The scale of loss in world wars is difficult to grasp

This Friday, November 11 will be a day in which Canadians from coast to coast pause to stand silently to honour the sacrifices of those who have fallen in service of their country in the many conflicts that have blighted our relatively short history as a nation.

Every day, in far away locales that only a tiny handful of us could locate on an unlabeled map, men and women in uniform are still laying their lives on the line in the service of their country—and all too often they return home to their families in flag draped coffins or bearing terrible wounds they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. For their families and friends the tragedy of those losses is almost inconceivable, but unlike conflicts of the past, the numbers are comparatively few, limited to a hundred-odd deaths, a few thousand wounded.

Not to in any way lessen today’s losses by speaking in terms of scale, but how to imagine the immense horror that gripped communities trapped in the thrall of the two world wars of the Twentieth Century? We cannot truly begin to fathom the impact of a Beaumont Hamel—where the cream of a Newfoundland generation was spent in 20 minutes, a few mere seconds in a day.

This November 11, look to those standing beside you in the Remembrance Day observance you attend. Reflect upon the people of Newfoundland and Labrador for whom, on that fateful July 1, 1916, each and every person standing in silent grief around you had lost a close family member. All of them.

In the thinking of the First World War recruiters and high command it made eminent sense to put those recruited from the small outport communities together in a unit. The policy brought cohesion, it brought loyalty, it brought the willingness to go beyond the humanly possible to support their friends and neighbours, their family members, to face of the unthinkable horror of modern warfare. It also brought unimaginable loss to small, close knit communities whose isolation from the outside world is hard to find a comparison to in these days of near-instant communication and globe-spanning travel options.

For a place like Manitoulin Island, with its 13,000-odd year round inhabitants, literally everyone’s child would have died in that single battle—a generation snuffed out in barely a blink of an eye. For those aged 16 to 25, reflect that virtually every single person your age, the people that you grew up with, played along side in the ball field or hockey rink would be dead. Most, if not all, of your male siblings would be gone forever. Buried in some foreign graveyard or a place “known only to God.” For that miniscule handful who miraculously survived, a lifetime of survivor’s guilt, most likely accompanied by horrendous and debilitating wounds, both mental and physical.

On November 11 we continue to honour the memory of those who have fallen. We honour not the glory of war, for in all war, no matter how “just” or justified, all glory is but a terrible tragic myth—an illusion that comes at far too high a cost in human suffering. We stand in silence to honour those sacrifices made, to remember those who can no longer stand beside us to listen to the strains of the Last Post and to give witness to the immense agony of those loved ones the dead have left behind. Those losses still reverberate across a century that divides us from the men and boys of Beaumont Hamel, Vimy Ridge and countless other desperate struggles in the service of their country in the intervening years.

We stand to honour that solemn vow that we will remember—Lest We Forget.