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ANDERSON: Peacekeeping on Vimy Ridge (part two)

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March 01, 2016 - 7:45 AM

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven..." — Ecclesiastes 3:8

Continued from Part One

Mel's brother, Clarence Scott Hewitt, my grandfather, also fought in the stinking filth of the First World War, but unlike Mel he lived through the interwar period. In the war he was a signalman and won a battlefield commendation for stringing telephone wire between positions under fire, and eventually mustered out as a Sergeant in 1919. I'm a little hazy as to whether he was with the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, the Royal Canadian Corps of Engineers, or seconded in some way to an infantry unit, but in any event he was gassed twice and thereafter couldn't eat bananas, or so he claimed, although my grandma always thought he was hamming it up to bring attention to his heyday as a Canadian Doughboy. I don't know if he fought at Vimy Ridge, but he certainly fought.

My grandfather became a stationmaster for CNN following the Great War, and he and my grandmother raised my mother in Morden, Manitoba through the depression in circumstances that today would be categorized as middle class, but relative to the times was more like upper middle class. I remember my grandfather as a grumpy old man with a twinkle in his eye who built things in his basement and listened to CJOB on the radio every morning from his armchair in the living room of the house he and my grandmother bought for $5,000 in 1952. He missed the war and told us war stories so filled with gore and callous brutality and flagrant disregard for the conventions of war that my mother finally put her foot down and banned them from the dinner table. Books written in the immediate angry aftermath of both our world wars are full of dark rumours of war crimes paraded almost as badges of honour, but he was there, and knew, and saw things that should have stayed buried in the bloody mud of France and Belgium. The professional, well trained Canadian military of today may be good at peacekeeping, but in a state of total war our citizen soldiers were savage.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, like so many of the battles that loom large in our national history, was but a minor attack in the vanguard of a much larger multinational effort - in this case the British-led Battle of Arras, itself a mere diversionary sideshow in the larger French-led Nivelle Offensive. I point that out not to minimize our role in world events, but to put them into context. Because we lack the hard power to act unilaterally, Canadian participation in military endeavours has always and everywhere been as a component of a much larger contingent. 

Following the first war Canada made a lot of noise about the Wilsonian concept of collective security, and even participated in the formation of the League of Nations, but then spent the next two decades alternately ignoring it and actively working against it. As early as 1922 Canada refused to send troops to counter a Turkish violation of the treaty, and under Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King Canada hunkered down under the security umbrella of Great Britain, cut its military expenditures to the bone, refused to support the League against either Japan's invasion of Manchuria or Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, and even helped torpedo League sanctions to cut off Mussolini's supply of oil, coal, iron, and steel. 

An explanation, if not justification, for the Liberal's stance was best expressed by Raoul Dandurand, one of the first Canadian emissaries to the League of Nations: Canadians live "in a fireproof house, far from the sources of conflagration." It was nonetheless an ironic explanation, given the strategic reality of Canada as an underpowered nation reliant on multilateral organizations for its defence. 

It was a Liberal government that sent our dismally unprepared boys off to war in 1939, a war that it in part was responsible for. Had it and others done its part in enforcing the collective security mandate of the League of Nations, Hitler may never have embarked on his adventurism in the Ruhr valley and Austria and the Sudetenland. English and French appeasement, at the time a widely popular rationalist policy of compromise, might even have succeeded if the threat of collective security had it accompanied the carrot of accommodation.

Even as the Second World War loomed in the late 1930s, Canada did very little to prepare. A year before the war our army numbered 4,200 partially trained men with no armoured vehicle training and almost no modern equipment. In fact, reminiscent of Afghanistan a half century later, the entire Canadian contingent was deployed overseas at the beginning of the Second World War before its upgraded equipment was even off the production line at home. At the time of the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent declaration of war against Germany, the Royal Canadian Navy could only field 2,000 men and the Royal Canadian Air Force just over 3,000. 

When the second war came along my grandfather tried to reenlist but was told he was too old, at 40-something, and that took the wind out of his sails thereafter, according to my grandmother. He retired soon after, became a Shriner, and died in 1977. He never forgot what he felt was Liberal irresponsibility in not preparing our boys for war the second time around, and never voted for the Liberals again as long as he lived. He was a rough man and a good man, and a product of the Long War.

To be continued...

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer, and a bunch of other stuff.  His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

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