Today marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, and it’s an appropriate time to not only pay our respects, but reflect on what happened a century ago. The Great War doesn’t receive nearly as much attention in the United States compared to the Commonwealth nations or in Europe where many more lives were lost. A trip across the border to Canada’s capital of Ottawa on Remembrance Day is a great way to understand what happened one century ago.
Canada goes all out in remembering its war dead from the nation’s wars on Remembrance Day each November 11, but there is a special tribute for those Canadians killed in World War One. Near the Centennial Flame in front of Canada’s Parliament, special lights projected red poppy flowers floating down the front facade of Parliament in honor of the fallen.
That brings us to Canada’s story. Canada was a small nation of only 7 million during World War One. But the binds of the British Empire were strong, and more than 67,000 Canadians lost their lives and 250,000 more were wounded in the trenches and battlefields. The United States lost about 116,000 soldiers, but the population of America was much bigger at around 92 million. Certainly the U.S. death toll would have been higher if the United States had not remained neutral until the final 18 months of the war. But it also demonstrates the toll that four years of the Great War took on Canada.
Once you enter the Canadian Parliament on Remembrance Day, you must visit the Peace Tower which towers 92 meters (302 feet) above Ottawa. This is not simply a landmark tower but also hosts the marble vaulted Memorial Chamber for Canadians who died during the Great War. Brass plates made from spent shell casings are incased in the floor with the names of each of Canada’s major conflicts during the First World War. Seven marble altars, that are designed to look like the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant and guarded by gold cherubim, contain books under glass that show the names of those who died in the conflict. They also now hold the names of Canadians who died during the Nile Expedition, Boer War, the Second World War and the Korean War. Each day at 11 a.m. the pages of the books turned so every name is displayed to visitors at least once during each year.
When I previously lived in London, I learned quite a bit about the Great War. The British Empire lost a staggering number of men — almost 908,000 soldiers of their 9 million who were mobilized. In the U.K. alone, more than 700,000 were killed of the 6 million men mobilized. They have a name for this generation — the Lost Generation — and that’s truly what it was. If you consider the population of the U.K. was only 45 million a century ago, you can imagine the impact this had on British society. Even higher numbers were injured. Others suffered what they called “shell shock” then which was not treated well or understood as what we know as PTSD today. Many Canadians also came home mentally shattered.
If you visit Ottawa, I highly recommend you visit the Canadian War Museum to learn about the sacrifice that Canadians and the British Empire made in First World War. It is one of Canada’s best museums and will make you appreciate the high price Canadians have paid for liberty throughout their history. The museum also tells the story of Canada and features historical artifacts and exhibits from the Seven Year’s War to the present.
There is one interesting fact you will not miss before leaving the Canadian War Museum. The famous poem “In Flanders Fields” is a world-famous tribute to the men who died on the front of World War One. But did you know that Canadian Expeditionary Force member John McCrae penned the poem after the Second Battle of Ypres? Today it and the remembrance poppy are symbols of Remembrance Day around the world.