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THE VIEW FROM HERE: Age shall not weary them

A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian grave near Vimy, France in this June 1917 archive photo. National Archives of Canada/File
A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian grave near Vimy, France in this June 1917 archive photo. National Archives of Canada/File

They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old;

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

These words, spoken every Nov. 11 on Remembrance Day, carry a deep and powerful message.

Filled with raw emotion and angst, these 36 words from the poem, For the Fallen, written by Laurence Binyon, succinctly capture and convey the true cost of war, particularly the conflicts that ravaged the world during the first half of the last century.

During the First World War (1914-1918), about 650,000 Canadians served overseas, including members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. These were Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served with British forces (Newfoundland was a colony of Great Britain until 1949) and merchant mariners.

Of this number, nearly 69,000 made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the battle against the oppressive forces that threatened the entire world. In the Second World War (1939-1945), more than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in Canada’s Armed Forces, in Allied forces or in the merchant navy. More than 47,000 of them gave their lives. During the Korean War (1950-1953), 26,791 Canadians served in the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command and 516 died.

These statistics, as startling as they are, do not account for the hundreds of Canadian peacekeepers who have served and died around the world since 1953. In fact, even today, thousands continue to put themselves in harm’s way to defend democracy and to fight for those who are being oppressed.

And in 2011, we marked another historic event in the history of Canadian military service as the country’s military role in the Afghanistan war came to an end after 10 years of combat. The number of Canadian Armed Forces fatalities resulting from Canadian military activities in Afghanistan is the largest for any single Canadian military mission since the Korean War. A total of 158 Canadian Armed Forces members lost their lives in service while participating in our country’s military efforts in Afghanistan.

Formal records may reveal the size and strength of armies, military strategy and the outcome of battles, but statistical information only tells part of the story. Such information is vital to understanding and remembering these important historical events, yet to fully appreciate military history, we must try to understand the human face of war.

Loss of comrades, extreme living conditions, intense training and fear as well as mental, spiritual and physical hardships, illustrate what the individual sailor, soldier and airman experienced in battle. Thousands of Canadians fought valiantly on battlefronts around the world and thousands died. They were prepared to face any ordeal for the sake of freedom.

On the homefront as well, Canadians were active as munitions workers, as civil defence workers, as members of voluntary service organizations and as ordinary citizens doing their part for the war effort.

In May 1945, victory in Europe became a reality and millions celebrated VE-Day (Victory in Europe Day). Still ahead lay the final encounter with Japan. Then, on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, a second bomb destroyed Nagasaki.

On Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese accepted the Allied terms of unconditional surrender and the Second World War was over.

The hard-fought end to the Second World War came with an enormous price. It’s a debt that today’s generation must continue to pay. We owe it to the men and women who served, to those who fought in the trenches and on the seas. Most importantly, we owe it to the brave men and women who gave their lives to ensure the freedom that we all enjoy and take for granted.

While Nov. 11 is set aside every year to remember the past sacrifices so many have made over the years, it’s a good time to also contemplate what our world would be like if war and strife did not exist.

In an ideal world, wars would not exist so our brave men and women would not have to put themselves in harm’s way. However, as history has shown us, this is not a perfect world. War has existed for centuries and, sadly, it appears as though it will be with us well into the future.

This Nov. 11 is especially significant, as it will mark 100 years since the First World War ended. This first global conflict had claimed an estimated 13 million lives and caused unprecedented damage and was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Clearly, it wasn’t. Germany had formerly surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918 and all nations had agreed to stop fighting while the terms of peace were negotiated. On June 28, 1919, Germany and the Allied nations signed the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war.

Our world would be a lot different today were it not for the brave men and women who stood up to those who would do us harm. Surely, we can all set aside a few hours on this coming Sunday to say thank you for their sacrifices. Too many fought and died for us to ever forget.

Sacrifices made by those Canadians must not be forgotten, but Nov. 11 is more than a day of remembrance. It’s also a day to say thanks or at least, that’s the view from here.

Vernon Oickle was born and raised in Liverpool where he continues to reside with his family. He has worked for more than 30 years in community newspapers on the South Shore and is the author of 28 books.

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