War and Sacrifice

Why Canada Should Remember

Lucas Robertson
November 5, 2021
Canada lost 61,000 of its finest young men to combat in the First World War, nearly all of them volunteers, and 42,000 killed in the Second World War. Another 240,000 were wounded or taken prisoner during the two global conflagrations. Today, as historical amnesia gradually settles over a country living in the present, some aim to subsume the civilization-saving bravery and sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers by transforming Remembrance Day into a politically charged time for celebrating socially favoured sub-groups. Lucas Robertson declares a firm “No” to such tendentious revisionism and reminds us that Canada’s war dead and what they accomplished for this nation are worth remembering in their own right.
War and Sacrifice

Why Canada Should Remember

Lucas Robertson
November 5, 2021
Canada lost 61,000 of its finest young men to combat in the First World War, nearly all of them volunteers, and 42,000 killed in the Second World War. Another 240,000 were wounded or taken prisoner during the two global conflagrations. Today, as historical amnesia gradually settles over a country living in the present, some aim to subsume the civilization-saving bravery and sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers by transforming Remembrance Day into a politically charged time for celebrating socially favoured sub-groups. Lucas Robertson declares a firm “No” to such tendentious revisionism and reminds us that Canada’s war dead and what they accomplished for this nation are worth remembering in their own right.
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Like millions of Canadians I spend Remembrance Day reflecting on my acknowledgement of and gratitude towards the men and women of this country who have had the courage to serve in Canada’s Armed Forces and have selflessly given their lives in defence of our nation. More broadly, to acknowledge all the men and women who have made it their career to defend the ideals of liberty, justice and equality in the face of tyranny around the globe. And while I would like to acknowledge all the Canadian men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service of their country, I believe it necessary to pay special recognition to the men killed in combat in the First World War and the Second World War.

As inevitably happened with the veterans of the First World War, each year that passes we lose more and more of our Second World War veterans to the hand of time. Sometime in the near future, none will be left. The fleeting and steadily extinguishing firsthand experience of the world wars calls upon us to make extra efforts to ensure these sacrifices remain in the forefront of our collective Canadian psyche.

To remember the world wars is to acknowledge the discrepancy that can occur in the human experience. To recognize the difference between the top-down Prussian militarism imposed on millions of soldiers and the dumbfounding courage of Canadian volunteer soldiers willing to enter a gruelling war of attrition on the other side of the Atlantic. Between fascist fanaticism and the Canadians’ determined willingness to head into the hailstorms of bullets on Juno Beach because they believed so strongly in freedom, democracy, family, country or simply each other.

The unshakable courage of Canadians amidst the slaughter of the First World War helped to shape Canada’s emerging identity as a nation distinct from Great Britain. Depicted: (top) Canadian soldiers returning from the Battle of the Somme in France, November 1916 (source: W.I. Castle/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000832); (bottom) Canadian machine gunners digging in during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917 (source: Library and Archives Canada PA-001017/Veterans Affairs Canada).

In his book Who Killed Canadian History? J. L Granatstein devotes a chapter to this recognition and quotes journalist Dan Gardner writing, “The war is not just another subject. It is a metaphor for what Canada aspires to be.” Just so. The astounding bravery and sacrifice shown by Canadian soldiers during the first and second world wars form a physical benchmark of the capacity for good which Canada holds and can offer to the world, and of the impact and honour that the average everyday Canadian can achieve.

We remember these acts of valour not only because they are on a scale that is positively Homeric, but also because each war became the brutal landscape for watershed moments in our national identity. Through the blood spilt at the Somme River and the astounding victory on Vimy Ridge, Canadians fighting in First World War France earned a reputation as unwaveringly courageous and frighteningly good soldiers, helping to forge a national identity for the first time distinct from the mother country, Great Britain. In 1917, when virtually every English-speaking MP voted in favor of conscription, Canada showed the world its resolve, its loyalty to its allies, and its willingness to see a terrible task through to its resolution, however distant the battlefield might be.

During the Second World War at Hong Kong, Dieppe and Normandy, a new generation of Canadians solidified the national identity and reputation as a people united in opposition to tyranny, no matter the cost. This legacy endured through the 20th century into the 21st through engagements and deployments in Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even now, global Canadian Peacekeeping missions remain a source of national pride.

Another war, another generation: Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen played an even larger role in the Second World War, standing up to tyranny no matter the cost. Shown: (upper-left) the Winnipeg Grenadiers at Hong Kong, November 1941 (source: Imperial War Museum, London, Wikimedia Commons); (upper-right) Canadian survivors of the Dieppe Raid upon their return to England, August 1942 (source: Library and Archives Canada). Following these bitter defeats, Canadians were often the “tip-of-the-spear” in the successful Allied campaign to retake Italy: (upper-left) Royal Canadian Artillery firing at enemy positions, Sicily, 1943 (source: J. Smith/Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-151748). Also shown (lower-right): Canadian infantry coming ashore from landing craft in Normandy (the Juno Beach Sector) after D-Day on June 6, 1944 (source: Library and Archives Canada/e010750644).

It is vital we continue to frame Remembrance Day in this way so as not to lose sight of the lasting importance of the world wars on all humanity.

If we look back on the wars with all the privileges of modernity and see nothing but the meaningless slaughter of millions, we will reach the wrong conclusions. Through a 21st century lens, in a country where the vast majority of people never even meet a soldier, let alone serve in the military themselves, it is easy and all too tempting to become transfixed by the staggering statistics, especially the casualties. Soon lost are the personal stories of the individual soldiers and their incredible actions. While the devastating human cost should never be set aside, it needs to be viewed along with the purpose it served and the incredible acts of selflessness, sacrifice and bravery it prompted.

Following their forebears: More recent generations of Canadians who volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces continued to inspire international goodwill through peacekeeping operations such as the United Nations Support Mission in Haiti. Following 9-11, Canadians fought bravely during the often-intense, sometimes troubled and very long international mission in Afghanistan. (Sources: (left) United Nations Photo, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; (right) The Canadian Press/Stephanie Levitz)

In his poem Ulysses, Alfred Lord Tennyson retold Homer’s story of the aging hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) and his struggle with normal life amidst his undying desire to set sail once again in pursuit of glory. Tennyson beautifully captured the dichotomy of war with the words, “Though much is taken much abides.” While we should always grieve for the millions lost to the wars, we must recognize that their deaths were not all in vain. They helped end two of the most monstrous tyrannies the world has ever seen.

Recognizing the cost while remembering the cause: “Though much is taken, much abides” – 19th century British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

This way of looking at the past may be out of fashion today, but it is by no means revolutionary. The ancient Greeks, our cultural forebears, held this tragic worldview. They recognized that there will always be certain people in the world, no matter the era, who wish to commit needless harm. And that societies will always need people who are willing to meet evil head-on and are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of their society. From the last stand of Sparta’s famous “300” at the battle of Thermopylae to the revolt of Ionian Greeks against the Persian Empire, the Ancients understood that people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves should not solely be mourned, but celebrated and emulated.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy put it eloquently in his 1963 Thanksgiving Proclamation: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” (Source: The Canadian Press/CSU Archives/Courtesy Everett Collection)

In my opinion, this should be the way Canadians remember the world wars: as two horrific events that not only changed the world for the better, but two events in which Canadians had the opportunity to overcome the natural human desire for self-preservation and place the most noble of ideals and the lives of others above their own. Two of these unsung heroes are in my own lineage and their memory serves as a constant reminder of the potential any one of us has to leave our mark on the world.

My great-grandfather, Lloyd Putnam, was by all accounts a quiet and peaceful man who worked for the federal government researching Agricultural Science in Saskatchewan. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the 29-year-old Putnam left behind a comfortable career and a pregnant wife to volunteer for the Regina Rifles, an infantry regiment. Putnam’s attitude was, “If not me then who?”

Being among the relatively few people with a college degree, he was immediately made a lieutenant and became responsible for a platoon in the Regina Rifles’ D-Company. A regiment made up of mostly poor farmers from rural Saskatchewan, there was little funding available for the Rifles’ training and equipment and its men were soon known as the Canadian army’s “Farmer Johns.” Lieutenant Putnam spent the next several years training in Canada and England but eventually found himself in arguably the most momentous action of the entire war: the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944 to at last liberate Continental Europe from Nazi Germany.

At 8:05 am on June 6, 1944, the Regina Rifles were in the first wave of Allied units to storm the Nazi-held beaches of Normandy, landing at Nan Green Beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, and became the first Allied regiment to reach their objective that day. Lieutenant Lloyd Putnam, the author’s great-grandfather, was a platoon commander in the regiment. (Source of middle photo: Royal Canadian Legion Regina branch)

The Regina Rifles were one of the initial groups to land on Juno Beach that morning, with D-Company’s landing craft striking underwater mines and many men having to swim ashore. Only half of the unit’s men would even reach the beach alive that day. Despite these heavy casualties the Regina Rifles became the first Allied regiment to capture their objective on D-Day, an incredible distinction. Assuming an immediate counterattack from the Germans, the Rifles were tasked with defending the right flank of the captured railway line between the cities of Caen and Bayeux. Despite facing four vicious assaults from elements of the German 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend.” the Rifles held their position and inflicted heavy casualties on the SS, and were ultimately relieved a week later.

Lieutenant Putnam’s war would end soon thereafter when he suffered a blinding eye wound from a bullet fragment during the Rifle’s push to Caen. While he survived the injury and remained a resolute supporter of Canada’s war effort, he would never again be medically fit to fight.

His younger brother, Flight Sergeant Max Putnam, also served in the liberation of Europe. At what today seems the very young age of 19, Max left the University of Saskatchewan to follow his brother into national service. Max volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force as a gunner on a bomber crew. Well before D-Day, Max and his crew flew night bombing missions aimed at destroying German strongholds and infrastructure in France. On one such mission in 1943 Max’s Vickers Wellington bomber was hit by German anti-aircraft fire flying over the small town of Éréac in Brittany. As the crew tried to control the bomber’s rapid descent it soon became clear it was on a crash course for the town.

As he urged the rest of his crew to parachute to safety while the stricken plane still had enough altitude, Max and two other crewmen made a choice. They decided they would not deliver anymore pain upon French civilians, who had already been living under the subjugation and abuse of the Third Reich. So Max, Flight Sgt. McHarg and Air Gunner Masterman remained aboard to control the bomber long enough for other crewmen to escape death and for them to ensure it crashed in a farmer’s field instead of the town. This choice was one Max, McHarg and Masterman paid for with their lives – immediately ending any future and promise these honourable young men had.

Lest we forget: After their Wellington bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire over occupied France in 1943, crew members Flight Sergeant Max Putnam (pictured in middle photo), Flight Sergeant McHarg and Air Gunner Wallace Masterman refused to bail out of their stricken craft and instead steered the plane away from a French village and into a field. French civilians buried them in secret and local citizens have tended their graves to this day.

I retell these stories not only out of a sense of familial pride or to boast about the “greatness” of my forebears but to remind people that these stories, as incomprehensibly courageous as they seem, are not unique. Thousands of average Canadians who took part in the First World War and Second World War had similarly remarkable stories, including acts of heroism, and while many of their names may be unknown, their actions have changed humanity’s course. I also tell my family’s stories to remind those of my generation that no matter the technology we create, the egos we develop or the other material achievements of our lifetimes, none of these things are in service of something as great as what those men did.

The recognition of true sacrifice this Remembrance Day is more important than ever. The recent cultural shift, largely brought on by those of my generation, emphasizes an almost constant sense of victimization and views the most minor social trespass as a cosmic injustice. This has greatly watered down the societal conception of bravery and sacrifice to a state where many people feel as though they have shown “bravery” merely by hearing or seeing something they don’t agree with. Remembrance Day should be a reminder to all those of my generation and similar generations that we have no idea what real bravery actually is, and that it is because of the sacrifice of Canadians in military service that we are able to enjoy our comfortable lives today.

This Remembrance Day is also important given the seeming “end” of the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the last year-and-a-half we have collectively had to endure lockdowns, political chaos and a constant state of uncertainty. While this has clearly challenged Canadian society and I empathize and grieve for those who have lost family, friends or jobs, the hardships of Covid-19 are not war and this distinction needs to be recognized.

We have frequently heard politicians compare the pandemic to a state of war and even more concerningly we hear the continual public use of the word “sacrifice” to describe people’s actions during this pandemic. Let Remembrance Day be a reminder that while we have nearly all been seriously inconvenienced by the pandemic, and many of us have suffered, most of us have not truly sacrificed. And while of course those who have lost loved ones or have been prevented from being with loved ones during critical moments throughout these extremely trying times, rightly feel as though they have made a sacrifice, it is still different from that of war.

The sacrifice of past generations: Women soldering and assembling cables for aircraft at Canadian Car and Foundry Co. in 1945 in Fort William, Ontario. (Source: Canadian Car and Foundry Collection/Archives of Ontario)

The sacrifice of war is boys as young as 15 and 16 lying about their age so they could enlist and then foregoing their remaining childhood so they could be shipped halfway around the world to live in a soaking wet, rat-infested trench. The sacrifice of war is storming Juno Beach and having to make a split-second decision of whether to try to help a wounded friend or to follow orders and continue to the objective. The sacrifice of war is the wives and mothers who worked 24/7 in munitions and textiles factories to provide Canadian troops with adequate gear. And then a nation of Canadians willing to undergo strict food rationing until 1947 to ensure their soldiers – as well as the civilian populations of their former enemies – would not starve overseas.

To equate these two vastly different situations is in essence to claim that we can understand what veterans have gone through. This would be an instance of hubris remarkable even in our current societal state of “presentism.” In reality we nowadays know very little of sacrifice, for in our culture of luxury and abundance many of us perceive “sacrifice” usually to mean the putting off of short-term pleasure and enjoyment for a greater personal reward later on. To the Canadians (and their families) who have served in the Armed Forces, sacrifice meant possible permanent injury or loss of life, or the loss of their friends, in service to civilization.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Although composed and delivered to thank and praise aviators in the Battle of Britain in August 1940, the author feels this legendary declaration applies to all Canadian soldiers who laid down their lives for their nation and civilization itself. (Source: cstm-mstc, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is precisely because we can never fully understand this sacrifice that we must ensure its survival in our minds and hearts. To forget is to say it is not important or that it is indistinguishable from what the common person experiences today. This horribly ill-equips current generations to deal with tyranny should it once again arise to threaten civilization.

This is not a hypothetical issue, unfortunately. We have witnessed the recent military withdrawal from Afghanistan by Western nations which, not unlike pre-Second World War British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, will condemn many innocent civilians to the horrors of living under another fanatical extremist regime. Failure to remember these sacrifices also facilitates an almost cosmic level of ignorance regarding the eternal societal debt owed by our society to those soldiers of the world wars and, more broadly, to all other Canadian veterans and current members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

The magnitude of the debt owed to the average soldier was best captured by the man who was himself among the greatest heroes of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill. On August 20th, 1940, amidst some of the most intensely fought and precarious days of the Battle of Britain, when the fate of the Allied cause still hung in the balance, Churchill rose in the House of Commons to salute the aviators of the Royal Air Force, putting forth some of the most powerful words of the entire war: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” That goes as much for the peaceful, prosperous and free country that 38 million Canadians enjoy today as a result of our forebears’ sacrifice as it did for wartime Great Britain.

Lucas Robertson is an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia majoring in Classical Studies, who fundraises for the West Point Grey Veterans Legion in Vancouver, https://gofund.me/fbc1bb67.

Source of main image: Shutterstock

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