Lest We Forget Why We Fought World War I

Lest We Forget Why We Fought World War I
2nd Canadian Division soldiers advance behind a tank at Vimy.Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada PA-004388

Lauchlan T. Munro

School of International Development and Global Studies

On Remembrance Day, I think of my two grandfathers and my two great uncles who served in the Canadian army in World War I. I remember their sacrifice. But I do not remember World War I as the Government of Canada would have me remember it. As we celebrate this, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, let us remember why we fought that terrible war.

Around Remembrance Day each year we are repeatedly told that Canadians fought in that war to defend freedom and democracy. But nothing could be further from the truth. My grandfathers and uncles signed up to serve King and Empire. And no two terms could be further from freedom and democracy than King and Empire.

To suggest that Canada went to war in 1914 to defend freedom and democracy is demonstrably ludicrous. First of all, that is not how the war was sold to Canadians at the time. Canadians were encouraged to rally to the defence of the mother country. The closest the advocates of war got to freedom and democracy as its justification was the claim that Britain went to war to defend the rights of small nations. In fact, the rights of small nations was ideological cover for the realpolitik position that Germany should not be allowed to control Belgium’s channel ports, which are dangerously close to the English coast.

More importantly still, the argument that Canada and her allies fought for freedom and democracy is belied by the fact that none of the major powers in 1914–1918 was remotely democratic by modern standards. All of them — bar tiny New Zealand — banned women from voting. All of them, including Canada, banned certain ethnic minorities or the unpropertied classes from voting. Each of the two major alliances contained at least one outright autocracy as a principal player. The Central Powers had the Ottoman Empire and the Allied Powers had Russia.

As for the countries involved, most were a motley assortment of semi-democracies. While Britain and France were certainly subject to constitutional forms of rule, the same was true of our enemy, Germany. The proportion of German males who had the right to vote in 1914 was higher than the proportion of British males. And though Allied propagandists both during and after the war depicted the German Kaiser as an untrammelled dictator, Kaiser Wilhelm’s freedom of action was often limited by a constitution and an elected and rambunctious parliament that had significant control over the budget.  Even in the much more autocratic Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna and other major cities featured cultures characterized by vibrant and highly political debates.

And let us not forget their overseas empires. Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the USA all had important overseas colonies at the time. These colonies were based on — and dedicated to promoting — the notion that certain nations had the right to colonize and suppress others, usually due to the skin colour of the colonizer versus the colonized. The major powers that did not have overseas empires — Austro-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia — had continental empires based on the same racist premises.

Then there were the opportunists, namely Italy and Japan, who joined the war merely to gain territory and colonies. Italy negotiated with both the Allied and Central Powers before choosing the former in 1915. Italy’s choice had nothing to do with freedom or democracy. Britain and France simply offered Italy a better deal than did Germany and Austro-Hungary. The rise of fascism in Italy only four years after World War I ended is due in no small part to the failure of Britain and France to deliver what they had promised to Italy.

Historians have long debated the exact causes of World War I, and no doubt they will continue to do so. But no serious historian contends that World War I was about a group of free, democratic nations defending themselves from an alliance composed of evil tyrants and autocrats. World War I was a nasty, ugly war sparked by a mixture of power, ambition, ignorance, pride, incompetence, and diplomatic failure by everyone involved. It was sold to Canadians at the time as the defence of our King and Empire, an empire of which most Canadians outside of Quebec (and many inside) were then proud to be a member.

That we still struggle to understand the motivations of those who took us to war in 1914 — and who continued it for another four bloody years — and that we still struggle to understand the emotional pull that King and Empire had for so many of that generation of Canadians should never blind us to the fact that this war had nothing to do with freedom or democracy.

On Remembrance Day, I think of my grandfathers, who both served in the Army Medical Corps and who witnessed horrific injuries and deaths. I think of my great uncle Tom, after whom I am named, who suffered from PTSD all his life. And I think of my great uncle Taffy, who lies in Flanders fields, felled by a sniper’s bullet. He died for King and Empire. Lest we forget.

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