Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Birth of the nation' was terrible

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BRANDON -- In his book Vimy, author Pierre Berton describes a conversation between two Canadian Army officers in October 1916 following the battle of the Somme:

"Duncan Macintyre, the one-time Prairie storekeeper, now a staff captain with the 2nd Division, rode back along the line of march to meet his brigade, the 6th, on its way out... To Macintyre, astride his horse on a little rise, they seemed a surprisingly small group... He cantered forward and spotted a man he knew well, Maj. Alex Ross, leading his old battalion, the 28th, composed entirely of Northwesters.

"Where's the rest of the battalion, sir?" Macintyre asked him.

"This is all the battalion, Mac," replied Ross in a choked voice, and Macintyre could see the tears glistening in his eyes."

Alexander Ross was my great-great uncle. He is widely known for having written the following, as he reflected upon the first moments of Canada's victory in 1917 at Vimy Ridge:

"From dugouts, shell holes and trenches, men sprang into action, fell into military formations and advanced to the ridge -- every division of the corps moved forward together. It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation."

A veteran of almost every major battle of the First World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions while in command of the 28th Battalion of the Canadian Corps at Vimy.

Having read his memoirs and spoken to people who knew him well, I think my uncle would be disappointed that his "birth of a nation" comment, first spoken by him at the dedication of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in 1936, has been used by some to glorify war.

When he gave that speech, he was not endorsing warfare as a means of acquiring or enhancing national identity. He was lamenting the cost, paid in Canadian lives, through which Canada acquired its sense of nationhood.

He took pride in the victory at Vimy, but he did not regard the First World War as a glorious endeavour and he never regarded himself as a hero. He never forgot 3,598 Canadians died at Vimy, more than 67,000 Canadians were killed during that war, and another 150,000 were wounded.

My uncle's friends tell me he was haunted by the carnage he witnessed on the battlefields of France and Belgium.

"We marched from the Somme a sadly depleted unit," he wrote in his memoirs. "We had gone in at full strength of about 1,100 men -- we went out with less than half that number."

Recalling the battle at Passchendaele, he wrote "I had never seen my men so depressed as we moved into the Salient. They knew what the Salient was like, always had been like. It was the graveyard of everybody."

Cpl. H.C. Baker, who served under my uncle, described the horror of Passchendaele on Nov. 6, 1917:

"The shell-exploded bodies were so thickly strewn that a fellow couldn't step without stepping on corruption. Our opponents were fighting a rearguard action which resulted in a massacre for both sides. Our boys were falling like ninepins, but it was even worse for them. If they stood up to surrender they were mown down by their own machine gunfire aimed from their rear at us; if they leapfrogged back they were caught in our barrage.

"I've never experienced anything like the savagery of that assault. I was burning. My eyes, my nostrils, my throat, even deep in my lungs seemed to be on fire and, no matter what I did, I couldn't stop shaking."

Baker recalled the 28th Battalion's roll call the next morning, saying, "Sometimes someone replied. More often there was silence. My impression was that we had won the ridge and lost the battalion."

Friday is Remembrance Day -- the day we honour the more than 110,000 Canadians who were killed and the almost 300,000 who were wounded in the two world wars, the Korean War, Afghanistan, peacekeeping and training missions and various other deployments.

It is not the day for politicians to romanticize the so-called glory of war. It is the moment for each of us to acknowledge and reflect upon its terrible cost.

These men and woman had names. They had hopes, dreams and families who loved them. They loved this country so much they were willing to die for it -- and far too many did.

That is something my uncle always remembered.

Deveryn Ross is a political

commentator who lives in Brandon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2011 A10

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