Wednesday, December 03, 2014

`Monuments, Statues, and Cenotaphs'

St. Andrew’s College in Ontario remembers its “Old Boys” killed during World War I – always the Great War in Canada. My middle son is a ninth-grader there, and the fall issue of his school magazine, The Andrean, includes a story about the deaths in combat of young men not much older than Michael. The head of the school’s Department of History and Social Studies, David D. Stewart, writes in “Significant Sacrifice”: “This year marks the centennial of the start of the Great War, where, between 1914-1918, over 600 Andreans fought and 104 Old Boys and two masters lost their lives.” That’s a catastrophic casualty rate, even without acknowledging the number of wounded, for one private school for boys in provincial Canada. 

The first to die was Lt. Frederick C. Andrews, SAC class of 1915, killed on March 16 of that year while fighting with the Royal Leinsters. “After the gas attack at Ypres in 1915,” Stewart writes, “Andreans were involved in all major battles of this grand conflict. Sadly, many of the young men who helped establish St. Andrew’s in the early years would not return.” Lt. Maurice Malone, Class of 1913, was killed during a German assault at Ypres on June 3, 1916. He closest friend was a fellow Andrean, Lt. Richard A. Brown, Class of 1914, who earned the Military Cross at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and was killed on Nov. 14, 1917, at Passchendaele. At St. Andrew’s, Brown had set the school record in its annual cross-country run. Malone and Brown are buried near each other in in the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium. Lt. Lindsay Wright, who had captained the championship football team at SAC, was killed by a German high-explosive shell on Aug. 28, 1918. 

In the first volume of his two-volume At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting in the Great War, 1914-1916 (Viking Canada, 2007), Tim Cook, tallies the casualties: “In Canada, a nation of not yet 8 million in 1914, 430,000 men and women served overseas, and more than 61,000 were killed. Another 138,000 were wounded in battle, many crippled for life. With Canada’s twenty-first-century population pegged at a little more than 32 million, the proportional Great War losses today would be approximately 250,000 dead and more than 550,000 wounded. In 1918, almost every community mourned a generation lost to the killing fields of Flanders and the Somme, marking their sacrifices with monuments, statues, and cenotaphs across the Dominion.” 

In “`He was determined to go’: Underage Soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” (Historie sociale/Social History, 2008), Cook estimates that as many as 20,000 underage Canadians served overseas during the Great War, and some 2,270 were killed. Many lied about their age in order to enlist. He writes: “Most underage soldiers who enlisted were 16 or 17 (and later 18 when age requirements were raised to 19), but at least one cheeky lad enlisted at only 10 years old, and a 12-year-old made it to the trenches.” Only in mid-1917, after three years of war, was a special unit, the Young Soldiers Battalion, created to keep underage Canadian soldiers in England, away from combat. 

The best-known Great War poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is a rondeau written by Lt. Col. John McCrae, a Canadian physician who had joined a fighting unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force as a gunner and medical officer. On May 2, 1915, during the second Battle of Ypres, his friend Lt. Alexis Helmer, age twenty-two, was killed by a German artillery shell. McCrae conducted the burial service and soon wrote his poem, which was published in Punch that December. McCrae contracted pneumonia and cerebral meningitis, and died in a military hospital in France on Jan. 28, 1918, at age forty-seven. In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell says of the poem’s first two stanzas, “So far, so pretty good.” He calls the final six lines “a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far.” Aesthetically, Fussell is correct, but even my mother, born in 1920 and not a bookish woman, knew some of the lines of “In Flanders Fields” by heart and pinned an artificial poppy on my shirt each Armistice Day before I left for school. I wouldn’t argue the point. 

[More Great War poems by Canadian veterans can be found here and here.]

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