Remembrance Day 2018 has a particular resonance. It’s the centenary of the armistice that concluded the First World War, a conflict in which approximately 60,000 Canadians were among the 10 million or so soldiers killed.
And as on all such occasions in recent years, songwriter Eric Bogle’s The Green Fields of France says it best for me. Poignant and affecting, it invariably produces a physical response.
First, though, let me be up front about the evolution of my views.
As a child in Ireland, I imbibed the standard nationalist perspective: The war was a sham that lured tens of thousands of Irishmen to their deaths under false pretences. Sold as a fight for the right of small nations to be free, it was really just another imperialist cock-up.
I became more nuanced as a history student at university. Or maybe I just liked to think of myself as more sophisticated. Yes, the war was a fiasco but it was also inevitable given the geopolitical dynamics of 1914 Europe.
Later, I came to my present view. War on the European mainland may have been inevitable, but there was no compelling reason for Britain to participate. And had Britain stepped back, its imperial dominions wouldn’t have been involved. There’d be no Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders or South Africans in the cemeteries around the Somme.
It’s worth remembering that just four days before Britain went to war, only two members of the cabinet were explicitly in favour of intervention.
Yes, there was the question of honouring treaty obligations, specifically the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France and the 1839 treaty with Belgium. And there was also Britain’s centuries-old strategy of seeking to maintain a balance of power on the European continent.
But there were no compelling material interests. The British Empire had become primarily commercial in orientation and the overwhelming bulk of its activity was focused overseas rather than in Europe. By 1913, perhaps half of the world’s foreign investment was raised in London.
A German victory would’ve established Berlin’s hegemony over the continent, a distinctly unpleasant prospect if you were French, Belgian or whatever. But there’d have been relatively little impact on Britain’s far-flung economic assets. If enlightened self-interest should be the guiding light for a smart foreign policy, then the bulb had blown when the decision to intervene was made.
The narrative of Bogle’s song is structured around a visit to a First World War cemetery and an anti-war sentiment infuses the whole thing. But it’s most persuasive when it forgoes direct preaching and concentrates on tragedy and personal loss.
On encountering the grave of “young Willie McBride,” the narrator wonders about the precise circumstances of his death:
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916
I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?
Then there’s this, ruminating on whether anyone remembers:
Or are you a stranger without even a name
Forever enshrined behind a glass frame
In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?
For anyone who been to one of those cemeteries, Bogle’s word picture describing how “countless white crosses stand mute in the sand” will be especially evocative. As we discovered during a visit four years ago, it’s both a powerful and sobering experience. Most touching of all were the crosses inscribed with the simple words “Known only to God.”
But notwithstanding my view of the war, there are places where Bogle’s sentiments make me a little uneasy. The thing that niggles at me is the preachiness, the way it shows no understanding for the attitudes and values of the period it refers to.
The fact is that many of the men who fought and died were volunteers. For instance, more than 80 per cent of the Canadians fell into that category.
We may find the concept of loyalty to king and empire incomprehensible but they didn’t. It was part and parcel of who they were. Not everyone is, or was, like us.
If you’re unfamiliar with The Green Fields of France, this Remembrance Day is an appropriate time to remedy that. John McDermott’s rendering is a good place to start. You can find it here.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.