Tears come easily to old eyes. Over the years mine have witnessed scenes of both joy and pain. In the televised images of the Remembrance Day service in Ottawa, I saw the emotions in the faces of veterans of combat. To me, it seemed to be more than grief. It seemed they had been transported by memory into another place where the guns were still sounding and, as stricken companions died, they felt the enervating fear that they too would never see their loved ones again.
I have never worn a uniform other than that of a trombone player in a small town band. As the Second World War was ending, I was still days away from donning a uniform which would give my future into the hands of others who would determine when and where I might fight and when I might die.
What I know of warfare comes from the magnification by all forms of media of the conflicts in which human beings who no longer had control of their own destinies were killed or maimed. There was an early beginning. I think I was four years old when I was taken to a makeshift movie theatre in the local hotel to see the first film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. One scene from that film has remained in memory for all of my life. A young German soldier reaches out of a trench to touch a butterfly. The camera moves to a French sniper taking aim. There is the report of his rifle. The young German soldier never reaches the butterfly. His arm contracts and I know that he is dead. Can a four year old boy feel a sense of outrage? I am sure I did.
The First World War was the most horrible event of the 20th century. It was obscene. I can imagine the miasma of the battle field, the stench of bloated, unburied bodies, the cries of pain, I can imagine the ancient buildings destroyed and innocent civilians trapped in the deadly maelstrom. I can imagine the well-fed rats. And all of this raging horror was the result of blind ambition, inept diplomacy and selfish profiteering. It need never have happened. It should never have happened.
There is a strange ambivalence in the male mind. In that televised display in Ottawa, I was stirred by the uniforms and the precision marching. I was proud to see among the marchers men whose faces showed the diversity of Canada. As though I were still young, my eyes lingered on the images of young and beautiful women. Because I am old. I understood the pain of loss that still lingered in the faces of older women.
When the long-barreled howitzers fired and the bugle played for those who would never see the dawn again, I felt a mixture of undifferentiated passion – sorrow, pride, love of country. And anger. I am angry because of all the powerless humans who died at the bidding of the powerful, known and unknown. I am angry because of the human beings who never grew old.
As an historian, I know Canadian leaders and diplomats had nothing to do with orchestrating the aggressive wars such as the Boer War and the Great War. I know when Canadian leaders had the power of independent decision they took our country into the war against the evils of Nazism. I know Canadian leaders sent citizens in uniform to be peace-keepers. I know that whenever and wherever there is warfare human beings die,
On Remembrance Day, I wear my red poppy for human beings on both sides of each conflict. I wear it for human beings, known and unknown, whose lives were cut short. I wear it because of the great injustice done to all of those who never lived to ripen, loved and loving, to a peaceful ending.
Copyright ©William Wardill 2017