by Tom Regan
For Canada and the United States, World War 1 has very different meanings.
In America, it is a barely remembered oddity. Very few Americans know that 100 years ago today, April 6, 1917, America entered the First World War. Buried under the tsunami of the Greatest Generation that won World War II, and wedged in between that war and the Civil War some 50 years beforehand, the war to end all wars rates barely a blip in a country that pays scanned attention to its history at the best of times.
It’s a completely different story in Canada. World War I is very much present in the minds of many older and younger Canadians. And that is primarily because of one battle – Vimy Ridge which started 100 years ago this coming Sunday, April 9. It was the first time that all four Canadian divisions in the war fought together. Both the British and the French tried to take Vimy Ridge but failed. In reality the repeated assaults on the Ridge were little more than diversionary tactics designed to draw German strength away from a more important battle, the battle of Arras. But that did not matter to Canadians, who stormed and captured Vimy Ridge in a battle that became mythologized, true or not, as the “moment” Canada became a country.
In America, World War I was seen as a problem that the United States needed to avoid. The imperial powers of Britain and France fought the imperial powers of Germany, Russia and Turkey for control of the European continent. Although Britain and France upheld democratic ideals that were very close to what Americans believed in, American politicians distrusted their long-term objectives and saw the war as a way for the countries involved merely to increase their territorial holdings. (And in some ways, this was very true, particularly in areas like the Middle East, where the Sykes-Picot agreement on how to divide up that part of the world between the imperial powers continues to haunt us to this day.)
Two events changed America’s perspective on the war. The first was the sinking of the British ship the Lusitania in 1915 where 128 Americans were killed when it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea by a German submarine. After this, American President Woodrow Wilson became much more vocal in his support of Britain and France, despite the attempts of German-Americans to keep America out of the war.
The final straw was the Zimmerman letter. Issued by the German Foreign Ministry in January 1917. The Zimmerman letter or telegram was sent to the government of Mexico and proposed a military alliance between the two countries and Japan if the United States entered the war. (Germany, which had decided to return to unrestricted submarine attacks on merchant shipping, anticipated this would draw in the US.) It called on Mexico to invade United States and Germany promised that it would help recapture and hold the land it had lost in the 1840s including Texas and Arizona and New Mexico. The letter created a firestorm in the United States and after that it was only a matter of time before the Americans went “over there.”
But despite its current low profile, World War I did affect America in many important ways. Perhaps the most important way was how many immigrants, who had always been viewed with suspicion by Anglo-Protestant Americans, came to be seen as “real” Americans for the first time because of their willingness to sign up and fight. It also promoted America’s move from a mostly rural culture to a much more urban one. For many of the thousands of troops who went to Britain and France this was the first time they had been more than 20 or 30 miles away from the spot on which they had been born. And, as the song says, “How ya going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris.”
Meanwhile Canada had been involved in the struggle from the very beginning, but always under the command of British officers. Which was what happened at Vimy Ridge was so important because the Canadians won that battle with minimal British help.
There were dark moments. In Newfoundland, which back then was in a colony of Britain and not yet a part of Canada, July 1 does not only mark the day Canada became a country in 1867. July 1 marks the day that 758 Newfoundlanders took the field at Beaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916. By the end of that day 90% of the Newfoundland Regiment were dead, dying, or wounded. At the next day’s roll call only 68 men were present. There was hardly a town or an outport in all of Newfoundland that was not touched by that day’s events.
For me, World War I is also very present. I was named after a great uncle, my grandmother’s brother, who was killed by a sniper during the war. I have very strong memories of watching First World War veterans taking part in ceremonies at the National Cenotaph in Ottawa when I was growing up. As a youngster, I met several men who had fought in the war. It does not seem like it was 100 years ago to me.
After the war, Canada was different. It no longer saw itself as a colony of Great Britain but as its own country and some 20 odd years later when World War II started, Canada did not declare war on Germany the same day as Great Britain but purposely waited several days before doing it on its own to make the point ‘we call our own shots from now on.’
Taking a more realistic view, World War I was an unnecessary slaughter ofmillions of men on both sides for reasons that are still not very clear. And while Vimy Ridge was an important moment for many Canadians, it’s fair to say that it means more to English Canada than to French Canada, so the claim that it is the moment that Canada became a country needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
I think that after this year’s anniversaries, World War I, the war to end all wars, will continue to disappear into the background, perhaps only commented on in British historical dramas, Canada’s National Film Board documentaries, and maybe some Ken Burns-like filmmaker in America deciding to do a series on PBS. For a war that meant led to so many changes for so many countries, I doubted 50 years from now it will be little more than a few paragraphs in high school history books.