I wasn’t particularly proud of myself the other week. During an interview with a Canadian war veteran, I asked the one question that haunts him and so many of his peers: “What do you remember of your experiences during the War?” Although I should probably have been expecting it, I was devastated to watch this highly decorated former soldier break down in tears before my eyes, as he tried to compose himself enough to offer a response.
As a person who grew up without the worry of having to serve my country overseas in a brutal foreign war, I learned in that instant a tiny fraction of what those who went before us endured in Europe and Korea and other combat zones more than half a century ago.
Despite having spoken to numerous veterans over the years, it’s easy to forget that, for many, there are no words to describe what they experienced. Many of those who served did so as teenagers, just as this gentleman had. For us to begin comprehending what it must have been like for kids fresh out of high school to risk their lives halfway around the world for a cause they likely didn’t even understand is an exercise in futility.
Here are some sobering numbers. About 16 million people died in WWI, including over 65,000 Canadians or nearly one percent of the country’s population at the time. In WWII, estimated deaths were between 50 and 80 million, about 2.5 percent of the world’s population. That figure includes more than 45,000 Canadians. Over 500 of our countrymen perished in the Korean War.
And there are tens of thousands of other deaths and casualties from those conflicts and others we’ve been part of.
Beyond the sheer numbers, there are so many other changes these wars wrought on our society – the hardships, the destruction of families, the lingering memories, the economic devastation. It’s simply overwhelming.
For all of that, it’s the individual stories of bravery and heroism and suffering and pain endured by the soldiers battling for Canada’s freedom that stick most in your memories. In Lance Goddard’s book ‘Canada and the Liberation of the Netherlands,’ Cliff Chadderton of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles says: “My plans for a normal life ended in a fusillade of German artillery, helped by a German potato masher grenade dropped upon me by a leering German.”
He recalls waking up later in a hospital, wondering what had happened to the rest of his men and considering his condition: “I did not think I was in very bad shape until a doctor, performing triage, stripped away the bloodstained parts of my battledress. A lot of walking wounded from the attack lined the corridor. The battlefield surgeon told them they would have to wait until he tended to this officer (me), whose wounds he classified as ‘probably fatal.’ The expression set off a jolt in the pit of my stomach.”
He continues: “A vague debate trickled through my subconscious mind. Would they take off my right left or my left leg? The doctor told the nurse, ‘I think I can save one.’”
Or, in the book, “Hell & High Water: Canada and the Italian Campaign,” also by Goddard, Herb Pike of the 48th Highlanders recounts: “We were bogged down with mud, you just couldn’t move. Their dead was left all over the valley there, and Padre East would come along every night and ask for volunteers to go out and pick up the guys. Well, he’d come down and the guys in the slit trenches would call out, ‘The Padre’s on his way’ and all the guys would duck and try to stay down so you wouldn’t have to volunteer. They’d go out and pick up the dead. Well, you know, that may sound a little cruel, but you know if a guy’s dead, he’s dead…
His fellow Highlander, Gord Outhwaite, concludes Pike’s thought: There’s no sense in having another one dead alongside of him.”
Over 600,000 Canadians served in WWI, 1.1 million in WWII, and over 25,000 in Korea. To those who fought, we owe our freedom today. Everything we take for granted as the years pass and the memories fade is a result of these heroes, who risked and gave their lives so that we could carry on, so that we would survive. In the coming days, you will see ceremonies and tributes and remembrances that recall that dedication and bravery. Will you turn away? Or will you remember those resolute heroes who risk being forgotten with the passing of time? Choose wisely.