Botching the Great War Centenary
The centenary of the outbreak of World War I will be marked all across the world in August. For the next four and a half years, there will be memorials to the dead, celebrations of victories, lamentions at defeats, re-enactments, and countless public events. Germany and France are cooperating to commemorate the terrible battle at Verdun that bled both countries white, and Britain and France are creating their joint plans. The Belgian province of Flanders, where years of war devastated the countryside and towns, has allocated 55 million Euros for commemoration, and the remainder of Belgium, most of occupied by the Germans for four terrible years, will spend even more.
And Canada? The government has a long list of events and commemorations, to be sure. But there is no new money behind this string of events, government departments, agencies, and Crown Corporations ordered to finance the commemoration costs out of their existing budgets. This means that Heritage Canada, along with Veterans Affairs the lead on the centenary, although already unable to spend enough on culture or television documentaries to meet demand, will need to cut back its regular efforts. It means that Veterans Affairs, under fire for its kack-handed way of dealing with PTSD in serving soldiers and veterans, is coming under additional attacks for spending part of its budget on old wars when the vets of recent ones are suffering. And this means that National Defence, its budget slammed by savage cuts after the troops left Afghanistan, will need to dip deep into its Operations and Maintenance budget to send soldiers to ceremonies.
What’s going on here? We all know that burying the deficit remains the primary target of the Harper government as it looks to the 2015 election. We know that the bicentennial of the War of 1812, for which Ottawa earmarked some $28 million, was attacked as a waste of money on a forgotten conflict, not least by Canadian historians who should have been expected to know better. And we know that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a fervent supporter of the Afghan War when he took office in early 2006 lost his enthusiasm as the casualties and costs mounted and public opinion turned tepid and then ice-cold on the war. Critics of the government repeatedly point to the Conservatives as centering their pitch to voters on the military and Canadians’ glorious record in the field. The reality , a litany of cutbacks and withheld funding, is much different.
This is shameful. The Great War of 1918-1918 needs to be marked in Canada and marked well. Some 620,000 Canadians put on uniform and more than 60,000 died in training and in action. Another 170,000 were wounded or injured. The Canadian Corps became the strongest formation in the British Expeditionary Force, the shock troops of the Empire. The Corps’ four divisions won victory after victory, and they literally smashed the German army in the battles of the Hundred Days that ended the war in November 1918 with a de facto German surrender. At the very least, the Canadian war record must be marked and remembered.
But the Great War years also changed the homeland. Women relatives of soldiers got the vote in 1917, and thousands of women left farms and hearths to work in munitions factories that produced a quarter of artillery shells for British and Dominion forces by 1917. Prohibition cut off alcohol sales; millions were raised in Victory Loan campaigns; income tax came into effect—as a temporary wartime measure; and farmers and workers began to organize politically as inflation hit everyone. Above all, conscription in 1917 split the nation, pitting farmers against city dwellers, labour against bosses, and French-speakers against English. The election of 1917, won by the pro-conscription Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden, was the most racist election in our history. We certainly don’t want to celebrate all of these wartime events and changes, but we need to talk about them and learn from them. We need TV documentaries on the war and its battles and on the events, positive and negative, on the home front. We need books, conferences, lectures, and displays in our national and local museums. We need to remember our history.
This requires some modest new government funding to create this national conversation. There will be a surplus by 2015, and there will be funds available—if the government wishes it to be so—to do a proper job of remembering the Great War and its impact on Canada. There will also be the money to ensure that our veterans get the help they require. It’s not a zero sum game where money spent by Veterans Affairs on commemorating the deeds of veterans of the past must come out of the pockets of present day vets.
We really must remember the Great War properly. Canada stood proudly on the world stage for the first time in 1918, and for the Harper government to continue to neglect and short-change this century-old part of our history will be a disgrace.
Historian J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.