Honouring Canadian soldiers in a new era

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,

These are the opening words to John McCrae’s iconic poem that came to encapsulate the waste of young lives fighting on the western front generated during the war to end all wars.

McCrae’s experiences serving with the Canadian corps in the Ypres salient during 1915 and onward came to speak for an entire generation of young Canadians who were to become the “sharp end,” as author Tim Cook so aptly put it, in the battle to defeat imperialist Germany.

McCrae’s words helped to inspire people to acknowledge the futility of modern warfare, and through the mere act of remembering, attempt to produce a world where wars were irrelevant.

Sadly, almost 100 years after writing his simple 15-line poem, humanity is still striving to achieve its message.

The poppy, whose image struck McCrae so vividly as he looked over the scared battlefield around the tiny Belgian city of Ypres, has become the symbol of humble acknowledgment that war should be avoided at all costs.

At the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we take part in a yearly ritual celebration for all those who have suffered and sacrificed in the wars of the 20th and now the 21st century.

Between the crosses, row on row,

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Photo by Nick Lachance

The Brooding Soldier is Canada’s largest First World War monument Ypres salient

When the act of remembrance officially began in 1919, one year after the November armistice of the First World War, it seemed only fitting to hold it on the same day and time that the guns became silent on the Western front as a fitting tribute to the end of the war’s brutality.

Initially, the ceremonies themselves were designed for the survivors of the conflict, as Marc Milner, director of the University of New Brunswick’s Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society, explains.

“It was established for people who had gone through war who could remember those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Milner.

Growing up in the 1950s, Milner experienced the aftermath of the Second World War and its effects on Canadian society firsthand.

“Our neighborhood was filled with people who were wounded and crippled by the war and who were difficult people, people who had good wars and people who didn’t talk about them,” he said.

This environment, along with the fact that Milner’s parents were both veterans, set the stage for his connection with the impacts of the Second World War and its effects on the people left behind. Having never actually known anyone who died during the wars, while taking part in their commemoration, Milner tends to focus on the people left in the “wreckage” of the war, and the
Canada they were able to create out of it.

This better Canada included things like social welfare, universal healthcare, minor sports leagues and opportunities his parents and their parents generations never had access to.

Milner continued by saying the Canada our generation has inherited is owed to the perseverance of at least three generations of Canadians who lived through arguably the toughest times our country has ever seen.

“When you think about it, they went through two world wars and a depression, my grandparents’ generation did, and nothing I’ve endured in my life comes close,” said Milner.

That mark our place; and in the sky

Today one could easily question why people serve in the military if the act of remembrance was created to promote peace and militaries are necessary for wars.

Alex Mitsiopoulos, a fourth-year political science and psychology student at Wilfrid Laurier University, is from Greece, where military service is mandatory.

At the age of just 14, Mitsiopoulos began serving during his summer vacations and continued until he was 18.

“Because my family’s from Greece and I’ve got certain responsibilities in the country itself, I had to complete the conscription,” Mitsiopoulos explained.

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

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Photo by Nick Lachance

Poppies growing in Normandy, France

In 2006, Mitsiopoulos was on active service and was deployed during the second Lebanese war, as well as in several locations he is not at liberty to disclose.

During Mitsiopoulos’s service, he earned the American equivalent rank of a First Sergeant; though his military commitment is technically completed, he could be called to serve again until he reaches the age of 40.

While this combat experience has made him question the role of a soldier on active duty, he states that he would serve again.

“Would I do it again? Absolutely, if necessary.”

There are many examples for why people choose to join the Canadian forces, or any other military for that matter.

Admittedly they are not always altruistic, but many do join out of devotion and love for their country as well as a yearning to protect the Canadian way of life, be that at home or abroad.

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The issue of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan is contentious no matter who you ask. The general consensus of the Canadian population is that there is little support for the mission.

With ever-increasing casualties and a steady stream of less-than-positive news, it is understandable why many Canadians want to end their involvement.

Many, however, believe this should not translate into a lack of support for our troops in general.

“The people who are engaged [in Afghanistan] are our friends, our relatives … we need to remember they are people too, and they may have ideological values that say they don’t want to be there, but we need to reconsider our support for the people over there,” said Welch.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

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Photo by Nick Lachance

Laurier student Andrea Hall reflects at Beny-sur-Mer, Canada’s Second World War cemetary in Normandy, while on a battlefield study tour.

Though it may seem that public support for the Canadian mission is minimal at best, receiving encouragement from home is essential to those currently serving overseas.

Corporal Justin Spurr is a nine-year veteran of the Canadian forces, whose family’s military history spans back to the First World War. A Halifax native, Spurr has just been redeployed to
Afghanistan for his second tour since 2007, this time with the Princess Patricia’s Light Canadian
Infantry Regiment based out of Edmonton.

In a phone interview from an undisclosed province in Afghanistan, Spurr commented on his feelings regarding the issue of supporting the troops.

“In my opinion, everybody has their own views and outlooks, but I really encourage people to understand the current mission we have in Afghanistan…. Support from the Canadian public is a big thing to a lot of troops out here and we really appreciate it, if we get it.”

While wearing his uniform at home, Spurr can recall incidents of people in the street coming up to him with words of encouragement; an act that he says touches him deeply.

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Hailing from what is commonly referred to as the greatest generation, Doug Barrie bridges the gap between his era and the current era of Canadians serving in combat situations.

Just 10 days after he turned 19 in 1941, Barrie, a Kitchener native, was called to active service.

Within six months, he was selected as a replacement officer in the Highland Light Infantry and was preparing to ship to England.

A veteran of both D-Day and the Battle of Buron, as well as having endured three separate wounds through the course of the war, Barrie knows all too well what a soldier is asked to face when deployed to a combat zone.

When asked why he joined the military, Barrie said that being involved with cadets was an active part of his childhood, and that it was a part of his family history.

His father was a colonel and veteran of the First World War, so for Barrie, being part of the military system seemed like a natural progression.

Now, at the age of 87, Barrie reflects on what Nov. 11 has meant to him since the beginning of his combat experience that fateful day in June 65 years ago.

“It’s just one of the remembrance days … because most days are remembrance days, to most of us,” said Barrie.

He continues by saying there are experiences, things and people a veteran cannot forget, and that these memories appear whenever they please, usually on sleepless nights.

“I think we [as veterans] feel it inside and our remembrances are forever,” concluded Barrie.

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

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Photo by Nick Lachance

Canadians place flags on Juno Beach in front of the French town of Bernières-sur-Mer for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

Even in French Canada, where Remembrance Day and the acknowledgment of French-
Canadians’ participation in both great wars of the 20th century have traditionally been a contentious subject, things are beginning to change.

Michel Fortmann, a full-time professor in political science and international relations at the Université de Montréal, states that Remembrance Day is traditionally not a strongly celebrated event in French-Canadian culture, largely due to the memory of conscription and notion of the waste of young French lives, specifically in the First World War.

But Fortmann has noticed a growing trend in young people becoming interested in the French-Canadian experience at war.

“If you look at the polls, and I did this summer, the majority of Quebeckers in fact respect the army, more than 80 per cent … [and] more than 70 per cent of Quebeckers want to know more about their military history,” he explained.

Fortmann states that this trend began to grow after the famous Francophone regiment, the Van Doos, went to Afghanistan in 2004 and again in 2007.

Since Fortmann is from France, his own experiences of Remembrance Day are quite different from French-Canadians’ experience.

“Families from my generation were educated in the reality of the war … so I couldn’t explain to you what Remembrance Day means; it is a part of me.”

In Flanders Fields

Though there are generational and ideological gaps between veterans from the wars of the beginning and middle of the 20th century and Canadian soldiers currently serving in 21st century wars, their commitment to their country links them.

Barrie’s generation was born into a time where military service was necessary to preserve freedom for people worldwide.

Today it is more contentious whether this is a valid reason for service in the Canadian forces. Some, like Spurr, have chosen to serve regardless of this ambiguity.

Others like Welch, Mitsiopoulos, Fortmann and Milner, voice their support for the individual Canadians currently volunteering in our army.

Milner, for example, believes that a clear distinction can be made between support of our troops and support of our military and its actions.

“It is important that the troops know that Canadians support them, if not the mission, and I have no problems with that distinction,” said Milner.

With a small exception of conscripted soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars, Canadian soldiers have always been willing volunteers for our military and have accepted the possibilities and consequences that may come with their decision to enlist.

Terry Copp, the director of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Centre for Military and Strategic Disarmament Studies, and one of the leading figures in the creation of the focused field of Canadian military history, expresses his feelings on negativity towards Remembrance Day.

“Remembrance Day is not supposed to be an occasion for political demonstrations,” said Copp.
While he recognizes that protesting is a regular occurrence throughout the year, Copp finds it tasteless when groups use Nov. 11 to impose a political agenda.

“Remembrance Day ought to be left alone to fulfill the purpose it’s had since 1918.”

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Currently, 2,900 Canadians are serving in Afghanistan. Pictured are Master Corporal Étienne Aubé (left) and Sapers Girard and Rousseau.

To view more of Nick Lachance’s photography from his trip to France this past summer Click Here