canada, the newspapers and politicians were unanimous in endorsing Canada’s participation in the war. For the average Canadian, it was a simple matter – the mother country was at war, so Canada was at war – that was all there was to it. Every able-bodied male was expected to do his part, to serve king and country. The great majority of the men and youths were eager to enlist for they were familiar only with the glory of war, not the death. One young man was reported to have said, “It’ll probably be all over before I can get in on the fun.”

Reality soon disproved the romantic notion of war as a sport. One of the first battles involving Canadian troops occurred at Ypres in Belgium. On April 22, 1915, the Germans released more than 160 tonnes of chlorine gas toward Canadian and the French-Algerian troops defending their trenches against the Kaiser’s forces. The mysterious yellow-green cloud hit the French colonial troops hardest, and when they broke, Canadian forces were forced to fill the gap.

Two days later, the Canadian forces were again subject to a gas attack. Those who hunkered down in their trenches were killed horribly by the heavier than air gas. But many others survived by holding urine-soaked rags and kerchiefs over their mouths and noses. (This action helped to neutralize the chlorine gas.)

At the Battle of Loos, in 1915, General Haig sent close to 10,000 men out into no man’s land in broad daylight with no smoke and only a light artillery bombardment. The Germans entrenched behind their barbed wire could hardly believe their eyes; ten lines of extended column. In three-and-a-half hours, it was wiped out. The loss to the British was 385 officers and 7,861 men, over 80 per cent. The Germans lost not one man.

But the War to end all Wars wasn’t over until 1918, and it wasn’t glorious, and it wasn’t fun. In The Great War, nearly 10,000,000 combatants died. The War continued to the bitter end. On November 11, 1918, Canadian troops under General Horne captured the Belgian border town of Mons. Winnipeggers received notification of the surrender at 1:51 in the morning of the 11th and, gradually, the celebrations grew to a crescendo. When the guns fell silent at 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the cost in human suffering had been staggering. Close to 60,000 Canadians were dead; one in eight Canadian men of military age had become a casualty. Tens of thousands would live on in veterans’ hospitals for forty, fifty, sixty years – amputees, human vegetables, men with their lungs destroyed by gas attacks. That these men and women are remembered dutifully by their next of kin, and only occasionally by Canadians during the two-minute silence each November 11, should beg the question: “Is two minutes of remembrance enough?”

Tom Dercola was a History teacher for several decades.

Author: Lifestyles55
Lifestyles 55 is a Winnipeg paper that provides readers in their 50s and older with information on matters affecting their daily lives.
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