The centenaries follow one another thick and fast. We are about to mark the 800th anniversary of the greatest bargain ever struck: Magna Carta, sealed on June 15, 1215, the first document ever to raise the rules over the ruler. But, before we turn to that miracle, let’s bow our heads for a moment at a centenary just past: that of the first major action by Canadian soldiers in the First World War.
The Second Battle of Ypres, fought in April and May 1915, was monstrous even by the standards of the Western Front. It was the first time that the Germans used chlorine gas. The men of the 2nd Canadian Brigade alone held their position as the yellow-green clouds engulfed the troops around them. It did not take long for the venom to dissolve the Allied line, leaving heaps of dead and dying men, their faces mottled, froth on their tortured lips. Later, the Canadians were hit by a second gas attack; their casualty rate was one in three.
Few Britons can talk of the Canadian war effort without a catch in their voice. The thought of those young men, every one a volunteer, crossing half the world to defend our country makes us emotional even a century later. Despite almost unimaginable fatalities — 67,000 Canadians killed and 250,000 wounded out of a total population of 7 million — the children of those veterans rushed to volunteer in the Second World War: a million men and women in all.
What made them do it? Was it simply affinity of blood and speech, a determination to stand by a kindred people? Obviously that was part of the explanation. But I can’t believe it was the whole story — that the First and Second World Wars were ethnic conflicts, different only in scale from, say, the breakup of Yugoslavia or the Hutu-Tutsi massacres. Read the letters that those volunteers sent home, listen to contemporary accounts of the conflict, and you find a clear sense that people were fighting “for freedom.” The values of the English-speaking peoples were repeatedly contrasted against the enemy’s authoritarianism. We were better than the Prussians and the Nazis, we told ourselves, because we elevated the law above the government, the individual above the collective, fair dealing over raison d’état.
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