People living in many parts of the Middle East would have no difficulty understanding the full significance of the day. The vast majority of Syrians would love dearly to have their own Remembrance Day – an Armistice Day of their own.
Their firsthand understanding is what brought so many thousands of them to unfamiliar places like Canada to make a fresh start on their lives.
The average Canadian’s understanding of Remembrance Day lacks a direct experience of war – my closest engagement through more than six decades of life has been the stories my father told me about the Second World War (he was born days after the First World War exploded all over Europe).
Graphic documentation, filmmakers’ interpretations, and schoolbook history provide glimpses of what tens of thousands of Canadian boys – and their families – went through.
But even when we are forced to face the realities of war today, it’s a modest taste we get.
When four Canadian soldiers were killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2002, our nation went into mourning. They were the first Canadian military deaths in a combat zone since Korea.
So many deaths – so many coffins – all at one time. We were horrified, and justly so.
So to gain a hint of an understanding of Remembrance Day, a day to pause for thoughts of those who sacrificed their lives in war, consider the battle for Passchendaele Ridge, which ended exactly 99 years ago today – precisely a year and a day before the armistice was signed to end the First World War.
We balk today at sending a few hundred soldiers into harm’s way.
Our ancestors put 650,000 soldiers – mostly boys – into the line of fire. And Canada’s population was a fraction of what it is today.
Passchendaele’s 10-day assault claimed the lives of more than 4,000 Canadian boys – an average of 400 per day. Another 12,000 were wounded.
The bent and wizened veterans of that war are all passed into history now, as are most of those who reminded us every Remembrance Day of the horrific costs of the Second World War.
If we don’t remember without them, we’ll have more. That’s the nature of war.
That’s what we need to remember, more than anything.