Culture | In memoriam

Matthew Dowling reflects on Remembrance Day at McGill, and closer to home

“The war is not a very vivid memory to the generations that are now passing through the College,” read The McGill Daily editorial of November 10, 1928. Such editorials usually dined on standard University-centric fare: the “real” value of an education, intercollegiate sports rivalries, or the mystery of the jackets stolen from the Student Union cloakroom. The paper’s writers adopted a decidedly more serious tenor for their editorial nearest to Armistice Day, the official anniversary of World War I’s end.

Modernist writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, along with novels like All Quiet on the Western Front, enshrined an enduringly bleak vision of war in the 1920s. They believed it was a cruel and pointless waste. For others, the McGill Daily’s yearly Armistice Day editorial is a strong example, this could not be the end of the discussion. The war’s gargantuan struggle had been fought in defence of the basic principles of justice and order. To wit, the weight of the past demanded both remembrance and defence of the war’s principles. Pain and loss were lessened by the memory of heroic, yet common soldiers – brothers in arms bound by service and sacrifice. For each Sassoon, there were multitudes that shone a milder light on war, says historian Jonathan Vance, and they also warrant scrutiny.

Some people were unsure of how to celebrate Armistice Day’s first anniversary in Montreal. No formula existed and many of the contemporary commemorative experience’s key elements – the Dominion Square Cenotaph, the red-cloth poppy fundraising drives, the various neighbourhood memorials – had not yet been devised.

Some approached the first anniversary with a determined optimism. The Daily’s editorial of Wednesday November 12, 1919, “A Young Man’s Day,” exclaimed that the war had proven the power of young men. Their potential “when united for the accomplishment of a common, lofty purpose” could not be forgotten in the post-war years.

The modern reader might scratch their head. An equally valid interpretation of the war’s lesson to youth could hypothetically go as follows: “the war took a great many nations’ best and brightest and then proceeded to shred and break them.” The prospective editorial writer, especially in Montreal, could also have noted that English-French relations had never been worse than at war’s end. These were not ideas that would have gained easy acceptance. War’s tremendous cost demanded a rationale, and became a rhetorical starting point for future progress.

The past’s demands on the future rarely lessened as the decade passed. McGill’s students could not forget, went the 1923 article, that the school’s war record “imposed great obligations upon us. Our men died for justice and honour in a war to make war cease.” Rhetoric entangled institutional pride with the legacy of service in wartime.

War casualty and McGill alumnus John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” became another strong reference point. Mere mention of the poem’s title often sufficed as an allusion to war-time conditions. For another Daily writer of the era, it solidified McGill’s connections to the new phenomenon of poppy fundraising-drives. At any rate, one didn’t always need actual memories as years passed – the institution had its own.

The Daily’s editorial writers perceptively addressed memory and its practice, commemoration. They noted that the European battle sites’ “little fields of white crosses” absolutely contradicted what had taken place there during the war. They recognized the importance of altar and cenotaph, implicitly underscoring the religious, national, and imperial tones that imbued the ceremonies of remembrance.

It was an instance of what some historians call “the useable past.” An indictment of the war effort – terrible as it was – would have been an indictment of so many things that people held dear. So, substitutes emerged. Popular poetry, official ceremony, and the ethic of valour replaced the actual action of war.

Remembrance of the war did not stop in the 1920s, anxious as contemporaries were that it might fade away.

My mom will tell you that her grandfather went out back to the barn after learning that his brother, a driver attached to the Canadian Field Artillery, was killed in action during the final months of World War I. Whoever was there heard screams from behind that house west of Kingston.

My family visited the grave at a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Amiens, France, in 2008. It’s a massive complex with huge, looming walls of white and grey stone that encapsulate perfectly maintained grounds. The only ostentation is the massiveness of the collective: each gravestone is identical – save for name, national insignia, and religious markers. The pillars at the entrance represent each sacrifice. Ninety years on, this was our connection.

My dad won’t tell you so much about that part of the war, the part marked by gravestones: his maternal and paternal grandfathers were wounded during the Somme offensive. Both made it home. One found more grace in peace time than the other.

What he’ll probably tell you about is a little boarding-house on the outskirts of Ypres. It’s a hotel now. We spent the night. It had its own tranquility as a place where men on leave passed a couple days before returning to the lines. Don’t ask me what my family knows about the building as it was almost a century ago in 1915. I can scarcely remember my stay there, and that was only in 2008.

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