KAMLOOPS — Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Charge of the Light Brigade
Talk to war veterans, and one of their biggest worries is that we’ll forget them. We understand this, so we’ve adopted a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional” as the slogan and commitment for Remembrance Day.
Some people think it’s taken from In Flanders Fields, written by Canada’s John McCrae, but it was Kipling who wrote “Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, lest we forget — lest we forget!”
The poem is a call to remember brave soldiers after “the tumult and the shouting dies.”
Our record on that is somewhat spotty. We can’t even remember where we put our car keys let alone think about a war that happened a hundred years ago or halfway around the world, or both.
We talk about “those who paid the ultimate sacrifice” and “died so that we can enjoy our freedom.” We turn out by the thousands at the ceremonies at Riverside Park and at smaller ones all around the region and across the country to honour the dead and those veterans who are still with us.
We really do care, especially on this one day of the year, but our memory is selective. We focus on the two great wars, also mentioning, when we think of it, the Korean Conflict and Afghanistan.
But we’ve pretty much forgotten about the South African War, better known as the Boer War, sometimes the Second Boer War. Kamloops boys fought and died in that one, too, between 1899-1902. More than two dozen of them signed up with the Strathcona Horse (for this was a war fought on horseback) and went off to South Africa, thinking they’d be home in no time at all. It was the first time Canadians had served overseas.
Faced with the overwhelming power of the British army, the Boers were soon defeated, or were supposed to consider themselves defeated, but they refused to surrender and waged guerrilla warfare instead, and soldiers continued to fight and die.
We talk even less about the War of 1812, the one in which an American invasion was repelled and the future of Canada as a nation was preserved.
How many people know that there was a Canadian in the Charge of the Light Brigade against a Russian cannon battery in 1854? His name was Lt. Alexander Roberts Dunn, who survived that disastrous battle and was the first Canadian awarded the Victoria Cross. The only one of those 600, in fact, who received that highest of all military honours. He was 21 years old.
According to Buffy St. Marie, without the universal soldier there’d be no war. That’s a heavy burden to put on the shoulders of those who had little or no choice but to fight, or who signed up because their democratic freedoms and those of their families really were threatened.
Tell the child soldier in Africa he should refuse to fight, that he should instead meekly accept execution as the alternative. Tell those drafted in any number of countries around the world that they should cut and run. Tell the true patriot that he or she shouldn’t fight for home and country.
Despite the atrocities of the regime, most of Hitler’s army was made up of young conscripted men in their early 20s who thought they were fighting for their country.
On this day, we think in terms of friends and enemies. Friends are the ones who fought with our Allies, enemies are the Axis Powers. But today’s enemies are tomorrow’s friends, and vice versa.
We once warred bitterly with the United States. In the Second World War, we sided with the U.S. and many others against Germany, Japan and Italy. Today, those latter three are our good friends.
How about Louis Riel’s ill-fated fight for Metis independence in the Red River and North West Rebellions? Riel was once known as an enemy of Canada, and was hanged for it in 1885. Today, he’s widely regarded as a Canadian hero.
War is waged in a fog, started by politicians and fought mostly by ordinary men and women. And while wars are inglorious and tragic, the soldiers who must fight them for us deserve to be remembered.
Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops, former school board chair, former editor of The Kamloops Daily News, and a current director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He was awarded the Jack Webster Foundation’s lifetime achievement award in 2011. His editorials are published Monday through Thursdays, and Saturdays on CFJC Today, CFJC Midday and CFJC Evening News. Contact him at [email protected].