Memory is central to humankind. It is what defines who we are, what reminds us of where we come from, what guides us in our determined steps towards a hopefully better future. And education, in more than one sense, is about memory, about enabling students to gain an insight into our common cultural history, that is to say, the history of everything that is not purely natural but rather created by humans. I am referring to philosophical ideas, social customs, laws, mathematical axioms, scientific hypotheses and works of different kinds, from the medieval tales of Marie de France to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, from Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives to Marie Curie’s findings on radioactivity, from ancient Egyptian burial rites and the Code of Hammurabi to Artemisia Gentileschi’s dramatic paintings of strong female figures.
It is precisely by acquiring this historical knowledge that each new generation can carry on contributing to human progress, as opposed to starting from scratch every time. The ability to build on the scientific and humanistic wisdom of the women and the men who have preceded us actually allows us to surmount our relative insignificance as human beings by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, as if we had been present since the beginning of time. To quote Bernard de Chartres, a 12th century Neoplatonist, we might be small people, but we are metaphorically “sitting on the shoulders of giants.”
Our Remembrance assemblies (held earlier this month in every branch of the school) are part of that effort of transmission of matters of significance from one generation to the next, as they enhance, in an age-appropriate way, our students’ sense of human history in all its complexity. These ceremonies are about knowledge and ethics, about rememoration and commemoration, that is, about recalling what happened but also about paying tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. As 2018 marks the centenary of the First World War, we focused on this particular conflict. After analyzing its causes, we looked at its global dimension, given that European powers brought their colonies into the war, from India, Australia and New Zealand, to western and southern Africa. Other countries such as the US, Brazil and China ended up participating as well.
This was a total war by land, sea and air, a universal conflagration on a scale that had never been seen before. A war of trenches, of battleships and submarines, of those early planes forming a new “cavalry of the clouds.” A war so fierce and so intense that it required almost entire economies to be devoted to the production of weapons, ammunition and tanks. Alas, a chemical war where mustard gas caused havoc.
Canadian soldiers, who had been transferred to Europe as early as October 1914, participated in their first battle six months later at Ypres, and they contributed, through their victory at Vimy Ridge in France, to the consolidation of a strong sense of national identity. Canada’s Hundred Days refer to the period between August and November 1918, when Canadians played an important role on the front line, finally leading to the Armistice at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
While recent immigrants from certain countries, called “enemy aliens” at the time, were prevented from joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force or were even interned in camps, as they were seen as a threat to national security, their status improved as the war moved on. Concerning First Nations, there were as many as 4,000 men who wore the Canadian uniform. And one of the best-known snipers of the First World War was Henry Louis Norwest, a Métis of French-Cree ancestry from the province of Alberta.
The war also transformed the lives of women. If there were virtually no cases of female soldiers in those days (with rare exceptions, such as that of British-born Flora Sandes), there were very many female nurses who, like Edith Monture, a Mohawk from Brantford, saw devastated battlefields first-hand: “It was an awful sight – buildings in rubble, trees burnt, spent shells all over the place, whole towns blown up.” At home in Canada, women also took on new roles in society, as they now worked in ammunition factories, drove streetcars and organized solidarity actions to help soldiers.
The human balance of World War I was calamitous. With a population of just under eight million in 1914, Canada lost 61,000 soldiers, and as many as 172,000 people had been injured by the end of the hostilities. Worldwide, it is calculated that about 17 million, between military personnel and civilians, lost their lives, so it is not surprising that war-torn Europe was once described as an international slaughterhouse. The Armistice of November 11, 1918, brought peace, but it must be said that the decades that followed were grim, as they witnessed the rise of fascism and Nazism, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and the Shoah, the abominable extermination of six million Jews.
At the Remembrance assembly in the Senior School, students learnt about these and other facts in a ceremony that involved music played live by our wind ensemble and strings (from Beethoven to Shostakovich and Schroer), as well as by an army bagpiper, a master corporal of the 48th Highlanders, who had been especially invited for the occasion. This was interspersed with the reading of poems by Canadian authors such as John McCrae (“In Flanders Fields”), Bernard Trotter and William Campbell, and prose texts by European soldiers who fought in the First World War. Most importantly, we carried out the Act of Remembrance and, after laying a wreath and listening to the Last Post, we held a minute of silence. Through the Commitment to Remember, we promised never to forget the sacrifice of those who died so that we could live in peace and in freedom.
Similarly, students in the Junior School learnt about Flanders, the meaning of the Armistice itself and the importance of honouring veterans of war. After singing an uplifting song about a dove that flies towards a country of hope, they took part in a ceremony centred on the poppy as an eternal symbol of remembrance. At La p’tite école, the assembly enabled students to reflect on the meaning of the poppy, on values such as respect and discernment, and on the reasons why we have a national anthem.
The Grade 7 students at the West Campus created a presentation on Canada at war, which they showed to the entire branch. They read a short book on a soldier’s experience, recited some well-known poems, and shared a verse composition of their own. After the Last Post (performed by a student) and a minute of silence, everyone was invited to participate in a worthy initiative called “postcards for peace.”
The First World War was clearly not, contrary to what many people thought at the time, the war to end all wars. As English poet Wilfred Owen put it somewhat ironically and ominously, it soon became apparent that “better men would come and greater wars.” A century later, this conflict still has a dominant place in our collective memory and I would like to make a particularly emotive reference here to George Price, a conscript from Nova Scotia who was untimely killed in action at the young age of 25, only two minutes before the Armistice came into force. The Belgian town where he died at precisely 10:58 a.m. on November 11, 1918, has honoured him in a number of ways over the years.
As a civilization, we undoubtedly sit on the shoulders of giants of human culture like Marie de France, Gentileschi, Kant, Curie and Einstein. But, in the centenary of the First World War, it seems pertinent to highlight the fact that we also sit, and perhaps even stand, on the shoulders of giants of human dignity such as George Price. Let us all rememorate and commemorate the likes of him and, in so doing, intimately acknowledge that memory is indeed central to our humanity.
When, preceded by the bagpiper, I had a chance to look at the students during the recessional of the Senior School assembly, I noticed their composure. This was a moment of introspection through which they were quietly communicating that they were ready to carry the torch of human dignity and, in due course, pass it on to the next generation. “Lest others forget,” they seemed to be saying, “we will remember.”