I can remember marching in a Remembrance Day parade as a Boy Scout in Kamloops. It was cold and the words of my dad sprang to mind. He is an ex-militiaman, a retired Colour sergeant of the Irish Fusiliers of Canada (Vancouver Regiment). Standing there in the Boy Scout version of “attention,” the words he had noted once in one of his drunken reveries sprang to mind. While standing to on parade, if it is cold, make sure to wiggle your toes in your boots to keep the blood moving.
I wiggled my toes that day in the early 1980s, during the two minute silence and the ceremony in which I felt honoured to be included in those standing in formation around the Cenotaph in Memorial Park, on Battle street. in Kamloops. I wiggled my toes a few years later when it was my turn to stand in a Remembrance Day parade during basic training for the Canadian Armed Forces at CFB Cornwallis in the chilly Maritime fall of 1990. Though it never worked out with the army, I still count basic as one of the best times of my life, even if I didn’t always think so at the time. Today when it gets cold outside, and I’m standing around waiting for my dog to finish his business, I wiggle my toes.
In school Remembrance Day had a generally anti-war emphasis that seems absent today. Today we are asked for a couple reasons to remember their sacrifice. Either a general appeal to do with the defence of democracy and human rights, a reason also used in the official propaganda a century ago. Or often its takes shape as a veneration of service and the idolisation of service members, and the romanticisation of their experiences and sacrifices. Typically though, the two messages are delivered in the same breath. Always with a sombre tone but without bothering to adequately explain the reasons of why it happened. Would the veterans of the First World War approve? I think not.
It’s a poor description to say that they wanted to go. Some did, at first, but after not too long they had to be cajoled and coerced to join up. Once there they did their job so well that British complaints were heard that if one trusted the media, Canada had won the war single handedly. Their quality belied the fact that the recruiting problems began almost immediately in Canada, the surge of patriotic volunteerism of 1914 had died out by 1915.
In Europe, Great Britain had been forced to introduce conscription by the beginning of 1916. by 1917 the French soldiers were rebelling against their superiors. In same year the Russian soldiers joined with the striking workers and peasants and made a successful revolution. 1918 brought conscription to Canada, causing protests and open conflict with the state, which added to the sense of ferment arising out of the strikes erupting across the country, enthused by, and mirroring the rhetoric of the revolutionary Russians. Within six months of the end of the War revolution had erupted in Germany, and returned soldiers in Winnipeg were declaring their solidarity with the workers who had made a general strike there that threatened the nation with a Canadian revolution.
Fighting the war became impossible because the majority of people making sacrifices to fight it saw clearly why they were being asked to so, and they rejected the proposition that the entitled class and their elite leaders in industry and government should only continue to prosper, often at a greater rate than before, as a result of the wholesale carnage they had unleashed. Only the rise of fascism, with it’s own roots in the war, would revive the willingness to fight.
Today the veterans legacy, and what they had to say about their sacrifice has been stripped from the popular consciousness. Remembrance Day today, with its generalised message of reverence of all of Canada’s war dead appears more like the “Decoration Day” held in Winnipeg starting in the years after the North West Resistance of 1885. It was a ceremony began in the United States to memorialise veterans of the civil war there.
Originally meant to honour the Canadian soldiers killed fighting the Indigenous peoples of the Prairies, it quickly expanded to include Canadian veterans, including those born in Britain, of all Imperial conflicts. Men, and women, who had served in places like Sudan, India, Egypt, the Crimea, and in the Boer War would also parade to St. John’s Cemetery where the fallen of 1885 were buried. For the cadre of western Canadians who looked to the British Empire as the fount of prosperity, progress, and freedom Decoration Day was a solemn memorial to its expansion.
The Decoration Day veterans in Canada believed in what they fought for in their wars. They expected these new veterans would feel the same way, and some surely did. But by the end of the First World War, and ever after, the majority of veterans from that war rejected not only the war, but they also saw clearly how their sacrifice was to the benefit of the capitalist ruling class, and so they rejected them too. By the end of the war, and even from the start, most understood what the war was about, regardless of the rhetoric.
They would ask that if we are going to remember their sacrifice that we should remember why it was they were made to fight, and what the experience taught them. From the meat grinder of industrial warfare and the collision of Imperial Interests they learned harsh lessons. The rejection of capitalism by the working class on a world scale, from revolutionary overthrow, to strong anti-war movements, and a militant, class conscious, labour movement in the decades after, meant an end to Empire, the first steps in a blood soaked era of massive reform and, they hoped, an end to war.
It is probably appropriate to say that the poppy is a reactionary symbol, the token of a monarch for the blood spilt in the defence of British Imperialism. And I don’t wear one anymore. The white poppy of the pacifists is no alternative though, I am not a pacifist. The war on war is the class war, and the war to end all wars is the revolution. The war dead of all capitalist wars, combatant and non, are always made up almost entirely of working class and poor people without any real choice in the matter. Lest we forget, a poppy to remember them, and why they died, ought to be red.