While traveling in Paris recently with a high school group, an experienced and very accomplished local tour guide after learning that we had just visited Juno Beach, remarked to me that among the many nationalities she tours, none are as interested in, or as knowledgeable about their country’s involvement in World War I and II as Canadians. I found this interesting coming from her, and added that in my nine years as a tour manager, my sense was that the interest was growing. All of this made me wonder why?
There are some easy answers. First of all, the impending anniversaries, for example, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion come to mind. Everyone likes to commemorate anniversaries, or, at the very least, anniversaries bring the events that happened so long ago to the forefront once again. Secondly, there is the rapid disappearance of the World War II veterans and the emotion that their passing evokes. These are compelling reasons for the growing interest, but they are true for all other countries that were involved. So, I thought there must be more.
I began to reflect on the pride Canadians feel when visiting the sites on our tours. When the First war broke out in the summer of 1914, Canada, as a colony of Britain was given no choice, we were automatically in. And, at the outset, we fought as part of the larger British force. But as the war ground on, Canadians began to make their mark on the battle fields. At the Second Battle of Ypres, in April, 1915, Canadians endured the first poison gas attack in the history of warfare, not once, but twice, and stopped a rupture in the trench lines that might have been catastrophic for the larger war effort. Then, in April, 1917, attacking for the first time as a single unit, Canada’s four divisions succeeded in taking Vimy Ridge. A victory they won after the French and British had failed for three years at a cost of in excess of 250,000 casualties. 1918 found them spearheading the attack, along with their Australian colonial brothers, at the crucial battle of Amiens, making significant gains that led directly to the final armistice. In the end, Canada took giant steps toward nationhood during the conflict and gained the right to sign the Treaty of Versailles separately from Britain. Student groups and adults alike burst with pride as we visit these sites and hear the stories of Canadian heroism.
In the Second World War, Canada symbolically waited a week after Britain to declare war on Germany. After two years of inaction, in August 1942, Canadians led the ill-fated attack on Dieppe at the cost of 907 killed in one short morning. It was a disastrous defeat, but the gallantry of the Canadians could not be disputed and the controversy about the attack rages to this day. In July of 1943, Canadians demanded, and were given an integral role in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. The taking of Sicily soon morphed into the attack on the mainland, and Canadians acquitted themselves marvellously in such famous places as Ortona, the Liri Valley and on the Gothic Line. As the focus turned to D-Day, and the Normandy Invasion, Canadians were given responsibility for one of the five beaches. So, as was the case in the First World War, Canadians played a major role in the victory in Europe.
After the Second World War Canadian school children learned that Canadians, as a charter member, had become stalwarts in the United Nations and won great respect as peacekeepers in a war weary world. This seemed to be a role that fit the values of the growing multicultural nation. And future Prime Minister, Lester Pearson put an exclamation point on that reputation when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in defusing the troublesome Suez Crisis in the mid 1950’s.
But in recent decades this seemingly has changed. Canadians no longer are known as peacekeepers, and in fact seem to be involving themselves directly in conflicts such as the one in Afghanistan, and potentially in places like the Middle East and the Ukraine, rather than standing in the middle, striving to bring peace. And Canadians seem to struggle in trying to define our new role in world affairs. So, it is possible that underlying the anniversaries, and the feeling for the aged veterans who are leaving us rapidly, may be a nostalgic longing for a simpler time when our contributions were more easily understood. Whatever the case, as we move toward the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, in 1917, and the 70th anniversary of the Second World War Victory in Europe, the interest among Canadians continues to grow.