Remembering Those Who Died on the Field of Honour
On November 11, 1918, the signing of the armistice put an end to the four years of savage conflict of the First World War. The firing of weapons gave way to weeping and grieving for the millions of war dead. Proud to be on the winning side, but keenly aware of the heavy price paid, the people of the allied countries opened their eyes to the appalling legacy of the Great War: mass death. Between 1914 and 1918, close to 8.5 million soldiers, including 60,000 from the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), died in combat or from their wounds.
During the war itself, soldiers were first honoured by their comrades on the front. Behind the front lines, isolated in no man’s land, simple, temporary wooden crosses marked the graves of those who had died in combat. Owing to the terrible extent of human losses, Canadian war cemeteries were established, starting in 1917, and maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). But the bodies of 19,598 Canadians were never found; many of them had been torn to shreds by the waves of violent shelling the infantry faced. The names of most of those men are engraved on the base of the war memorial at Vimy. In France and Belgium, where Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves during the war, 13 memorials in all were erected between the wars. The main one, and the most imposing, is the one at Vimy, which was inaugurated in 1936, with Canadian veterans and King Edward VIII in attendance. Located at the site of the Canadian victory of April 9, 1917, it honours all Canadians who fell on the field of honour during the Great War.
The Canadian soldiers of 1914–18 were also commemorated at home. Starting in November 1918, most Canadian municipalities signalled their intention to erect a monument in tribute to their dead, and to engrave on the marble, for posterity, the names of their citizens who died in the war. The war memorials gave civilians a way of publicly grieving and paying tribute to the war dead. These monuments were, for the first time in Canada’s history, on more than just a family or local scale: from sea to sea, over 1,300 cenotaphs went up, all commemorating the same event in which thousands of Canadians had taken part.
Between the wars, the federal government left it up to each community to erect its own memorial. Monument committees were set up, often on the initiative of women. The committees had to manage the finances, select an architect and determine a location for the monument, which, once inaugurated, was officially handed over to the municipal authorities. But a cenotaph was only a physical manifestation of the respect for the memory of those who died in 1914–18, and gradually, as the 1920s progressed, it became the focus of a commemorative ritual: Remembrance Day, November 11.
The choice of this date, originally known as Armistice Day, recalls first and foremost the end of the four years of slaughter and the peace won thanks to the soldiers’ sacrifice. The commemorative service of November 11 gradually took shape in the 1920s to honour the soldiers who had given their lives. Like religious rites, once established, the elements of the memorial liturgy were unchanging.
The November 11 ceremony is a structured space in which each player and each element of the commemorative rite has an important role to play:
– Since the early 1920s, the ceremony has generally opened with the national anthem, “O Canada.” This is the most meaningful moment, because at this instant, everyone present is united in the same respect and love of country that the soldiers being honoured died to preserve. The anthem confers upon the ceremony its duly patriotic character. Yet it is “God Save the King” (or later, the Queen) that closes the ceremony, recalling the constitutional link between Canada and Great Britain.
–After the secular, profane anthem, the religious dimension is reflected by prayers, often accompanied by hymns. Just as the national anthem serves to unite people in their love of their country, the religious element of prayer unites the members of various religious communities in the same place on the same occasion. Prayer is a reminder of the noble sacrifice of the dead for a cause deemed just by the living. Its function is nothing less than to glorify the dead in the eyes of the living in order to lessen the pain of their loss and give it meaning.
–Next follow two minutes of silence, introduced in 1919 on the recommendation of King George V, to give all those present a chance to turn their thoughts to those no longer among them. The silence is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of the men being honoured.
–The laying of wreaths is the funerary aspect of the ceremony and the implicit acknowledgement of the souls at rest. Decorated with flowers, the monument takes on the symbolic appearance of a collective tomb.
As part of the November 11 ceremony, the laying of wreaths by civilian and military authorities, but also by the crowd, expresses collective piety towards the war dead.
–Military units also take part. At the end of the ceremony, the units march through the streets, marking the return of life with a demonstration that calls for admiration of their handsome uniforms after the tribute to the dead.
The role of the army in the ceremony is not to celebrate the victory of November 11, but rather to represent the dead. The marching soldiers provide an eternally young and living image, a timeless image, as remembrance must be.
–The veterans, as well as the widows (dressed in black between the wars), are present, bearing witness for those no longer there and honouring comrades, sons and husbands. The spectators in the crowd also pay tribute to the veterans.
Along with war memorials and the Remembrance Day ceremony, a third tribute to the war dead is the wearing of poppies, which began in 1921. The poppy, celebrated in John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” was officially recognized in 1925 as the symbol of remembrance of those who died in 1914–18. Profits from sales were used to help war invalids. Wearing poppies each November 11 was a visible sign of respect for the memory of the soldiers who died in the Great War.
All these customs that were adopted in the aftermath of the First World War were also followed after the other wars of the 20th century, gradually diluting the specificity of the Great War: the war memorials, the November 11 ceremony and the poppies now honour all the dead of modern wars.
Studies of war monuments, November 11 and remembering the First World
War in Canada
Djebabla-Brun, Mourad. Se Souvenir de la Grande Guerre: La mémoire plurielle de 14-18 au Québec. Montreal: VLB, 2004. 182 p.
Labayle, Érice. 9 avril 1917: Les Canadiens à Vimy. Louviers: Ysec, 2001. 80 p.
Shipley, Robert. To Mark Our Place: A History of Canadian War Memorials. Toronto: NC Press, 1987. 200 p.
Vance, Jonathan. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000 (1997). 320 p.
Wood, Herbert, and John A. Swettenham. Silent Witnesses. Toronto: A. M. Hakkert, in association with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Canadian War Museum, 1974. xii-243 p.
Djebabla, a historian by training, specializes in military history, and
more specifically Quebec’s various forms of involvement in the First
World War and the “traces” of the war in contemporary Quebec
society. He has been published in Quebec and Canadian journals and presented
papers at conferences in Quebec and Ontario on the question of Quebec
and Canada in the Great War. He is a doctoral candidate in history at
Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), writing
his dissertation on war propaganda in Quebec and Ontario in 1914–18.
His UQAM master’s thesis, on the memory of the First World War in
Quebec since 1919, which he defended in the fall of 2003, earned him the
medal of the National Assembly of Quebec and was published by VLB in the
fall of 2004 under the title Se souvenir de la Grande Guerre: La mémoire
plurielle de 14–18 au Québec. He is a researcher and
co-ordinator of the Hector Fabre Chair in Quebec History at UQAM.