Donald Brittain’s Fields of Sacrifice brings to the screen a series of powerful and moving images of Canadian battlefields, military cemeteries and memorials from the two world wars. First released in 1964, the film is very much a product of its era. The narration emphasizes the terrible cost of war and the need to honour the sacrifices of the 100,000 Canadians who died in the conflicts without explaining why Canada went to war in the first place or why we were involved in so many costly battles. Viewers may want to pause and reflect on such issues because unless we know something about the reasons for the soldiers’ sacrifice honouring them can become an empty gesture. This short essay is very much a product of our era when Canadians are rediscovering their history, especially the history of the wars.
The debate over the origins and conduct of the First World War continues to engage historians. Many still view the war as a futile struggle when naive young men, raised to believe in honour, duty and manliness, were slaughtered in pointless battles planned by incompetent generals. Canadians who hold this view have often supplemented it with the memory of a war in which their soldiers won great victories and forged a new national identity. The idea that Canadian nationalism was created on the slopes of Vimy Ridge is now a cliché in constant use in English-speaking Canada.
Vimy was a significant tactical victory and the Canadian Corps did become “the shock troops of the British Empire,” but we also need to know what Canadians thought they were fighting for. The generation that went to war in 1914 was well informed about events in Europe and believed, correctly, that the war began when the German government and military deliberately transformed the crisis over the assassination of an Austrian archduke into an opportunity to wage and win a war for European supremacy. Canada went to war because Britain, the mother country, was at war, but Canadians fought to liberate Belgium and occupied France, and to defeat German militarism. Both soldiers and civilians continued to support the war effort until the armistice of November 1918 because peace without victory would have meant peace on the enemy’s terms.
With hindsight we can link the peace terms at the Treaty of Versailles with the rise of Hitler and the beginning of the Second World War but the generation that mourned the sacrifice of so many young lives believed they were fighting in a great moral crusade. We should understand the idealism and purpose behind the sacrifice as well as the tragedy of their loss.