Sunday, April 08, 2007

Canadian Glory

When I was 7 years old, my friend's grandfather visited him for a summer. The memories fade but I still remember the first time my buddy told me of his grandfather's upcoming visit, and the hushed pride recounting how his grandfather was a veteran of World War I. That status meant a lot to us, for even at that age we were both constantly devouring books on history, our playtime spent re-enacting famous battles in backyards and sandboxes: we felt ourselves connected to our nation's past, however shadowy our understanding of it may have been. My friend excitedly filled me in with precious anecdotes his grandfather had previously shared with his family, ranging from gas attacks to crawling under barbed wire fences across no-man's-land to other colorful adventures that made 7-year old imaginations soar.

Thinking back across thirty years to this older gentleman, this first Great War veteran I ever met, I remember that he truly was a gentle man. I remember a deferring humility, a gentleness, a patience for children's incessant (and no doubt impertinent) questions. I remember a quick smile when he would walk past us with our toy soldiers spread out on my friend's living room carpet; God only knows what thoughts went through his mind as he watched us 7-year old generals manipulate our plastic troops across the "battlefield", occasionally singing out in theatrical cries of pain as we would mimic an artillery shell's effects on a column of marching infantry.

But most of all, even after all this time, I remember my friend's delight in his grandfather's very existence, so that today I wonder about the man he grew up to become as a result of his being blessed with his grandfather's presence in his life, as an example of tenderness and strength, to look up to.
I was reminded of all this as I read a letter published this weekend in the National Post, an old letter from a Canadian soldier, to the wife back home he was missing so dearly.
The following letter was written by John Walter Ellis to his wife in Tillsonburg, Ontario, on Saturday April 14, 1917, shortly after his participation in the battle of Vimy Ridge, 90 years ago this week:
My Own Darling Kitty,
Hear I am sitting in my dug out back of the line and have found a minute to write you a wee line, as I know how you'll be worrying & wondering how I'm keeping.
Well darling no doubt the papers will be full of the great Canadian advance & I must say I'm truly thankful & the Almighty has spared me this far & I only trust He will bring me safely through & back to my loved ones.
Our Company were lucky & we were a "carrying party", we had to bring up ammunition & supplies for the attacking party. We were sent up to hold the front line for a while after the advance was over, although since Fritz has retired further back. We had a few boys killed & wounded Poor George Mowforth was killed & a couple more Tillsonburg boys, Stuart & Bolgarters & Hearsy was wounded. I had several narrow escapes but thank God
I'm yet safe & well. I do hope & pray it will soon be all over as I don't want to see anything like it again. Things certainly look better every day & I hope they'll continue.
Now darling I should not be telling you all this as you'll only worry all the more, but as long as I'm well there's no need to. …
… Hows my little darling babe getting along. How her Daddy is longing for the day when he can take both her & her dear mother in his arms again. I live in that hope & pray it may be soon. Well love I haven't much more to say now. I'll write again soon. Give my best love to Mother, Dad & Maggie and little Sonny. Give my darling a big hug & a kiss & accept tons of love & kisses to your dear, dear self!
Ever your own darling devoted hubby
A month later, on May 14, 1917, another letter was sent to John Walter Ellis' wife, this time not from the soldier, but from a colleague:
5928 Pt. Ellis
2nd Canadians
It is with much sorrow I am writing to you to tell you of the death of your husband he was admitted her & 30 @ C/[?] very severely wounded in his chest - on 3 5-17 he died
6 45 pm 13 5-17 he at first did very well & we had great hopes of his recovery, he got suddenly very much worse, became unconscious & died shortly after. He was always talking about your & his little one & hoping to get home to you.
We all feel so sorry for you hour husband was a great favourite with the interns & orderlies He will be buried at Aubigny & will lie with many other brave men who like him have give all for others.
His grave will be marked by a cross with his name. Please accept my very deep sympathy in
you great trouble
With much sympathy yours truly
Lt. [?]/C JR Harwill

John Walter Ellis was one Canadian name out of many who too often remain nameless, their sacrifices taken too much for granted, unappreciated by current generations reclining in the shallow belief that all our national glory has been eternal, as abiding as the earth under our feet, and as equally beyond cause-and-effect... for what did we do, what could we do, to build the snow-capped mountains in whose shadows we live?

Echoing a sentiment expressed in one of Truepeers' posts from last week: so much of our learning is, in effect, remembering, piercing the shadows to discover the debt which we should live to repay, choosing acts that validate the investment that has been made in us. The day we forget the enormous accumulation of sacrifices made in our name, the long list of lives lost for the sake of lives yet unborn, on that day such a disconnect to our past would bring an amnesia that will surely fill us with despair rather than any relief such "freedom" may be presumed to offer.

Our past fills our lives with purpose, with duty; and it is this burden that compels us to rise up to become worthy of its weight. The young daughter in this letter, whose father did not return from France, grew up without his counsel; her life became one of learning through her mother's memories, what kind of gracious and loving man her father was capable of being. Were she to turn her back on that past, however painful it may be, she would lose much of herself and the reason she was brought upon the Earth: to spread life, and hope, and love.
In the shadow of the anniversary of the battle for the heights of Vimy Ridge, we remember the shadow cast upon us by this loving father's sacrifice. We humble ourselves to remember the towering sacrifices of all the fathers and grandfathers whose actions granted us, through an undeniable cause-and-effect, the blessing to possess memories in the first place. We strain our memories to recall those who returned and lived to bring love and new life into the world. Through such memories we may more clearly imagine the debt we owe to those who, like John Walter Ellis, brought glory to our nation through the example of their unfinished lives.

It is by affirming that memory, and acting upon it, that we can begin to prove ourselves worthy of their glory.
May God Bless them all, and may we continue to keep Canada Glorious and Free.

1 comment:

truepeers said...


This is a simultaneous comment on this and the previous excellent post which sound very true about the importance of memory and tradition to any commitment to progress. As with any fundamental truth, the importance of memory to progress is at heart a paradox. Given the paradoxical nature of human culture - paradoxical because it is founded in real events, not in abstract logic, and in the always somewhat mysterious process by which events are transcended by their representations - it is well to note that the first importance of memory is to appreciate the manifold nature of any great event, and not think that we have to, or that we can, reduce the event to a certain moralism.

Yet this truth is easily abused. The moderately educated among us tend today to assert that our claim on memory, on events like Vimy, is a claim on one particular and certain moralism, at the expense of others, and then they use this argument to call for a diversity of memories and a spirit of relativism, forgetting that the purpose of exploring a diversity is to get more in touch with its founding unity.

One of the more obnoxious headlines I've seen pertaining to this anniversary of Vimy was in a newspaper article I could not bring myself to read; it said something along the lines of "But isn't this Vimy commemoration alienating to New Canadians"?

No, the march of the nation's progress is something in which all comers who believe in progress can partake, if they are committed to an honest quest for an understanding of human and national progress. This quest should not alienate anyone because it will, in time, lead one to a humble understanding of what is universal to our humanity, and to seek out an anthropology that can explore both the universal basis of our particular historical traditions, and judge how well these particular traditions both understand and help to progress our universal humanity. After all, it is only through a particular ethical tradition that we can know anything about our humanity, the motive force behind our nation's faith in progress.

My mother is an immigrant, with a family from the side of our former enemies, and I have no trouble remembering Vimy. My maternal forebears fought, in WWI, for the Austro-Hungarian empire. My grandfather's father, a secular Jew and Freemason, a romantic poet, died in a Russian POW camp, from typhoid I think. So my grandfather grew up fatherless and, in 1938, found reason to flee his Bohemian homeland to the Anglosphere. That would not have been possible if not for the sponsorship of his father's brother (another WWI vet) who had preceded him to England along with his rather Jewish engineering company who collectively transferred their work, developing a helicopter, from Germany to a Britain that welcomed the promise of helicopters, if not all Jewish refugees. I have a vague recollection from my early boyhood of attending a reception after my great uncle's funeral in London and talking with an elderly gentleman in a funny costume. I'm now willing to bet he was a Freemason, since my great uncle was also one of those anglophile Masonic types that central European Jewry once produced in sizeable numbers.

But this memory of World War I and II (what now looks like a single civil war in the long history of Western civilization), and of secular Jews and Freemasonry, necessarily entails memories of men fighting and people dying for notions of progress that were, at the time, housed in somewhat secularizing systems of syncretic and Gnostic religious belief that I happen to think cannot sustain forever a faith in progress. I am not at all sure that the movement from traditional Judaism to secular Jewish and Masonic identities was a path of progress without limits, for I think we have recently seen its limits, even as in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was a path that many Jews in the German-speaking world took in the name of progress, and quite rightly so.

I now find myself returning to some of the original sources or revelations of Judeo-Christian religion, seeking the basis for my re-dedication to this tradition (with the help of secular anthropological study of the historical and progressive ethic of Western religion). So I have no qualms sympathetically quoting a Catholic historian like Christopher Dawson:

“The day of the Liberal Deist compromise is over, and we have come to the parting of the ways. Either Europe must abandon the Christian tradition and with it the faith in progress and humanity, or it must return consciously to the religious tradition on which these ideas were based. ... It must be recognized that our faith in progress and in the unique value of human experience rests on religious foundations, and that they cannot be severed from historical religion and used as a substitute for it, as men have attempted to do during the last two centuries."


"Thus in comparison with the optimism of liberalism the Christian view of life and the Christian interpretation of history are profoundly tragic. The true progress of history is a mystery which is fulfilled in failure and suffering and which will only be revealed at the end of time. The victory that overcomes the world is not success but faith and it is only the eyes of faith that understands the true value of history."

Paradox, again, demanding humility.

What is ultimately at stake in our memory of Vimy Ridge and WWI is not simply a knowledge of Canadian ingenuity and success, a given loyalty to one side or another, or a claim in 2007 to convert newcomers to Canadianism through some kind of moral suasion. Rather, it is, I think, a commitment to remember the many claims on the event and the general faith in shared comradeship and progress that fueled competing forces. And then, in a spirit of humility appropriate to consideration of such a diversity we may begin to find a renewed unity, a renewed national covenant, and thus a path to the future; and here we may begin to divine the constitutive paradox and the transcendent truth of that great event, Vimy.

This weekend, being Easter, I decided to move from my regular kind of reading and pick up a novel, something I rarely do anymore. I fell upon an old copy of Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms (1952), a fictionalized account of the author's wartime experiences. Allow me to quote a passage that speaks to a truth or spirit that was well known in 1914, if not at the end of the First War. The protagonist, Guy Crouchback, has returned to England from his life in Italy and joined, in winter 1939-40, a regiment of Halberdiers:

"One of the characteristics of the Halberdiers was a tradition of firm churchmanship. Papistry and Dissent were almost unknown among the regulars. Long-service recruits were prepared for Confirmation by the chaplain as part of their elementary training. The parish church of the town was the garrison chapel. For Sunday Mattins the whole back of the nave was reserved for the Halberdiers who marched there from the barracks behind their band. After church the ladies of the garrison - wives, widows and daughters in whom the town abounded, whose lawns were mown by Halberdiers and whose joints of beef were illicitly purchased from the Halberdier stores - assembled with hymn books in their hands at the Officers' House for an hour's refreshment and gossip. Nowhere in England could there be found a survival of a Late-Victorian Sunday so complete and so unselfconcscoius, as at the Halberdier barracks.

As the only Catholic officer Guy was in charge of the Catholic details. There were a dozen of them, all National Service men. He inspected them on the square and marched them to mass at the tin church in a side street. The priest was a recent graduate from Maynooth who had little enthusiasm for the Allied cause or for the English army, which he regarded merely as a provocation to immorality in the town. His sermon that morning was not positively offensive; there was nothing in it to make the basis of a complaint; but when he spoke of `this terrible time of doubt, danger and suffering in which we live,' Guy stiffened. It was a time of glory and dedication."

How many Canadians in 1939 could have felt the same glory, given their memories of World War I? Some but by no means all. And yet why not claim Waugh's Catholic faith, and dedication to the essential tradition on which any real progress rests, for our British Columbia? The reader may think this a queer turn of thought. But, to my mind, one of the better representations of interwar and WWII youth and high society in British Columbia is found in a long-forgotten novel by one John Cornish, The Provincials (1951) which shamelessly takes plot and character outlines from Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and transfers them to BC. How does it work? Read on and thus explore the paradox of the events which give way to our many memories.

Only by rededicating ourselves to memory of the great event can we hope to find our own form of commitment in this world and to avoid the dictatorship of relativism which pretends to support any and all memories but in reality seeks to destroy all that threaten its ruling nihilism. I believe that those who took Vimy, in the fourth year of a war that was already and obviously a nightmare calamity for Western civilization, kept fighting and found the resolve to succeed so so that we might have transcendent memories that would free us from the collapse into nihilism that that war brought about for so many. We must make a commitment to a tradition and its ideas of progress. Only then have we any right to worry about taking sides.