The Past of Remembrance Day: Breaking the Faith

The white poppy movement, begun at the University of Ottawa, has sparked a great deal of controversy about Remembrance Day and the use of the poppy as a symbol. Today, Clio's Current wants to add to this discussion by talking about the past and future of Remembrance Day in Canada.

In an article that appeared in the National Post, Matt Gurney excoriates the group of UofO students who support wearing a white poppy, which they argue represents commemorating peace, as opposed to the red poppies issued by the Royal Canadian Legion. Celyn Dufay, one advocate for the white poppy movement, suggests that “young people don’t want to celebrate war. We want to work for peace.” Gurney then criticizes Dufay for not being a history major and claims her campaign lacks logic.

At the crux of this debate lies a misunderstanding about twentieth-century history—perhaps both Gurney and Dufay need to be enlightened. Many Canadians see the First World War as inherently connected to the war against Nazism and Hitler. Gurney’s turgid piece exemplifies this trend—he writes that it’s worth recapping why the poppy was chosen as the symbol of remembrance. He claims the wildflower provided colour to an otherwise hellish background. Gurney then tackles the broader context of Canadian involvement in the Second World War, Afghanistan and beyond. His comments about how Allied Bomber Command, which eventually sought to crush German morale by killing civilians, saved his brother-in-law’s grandfather from being murdered at Auschwitz are mystifying, since the Soviets, not the Anglo-Canadian Allies, liberated Auschwitz.

At any rate, Gurney’s article and the debate surrounding it suggest that the Great War is subsumed under the “good” and “just” war against fascism in Europe. The problem, however, is that why we fought in the First World War remains a fertile source of debate. Some argue that Britain had to stop Prussian militarism and expansionism—so Britain could maintain hegemony over the millions of people they ruled and oppressed. Still others claim that the war brought few benefits to Britain and its empire.

How then was the First World War remembered immediately following the Armistice in 1918 and has it changed much over time? Does the white poppy movement’s attempt to modify Remembrance Day represent a great change in the broader context?

In Canada, Remembrance Day was originally commemorated as Armistice Day. The first Armistice Day was held on 11 November 1919, which marked a year since the war had ended. It was only when H.M. Mowat, the MP for the Toronto riding of Parkdale, first introduced a motion in 1920 that pushed the government to officially recognized Armistice Day. It was passed in 1921. The motion dictated that it was to be celebrated on the Monday of the week of 11 November (actually alongside Thanksgiving at that time).  During the 1920s, Canadians attended church services each November to remember their loved ones and those affected by the war. By the late 1920s, Canadians began to read new books that reassessed the war's meaning and they celebrated Canadian General Arthur Currie as he stood in a courtroom to defend his war record against libel. There was a new impetus to reinforce the positive memory of the war. The Armistice Ceremonial Committee of Canada was formed by prominent Canadian citizens and standardized the service for each Armistice Day. The Committee also pushed for the day to be considered a separate holiday on 11 November. By 1931, royal assent was given to a new law declaring Remembrance Day on 11 November every year. Importantly, the name was changed from its original Armistice Day as Canadians' formal understanding shifted from commemorating the final day of the war to remembering the sacrifice of those who brought about its end.

During the 1930s, as Jonathan Vance's Death So Noble outlines, Canadians continued to fervently recognize 11 November. While there was some opposition to the implied glorification of militarism, most Canadians debated how best to remember their loved ones. In the late 1930s,  the situation in Europe seemed to point towards another conflict and attendance at Remembrance Day reached new heights. As Vance notes, it became a public statement affirming the myth of Canada's war. That myth, that the war was fought for peace and had crafted a unified Canadian nation, would continue to echo in subsequent Remembrance Day ceremonies to the present day.

By the end of the Second World War, Remembrance Day took on a slightly different meaning. How could Canadians celebrate the end of the First World War when it had so clearly led to the Second one?

CBC war correspondent Matthew Halton answered this question when he recorded his thoughts on 11 November 1944 while in France.  After having witnessing the success of Canadians in Normandy, he visited the Vimy Ridge Memorial to Canadians who fought in the First World War. He reflected on how Canadians should commemorate their current war against Nazism in the shadow of another war. The ghosts of Vimy, he told his listeners, might say “what are you going to do after this war? Perhaps you are going to build a memorial twice as high as this one, on the road from Caen to Falaise, to commemorate our sons, the dead and damned battalions, the Black Watch and the North Nova Scotias and the rest. Arras, Bapaume, Ypres, and Vimy Ridge. That was the anthem of the doomed youth of one generation.  Bretteville, Caen, Tilly and Falaise, that’s the anthem of the doomed youth of another. We died, our sons died, what are going to do? Listen, don't think you saved the 3rd generation by killing off all your enemies... there will be mad dogs again in the future, what are you going to do?”

Halton's words speak more to the modern Canadian Remembrance Day than the one of the interwar period.  In a sense, Canadians were already “breaking faith” with the past.  A new conception of Remembrance Day had to emerge from the Second World War, one which could include the immensity of a second great war, arguably even more terrible than the first.  Since then, a multitude of meanings have been imbued in our commemoration of 11 November, some which emphasize the message of peace and “never again,” some which focus on the soldiers of “dead and damned battalions” lost in war, others on the military service for our nation, and probably countless more.  The difficulty in agreeing on the meaning of Remembrance Day is what we discuss in Monday's post.