The last veterans of World War I have left us and their place in the ranks has been taken by survivors of more recent wars. As the last notes of The Last Post fade away on Remembrance Day, speakers and journalists will have their say about the brave young men who “died for all of us” or “who died for freedom.”
But the rhetoric comes too easily. Did the “Unknown Soldier” and all of his comrades of the Great World War really die “for all of us”? Or were they slaughtered in a brutal and criminal war. Were they heroes or tragic victims?
Many can only bear the awfulness of these deaths by believing that they died for some noble cause. The tragedy of that particular war is that they didn’t. They died for an ignoble cause. They died to divvy up colonies, markets and raw materials, and to enhance the careers of politicians and generals.
Perhaps as we honour the 60,000 Canadian dead of World War I we should make room for recognition of those other brave souls who struggled to keep all those soldiers from dying. How about a memorial to those who sacrificed their jobs, their liberty and, in some cases, their lives by opposing the war? How about a memorial to those conscientious objectors who, for political or religious reasons, refused to be a party to the killing?
We could remember Ginger Goodwin, president of District 6 of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union and a member of the B.C. Federation of Labour executive, who actively opposed the war and went into hiding with other objectors near Cumberland, B.C. They were fed and aided by sympathetic townspeople until, in a police raid on their hiding place, Goodwin was shot and killed by Const. Dan Campbell.
The best of the world’s intellectuals opposed the war. The British writer Siegfried Sassoon, a much-decorated officer for his bravery at the front, wrote a public letter to his commanding officer:
“I believe that this war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.”
In Canada, the war was so unpopular that the Borden government was not able to pass a conscription law until August 1917, and call-ups didn’t begin until January 1918. Only 24,132 conscripted soldiers ever made it to France. In Quebec, where people had no desire to die to defend the British Empire, there were anti-conscription riots.
Around the world, in every country, millions opposed the war. In Russia they eventually launched a revolution — in which the army participated — in large part to stop the war. In 1917, half the French army mutinied and were joined by a strike of female munitions workers in Paris. The troops agreed to fight to defend their positions if attacked, but they refused to go on the offensive. Hundreds of soldiers were jailed, and 49 of the leaders of the mutiny were executed.
The war finally ended not because Germany was militarily defeated but because the German people followed the example of the Russians and in an uprising to stop the war overthrew the Kaiser’s government. A short-lived revolutionary government was set up in Bavaria. If an armistice was agreed upon, it was largely because all governments on both sides of the conflict feared a revolt of their troops and a spread of the Russian example.
Perhaps someday we will erect a memorial that recognizes that the fight to prevent or put an end to an unjust war is as noble a cause as killing and dying.
If you agree, as I do, please consider sending a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.