A Soldier’s Appeal to the Living
SIR ARTHUR CURRIE
Editor's Note;—Maclean's presents the text of an address that was to have been delivered by Sir Arthur Currie on Armistice Night, 1933, to the University Veterans' League. A day or two before, Sir Arthur was stricken with serious illness, and in his absence the address was read to the Toronto audience. Maclean's considers it to be so impressive that it should be read and pondered by every Canadian.
I DEEPLY appreciate, as always, the privilege of meeting again tonight so many members of the Old Corps and of saying a few words to so many of my comrades of other days. The circumstances of our lives and places keep us for the most part far away from each other, but tonight, and always on Armistice night, whether we are gathered in assembly as we are here, or listening by radio to Armistice programmes, perhaps far distant, or alone and uncompanioned, we who were once members of the Canadian Corps are bound by the ties of a common remembrance. I know that to all who lived through the war years, and more particularly to those who saw active service, today has been a day of sacred memories, different perhaps in detail to each one of us, but yet all based on similar experiences and similar emotions.
With the lapse of years, Armistice Day becomes naturally less demonstrative. The ranks of those who saw service grow yearly smaller as we pay our toll to time. And in future the day will grow less weighted with meaning to the generation bom in the years between. As our country looks back to it from a widening distance of years, its memories will perhaps remain vivid only in the minds of the veterans, to whom its importance was then so colossal. But whatever changes may come, and however slight may be the recognition of future generations, I hope that Armistice Day may never cease to be impressive. I hope that the twominute interval of solemn silence will always be more than a formal, statutory gesture, that it will always mean a reverent pause, in which we gladly remember with tender and grateful thoughts those who nobly died for our country's ideals. I hope that the graves of the Unknown Soldiers and our National Chambers of Remembrance will have their eternal tributes on this day, and that our country, in the years to come, and the generations that knew not war, will not forget.
Tonight we who came home move back in memory fifteen years to the hour when our army halted where it stood, when the firing died suddenly away on the Western Front, when the few last straggling shots echoed down the mightiest battle line the world had ever seen and were swallowed up in utter silence. Tonight we cannot recall the frantic cheering and the frenzied rejoicings of the folks at home, as they gave expression to their sense of relief when they realized that the long nightmare of the years was ended. We recall rather the silence of exhausted effort and of daring hope; we recall that still moment when, after four years of a strange life in which death was ever present, the fighting men were suddenly conscious of the fact that the strain was over and that they had now to adjust themselves to the new world of promised peace and justice and content, which they had been led to believe they were, after all, about to enter. But, like all other silences, there was a puzzled question in it by those fighting men. Was all the agony they had gone through for four years really to achieve its end? Were the hopes which had sustained them, and had sustained their folks back home through their unparalleled sacrifices, actually to be realized at last? There was a pause without an answer. It was the most impressive and portentous pause in history.
Today the pause, the silence, was reverently repeated. But after fifteen years of the promised new world we were told we fought to create, the puzzled question it
tacitly conveyed is still unanswered. The lurid lights of the battle front we knew have been long extinguished by our hands, the mutter of the guns and the crackle of the musketry have long receded down the years. Yet the war and its aftermath are still with us, more terrible even than fifteen years ago. Its effects have not been fully mastered, its issues have not been settled—that is the simple truth, the confession which today brings its shame. Our soldiers, living and dead, performed their part with unquestioned heroism and devotion in those battle days. But in the years since then—the fifteen years misnamed years of peace—the peoples, of the world have not so well performed their tasks of understanding the vast forces that were then released, of controlling them and of making good the victory. It is not, therefore, surprising that the men who fought are sometimes, with reluctance but with the compulsion of obvious circumstances, of the opinion that their sacrifice and that of their comrades who fell were all in vain.
WE REMEMBER tonight—and it is well that our country should remember —the high resolves of that time fifteen years ago. There was unspeakable sorrow for the great army of youth that had gone so early to its death. We were told that the world would henceforth be safe for youth. But what of youth today, and the opportunity for youth in our modem world? Where, ask the men who fought, is that new world of justice and good will they suffered so keenly to create? Has the world—has our country —in the fifteen years since the Armistice kept its promised faith with the unretuming dead? Has the great sacrifice really turned to glory—the glory of a better time? Has the world done anything more in these fifteen years than give lip service to the ideals for which our fallen comrades gave their lives? The answer to these questions is found in the actual conditions of the hour. And these conditions are such that Armistice Day should smite the conscience of the world.
I need not dwell tonight on these conditions, with all their horrible and terrifying possibilities. They are known, and some of them deeply felt, by everyone in this room and by everyone listening elsewhere to my voice. We are told in cabled dispatches this week that the international situation in Europe today is practically what it was in 1913 on the eve of the late war. And the rest of the world, like Europe, is haunted by the fear of war—a stalking fear which for the past nine or ten months has dominated the press and private conversation. There is no sense of security in the minds of European countries today. We are told that all that happened before 1914 is now being repeated; that behind the scenes secret agreements for a new balance of power are being made; that war propaganda is at work again, with the old subtle appeals to what is called national honor, national prestige, or national patriotism; that sooner or later another war will wreck our civilization, and we will stand helpless amid the mins. The outlook for humanity is not hopeful, if we take seriously to heart these persistent and disturbing aspects of the world’s condition today. And all this is but fifteen years after the signing of an armistice we thought was to end war—when we said “never again”— when the whole world said “never again” —as a pledge made by the living to the dead. That pledge is now but a faint echo —for old hates are reviving, old fears have come back, and on this fifteenth anniversary' of a peace which was to silence battle fronts for ever, peace is not a fact but still a dream.
APART FROM THE threat of war, with V its growing cloud, other conditions in our world are equally disturbing. Bitterness
and hate, selfishness and greed are still entrenched in our social and economic and political life. National finances are disorganized throughout the world, taxes are overwhelming, agriculture and business are everywhere prostrated, and unemployment is more widespread than at any time in history. Our world is a world of suffering, of uncertainty, of demon doubts and fears. Our world is not yet done with the necessity for heroism and sacrifice. Returned men are called upon today as never before to aid every movement to establish a just and lasting peace throughout the world, to lighten the burden of armaments, to usher in a new era of good will and fraternity among the peoples of the earth, to help solve the new and changing problems of these later years, to rehabilitate the social and economic life of our country, and to compose the hates and prejudices and deep animosities which smolder and threaten in our land and in other lands. We need as never before the healing qualities of devotion and fidelity and self-sacrifice and good will and comradeship and friendliness, so that suspicion may be vanquished and justice and mutual trust may be permanently enthroned. All this desire is in harmony with the real spirit of Armistice Day—the day that is dedicated to sacrifice and loyal remembrance of others.
It is sometimes suggested—and not. I think, frankly, without some justification— that in the fifteen years of reconstruction or redestruction that have gone since the Armistice was signed, returned men everywhere have not themselves done all they should have done or could have done to establish that better time to which they looked forward when the war ended—that they have not applied to conditions around them the qualities and the principles of life that carried them through to victory along the battle line. It may be that we have not been sufficiently aggressive—that having done our bit in other fields, we have too far withdrawn in silence or inaction from subsequent events, and have not imposed or inculcated our ideals and the results of our experiences upon our peace-time guides and leaders. This criticism of veterans of the war is heard today in every country that had a part in the conflict. If it has truth, behind the truth are, in my judgment, some potent reasons.
Men returned from the front in a spirit of weariness, but of hope, looking forward with confidence, after years of trench life, to the peace they had been promised. They soon found that their new world was still a world of struggle—a world of bargain and of battle. They found that they had escaped from one ugly world and one disaster only to plunge into another. They had to struggle and fight for what they felt and knew was a simple right—some slight form of rehabilitation, and, what was more discouraging, for adequate help for their wounded and incapacitated comrades, and for adequate protection for the dependents of their comrades who had given their lives for their country. I can say without evasion or hesitation that the great mass of returned men in Canada never had the thought that because they fought for their country they were entitled to preferred treatment by their country, in comparison with other citizens. They never, as a rule, contended that because they wore the uniform of our Corps they had therefore a right-of-way to exceptional benefits. There were perhaps some exceptions, as there are always exceptions in every way of life, but these exceptions are so infinitesimal compared with the mass of our men that they need not be considered. But on one right all are united—the right of the wounded and the broken, the right of the dependents of the dead for adequate provision and care.
I AM not going to recall the struggles of these fifteen years. There were disappointments. There was even bitterness. There was cynicism. The result is not surprising—that many returned men withdrew from the struggle in despair, with the feeling that their participation in the making of the new world was not desired. There were disappointments because of administration of soldiers’ affairs, disappointments because of inadequate machinery and indifference. The struggle still goes on. We read in the press of every province today of the disappointment of different branches of the Legion because of the most recent changes in Pensions Administration and the readjustments of methods. But the voice of the veterans, even on their own affairs, is unheard or at least unattended.
One of our defects or weaknesses in the past has been doubtless a lack of unity. We have not had the same cohesion, the same unanimity that was ours in the old Corps. Naturally, geographical conditions keep us apart as groups of men—but geographical distances may be conquered by a spirit—the spirit of service that should bind us into one great and useful force. You are a group of university graduates who are also veterans. You have done honor to your respective colleges by your service to your country in the war years. Your action, and that of your fellow college men who died, incarnated the finest principle which a university can seek to develop—a self-forgetful sense of corporate responsibility. The university is a place of quiet thinking, even of dreams, preparatory to action. It is a training ground for future activity, in which effort is the product of sound and sane thought. The war combined, as no other way of life, these two qualities. We had to think and dream and plan, and then quickly put the thought into action. In the trenches there was needed more than anything else the sound, calm mind and the sound body—the old idea of true education. The head and the hand acted in harmony.
You have had the most remarkable experiences that can come to man. You have the privilege of college training—a training in ideals—and you have played your part in the most practical and most disillusioning effort in the world’s history—the late war. Whether you should establish within the Legion another body or group is a matter on which opinion is not unanimous. It is for you to decide. But I may say, frankly, that there are many university veterans who are doubtful of its wisdom. Their opinion is that the one tie that binds us, and should bind us, is the fact of service—that the affirmation “I have served” is superior to all other qualifications, that any other test, whether of birth or training or unit or native place, tends further to destroy our unity. These are considerations, well meant and kindly, which should be scanned. One thing is sure—that in the troubled days to come we of the old Corps must continue to be as in the battle hour, not of East or West, of one race or another, of one college or another, but Canadians with a common objective—the happiness and progress of our country.
I am not a pessimist when I think of the future. And I am sure that the returned men who are listening to me tonight are not pessimists, however cynical some of them may be with respect to certain phases of our national life. We have seen dark nights together. And we have also seen the dawn of new and spacious days. I know that, as in the battle hours, we will again take the morning into our hearts. In our deliberate and final thought, as returned men, we have faith that these moments of discouragement are fleeting and perhaps misleading; that those whose memories we especially cherish did not make their sacrifices in vain, and that in the end the stem determination of millions of men and women, who are tainted with no spirit of unworthy pacifism, will Continued on page 24
Continued from page 22 prevail over those whose views would tend to perj>etuate the horrors of war. even though some of these latter may be seated in the high places of national executive and j legislative power.
ARMISTICE DAY IS primarily a com^ memoration of the dead. But a commemoration of the dead should be likewise an appeal to the living not to deplore the past, but to awaken our sense of responsibility to make our world less deplorable. The disappointment—even the bitterness— of many who came back may be traced to the monstrous paradox that only because of the nobility of individual sacrifice does war in any way ennoble civilization. We saw at first hand the sacrifice of much that was best in our country. But the weariness and the disillusionment from which we could not escape are no longer fitting to a new generation charged with the tasks of peace.
We know from experience the stupidity of war—and the stupidity of those who made or caused it. Does our responsibility end with condemning the follies of the stupid or the vicious twenty years ago? What can we do as veterans to make the world less deplorable? Are we bestirring ourselves in i this night of hysteria which may end in ! war? Ours is a man-made world, and in it j are we doing all we can do to prevent a i catastrophe which we will later deplore?
! Are we fighting to the last—as we fought
fifteen years ago—for the vitality and the continuity of civilized standards in public and private affairs, in national and international life? Are we fighting so that the next generation of youth will not condemn our stupidity as we condemned in the trenches the stupidity of our elders in 1914 and the era immediately before it? On those nights and days of suffering and death, when we saw our comrades fall in the fire of savages fed by the so-called gods of civilization, we endured and “carried on,” in the firm hope that out of the embers and the broken human dust would rise a new order, in which war and greed and injustice woulci have no place.
That hope will yet be realized, despite discouragements, even in a world which has to make its way out of sickness and despair, if we but keep our shield and our faith, and if we insist on leadership in our affairs—a leadership that is strong and not apathetic. If another war comes, the responsibility will not be upon the militarists, but on ourselves because of our inertia. We are to blame if we allow others, interested only in greed, to take the reins from our hands and drive us into another abyss.
The truest commemoration of our honored dead will be in the vigorous enlistment of our own lives and capacities in the struggle between unselfishness and greed, honesty and corruption, justice and injustice, and in the serious application to our national problems of those qualities which distin-
guished our Corps in the war days, and enabled us always to advance and conquer. Armistice Day reminds our country of the steadfastness of our fighting troops. It should also be a reminder to evert' citizen that he still has a duty to discharge, if the war is to be fully won and its high objectives permanently secured. It should call us to a realization that we still have to complete the unfinished task of our dead comrades who speak to us tonight with a voiceless eloquence—the task of replacing the present system of suspicion and fear and conflict with the enduring fabric of confidence in humane law and order.
And so, in conclusion, we drop the rose of remembrance on the supreme devotion of our sacred dead. We linger, like our country, in our tribute of reverent memory of our glorious youth who gave their lives to defend our liberty:
“Sleep well, heroic souls, in silence sleep,
Lapped in the circling arms of kindly death !
No ill can vex your slumbers, no foul breath
Of slander, hate, derision, mar the deep
Repose that holds you dose.”
And on this Armistice night, as we recall the nobility of your sacrifice, we turn away from trenches and wounds and death, and we rededicate our lives with hope to the still unfinished work which you so gallantly advanced and for which you died.