When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically at war as well. There were a lot of parades and bravado as young Canadians marched off to enlist, expecting to defeat the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians and to be home by Christmas. It did not turn out that way, as the sides dug in for muddy and brutal trench warfare along lines in Belgium and France.
Canadians were not home for Christmas but something exceptional did happen at the front among German and allied soldiers. Estimates are that up to 100,000 British and German participated in an unofficial ceasefire along the Western Front. There was also a Christmas truce on the Eastern front which, although lesser known, involved Austrian and Russian soldiers.
In the West, the truce started on Christmas Eve, when German troops decorated the area around their trenches in Belgium. They placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees, then they sang carols, and the British responded with carols of their own. Men from the two sides called out Christmas greetings to each other. Soon after, they crossed No Man’s Land to exchange small gifts, such as food, tobacco, alcohol and souvenirs. They even played soccer. Continue reading Christmas Truce 1914
One hundred years ago this month Europe stumbled into a catastrophic war after a Bosnian Serb assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne along with his wife in Sarajevo. The great powers lined up in their alliances and when Great Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada, as a British colony, was automatically plunged into a conflict that killed and maimed an astonishing 37 million people. Among them were 61,000 Canadian dead and another 150,000 wounded.
The Globe and Mail reports that the Conservative government plans to spend $83 million over the next six years to commemorate this and other of Canada’s wars — a figure that does not include the $30 million already spent celebrating the War of 1812. Among the plans is one to rededicate the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
A group called PeaceQuest, however, says that although it respects the military sacrifices made by Canadians, it believes that the government should also rededicate the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. And if it won’t, then citizens should.
This poses an interesting clash of iconic images. The 92-metre Peace Tower, perhaps the country’s most recognized monument, serves as a backdrop each year to Canada Day ceremonies. The tower was initially designed as a monument to Canadians who died during the First World War but it also contains strong peace elements — including a stone sculpted dove — which describe a desire for peace.
The National War Memorial is the backdrop for annual Remembrance Day ceremonies, which always have a militaristic tinge to them. The memorial was built to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War but ironically it was unveiled in May 1939, just months before the onset of the Second World War.
The Globe and Mail quotes from a document in which the chief of Defence Staff outlines commemorative plans based on the belief that Canada’s unique identity “stems in significant part from its achievement in times of war.”
Although I have no access to Defence Department deliberations, I was able to wander into a recent meeting of PeaceQuest in an Ottawa church hall. PeaceQuest originated in Kingston, Ontario and now has a small chapter in Ottawa, with similar plans for other cities and towns. One of those involved is Jamie Swift, who works in Kingston for The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, and is the co-author of the book, Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.
Swift explained that PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. Instead, it wants to provide a “counter narrative” to the government’s attempts to paint Canada as a militaristic nation. He says that PeaceQuest encourages people to look at Canada in more broad terms. Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization. It has chosen rather, to provide thought and resources that will be of interest to people in their faith groups, in schools and in among writers and artists.
In the group meeting in Ottawa, a number of potential plans were discussed. Several, in addition to rededicating the Peace Tower, piqued my interest. One is to build upon the Christmas Truce of Dec. 24, 1914, when German soldiers in the trenches along the Western front in Belgium and France sang carols and decorated Christmas trees. Before long (and much to the chagrin of their senior officers), soldiers from both sides exchanged greetings and presents and engaged in a soccer game on no-man’s land. This amounted to an informal ceasefire that lasted up to a week in some areas along the trenches.
The event has been memorialized in books and a video, and people at the PeaceQuest meeting talked about ways to celebrate that same spirit of peace in December 2014. So stay tuned.
A government that recently spent millions of dollars memorializing the War of 1812 plans to spend much more, commemorating the centennial of the First World War and re-dedicating the National War Memorial.
But while those plans are being made to celebrate militarized patriotism, a group called PeaceQuest is busy offering a counter-narrative to war, talking about re-dedicating the Peace Tower — which rises above the Parliament building — and celebrating the yearning for peace that runs through Canada’s history and psyche.
Says Swift: “The government will use anniversaries of the First World War and Vimy Ridge to extend its narrative about our nation being forged in fire and coming of age through those military events. We view them as a tragedy and not as a great stepping stone to Canadian nationhood.”
PeaceQuest is not interested in a partisan effort or the politics of opposition. “We are more attracted to the politics of proposition,” Swift says. “What we want to do is engage in more of a cultural project that looks at our country in broader terms than its military history. Polling consistently shows that Canadian have a deep attachment to peace and to our reputation as peace keepers and peacemakers.”
Nor does PeaceQuest intend to create a new organization to which other groups and individuals would belong: “We want to organize around themes that a variety of groups could support in their own ways. In Kingston, we are organized around several streams, including faith, education and culture. For example, we know that the peace theme is central to the Catholic mass and in the religious services of other Christian churches, mosques and synagogues.”
The cultural stream is also important. “There is a lot going on in theatre and literature and music that deals with peace,” Swift adds. He mentions a book, called The Glorious Art of Peace, by author John Gittings and a film called Joyeux Noël, which explains how on Christmas Eve 1914, German and Allied soldiers spontaneously laid down their guns and embraced the men in trenches across the way – an unplanned moment of humanity in an otherwise brutal war.
Canadians and their media love celebrating anniversaries, and the government will use that interest to promote its warrior nation agenda. PeaceQuest, on the other hand, will use those same anniversaries to tap into something more profound.
“War is a tragedy,” says Swift, “but we also want people to consider how they can live in peace with each other in their families and communities, and finally among nations.”
This article was published on the United Church Observer blog on November 13, 2013.