11 November 2014

Lest we Forget #nlpoli

More people will pay attention to Remembrance Day this year than usually might.  The murder a few weeks ago of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, and to a lesser extent, the murder of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, are enough to remind a few more of the memorial day for those who have died in military service.  The rest will wear a poppy in their lapels or come out to the parade because this is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. 

Thirty-odd years ago, you wouldn’t have seen this level of interest.  The passage of years since the end of the Korean War made military things too distant from most people’s lives to have a personal impact.  And for many others, the anti-American, anti-war views that came as a reaction to the Cold War kept them not merely indifferent to Remembrance Day but openly hostile to anything that smacked of positive feeling toward anything and anyone connected to the military.

That changed with the end of the Cold War.  Within a year after the Berlin Wall was gone,  Canada was at war in the Gulf.  Through the rest of the 1990s, Canadians took on increasingly difficult and dangerous jobs in places like Bosnia and Croatia.  As the dangers of war service became more personal to Canadians, so too did their interest in in commemorations like Remembrance Day.

This year,  the anniversary of the the day the wall fell in Berlin came on the same Sunday that the British marked Remembrance Day.  The British follow their old custom of marking the armistice that ended the Great War not on the day itself – November 11 – but on the nearest Sunday before the day. It’s been that way since the first ceremony in 1919.

Newfoundland’s war commemoration day dates from 1917.  Like the British, Newfoundland’s day is officially to be marked on the Sunday nearest to the day.  At some time in the past,  most likely after 1950,  someone decided to move the day of commemoration so that it coincides with Canada’s national holiday.  The law passed in 1917 is still in force.  The only change has been to mark the day as being in the province instead of the Dominion or country.  The purpose of the day remains, as it was, to ensure that “the deeds and sacrifices of those men and women of the province who took an active part in the World War of 1914-18 shall be kept in remembrance with honour and respect.”

These days,  Commemoration Day doesn’t exist. People mark something commonly called Memorial Day to recall the slaughter on the first day of the Somme battle in 1916.  Our attitude to these sorts of events can change dramatically over time. 

While the Canadian view of Remembrance Day has changed,  events in Newfoundland reflect a much deeper,  much more substantive alteration in the relationship of an entire group of people to their own past. 

An academic paper on the “cultural memory” of Beaumont Hamel, written in 2006,  for example, missed entirely the point that the current remembrance and what began during the war are substantially different.  The author even calls the day “Memorial Day” while citing articles referring to the day by its official name. Even confronted by the contradictions,  they go unnoticed.

The distance between modern Newfoundlanders and the war is even greater than that.  There are two new books, both by historians that touch, in part on Newfoundland and the Great War.  Death on Two Fronts, by Sean Cadigan, is an effort to connect two national tragedies with the subsequent loss of self-government in newfoundland in the early 1930s.  This is an old theme in the way Newfoundland historian’s viewed the war. As Cadigan notes, an early interpretation was that the British and Canadians imposed Commission government on Newfoundland as a response to the country’s crushing debt, a significant portion of which was due to the war.

Cadigan doesn’t actually create a new interpretation so much as offer up a mixture of old stories with new, entirely invented events.  In Cadigan’s account, the decision to commit soldiers rested entirely with the Governor.  The British Admiralty ordered an increase in the size of  the naval reserve division on August 7.  Prime Minister Edward  Morris went along with the Governor, Cadigan claims, as part of Morris’ political feud with the supposedly prescient William Coaker.  The fisheries activist opposed the creation of a citizen’s committee to administer the war effort because it was a supposed abrogation of political responsibility.  Coaker’s opposition to a military commitment – as opposed to the naval reserve – was prescient, since Coaker apparently foresaw the cost to come in blood and treasure. The decision to commit soldiers came on August 10, in Cadigan’s account, then cemented after a public meeting on August 12.

The reality, well established even in the accounts that are currently available, is that the cabinet as a whole  - the elected Newfoundlanders - decided on August 7 to commit sailors and soldiers.  They decided to increase the size of the naval reserve division, not the Admiralty.  And the citizen’s committee was, even to a cursory reading, nothing more than a political cover, a way of co-opting as many social leaders as possible into taking responsibility for the war effort. 

Cadigan reduces the events of a century ago to a one-dimensional tale of exploiters and exploited,  of evil capitalists and their stooges set against noble workers and peasants and their bayman revolutionary leader, Coaker.  Cadigan’s account is only slightly better in the telling than Gwyn Dyer’s version in Canada and the Great Power Game, 1914-2014, but only because Cadigan got the Governor’s name right.  It was Walter Davidson, not Basil.

What’s truly conventional about Cadigan’s account is that is places one event at the centre of everything.  Beaumont Hamel is the other front in his book, with the first being the death of sealers in the disaster at the hunt in the spring of 1914 and the loss of another ship, with all hands, that was returning from the hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Beaumont Hamel is the lynchpin of Cadigan’s interpretation.  Without it,  Coaker cannot have the gift of foresight to oppose the Establishment’s reckless war.  Cadigan’s capitalist/labour frame is merely a variation on the “Newfoundlanders-as-victims” frame that has sustained the currently popular view of the war and what came after:  a foreigner dictated Newfoundland’s entry to the war and committed the soldiers who were slaughtered on the Somme.  The debt from the war that resulted from the foreigner’s decision led to the collapse of self-government in 1934 that was, itself, part of an elaborate conspiracy by Canada and Great Britain that reached its fulfillment with Confederation 1949.

Even for those not imposing post-1949 political or ideological views on the past,  the magnitude of the slaughter at Beaumont Hamel has been enough to draw extraordinary attention.  It figures in virtually everything written or produced about Newfoundland and the Great War.  In their 2012 paper on the production of an official history of the country’s involvement in the war,  historians Mel Baker and Peter Neary list the books and articles about Newfoundland and the First World War in a footnote.  The number that deal with Beaumont Hamel in one way or another is staggering. 

Incidentally, G.W.L. Nicholson’s 1964 book, the Fighting Newfoundlander, is not an official history of Newfoundland in the war as are the French, Canadian, British or German histories.  It is a history of the battalion that fought in the war, nothing more, and in that Beaumont Hamel assumes a very large place in the story.  But what went before the war, how the government decided to get involved,  the role of the citizen’s committee and the development of government administration, or even a detailed discussion of the financial impact of the war on the country are beyond its scope.

Beaumont Hamel is like a naked light bulb in the inky blackness of our past.  It draws our attention naturally.  The brilliance of the glow shows us events before or after only in the reflected light, not as they are.  And it blinds us to much more.

Newfoundland a hundred years after the Great War is like a country of amnesiacs. They want to know who they are,  where they came from, and how they got to this place.  As they struggle to remember, though, they meet other amnesiacs  - like Greg Malone, for one - who fill in the gaps between vague and elusive memories with fantasy and invention or who describe the world as best they can through the glare of one or two of those blinding spots.    

The result for our democracy is not limited to the end of self-government or Confederation. It remains with us today.  Our collective amnesia is not confined to the distant past.  It is one of the characteristics of who we are, right down to the premiere of a work of fiction,  premiered the night before Remembrance Day to an appreciative audience, and presented as a factual account of the past decade.