Enlarging Our Mystic Bonds of Remembrance
Enlarging Our Mystic Bonds of Remembrance
By J. Patrick Boyer
In 1897 Rudyard Kipling, the British Empire’s poet in residence, penned a work entitled Recessional for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. She’d been monarch since 1837 and, over the 60 years of her reign, Britain became an imperial superpower, its lands and subject peoples covering a quarter of the globe, Canada’s immense landmass included.
Kipling’s poem invokes the importance of memory, of remembering ancient things that have gone before, ages before, so distant they humble current events with time’s diminishing perspective, even the British Empire which he generally championed, by transcending them as fleeting. Recessional’s haunting refrain will sound familiar:
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet
Lest we forget, Lest we forget!
Kipling’s phrase “Lest we forget!” has become synonymous with Remembrance Day, when in communal solemnity we remember the war dead, in order to pay tribute to them.
Bracebridge: November 11, 2022
Now, having observed November 11 just days ago, with our recall still fresh of Remembrance Day services, whether televised from the National War Memorial in Ottawa or experienced directly here in Muskoka, it’s a good time to take stock. The service in Bracebridge offered a snapshot of contemporary Canadian ceremonies, and how they bind us with mystic chords of remembrance.
In the centre of town, under sunshine and a blue sky, people steadily flowed in from all directions toward Memorial Park. The tree limbs were stark, their leaves fallen and cleared away.
Assembling around the grey cenotaph bearing its stone-chizelled names of 83 Bracebridge soldiers killed in foreign wars, citizens by the hundreds formed a community circle of remembrance.
Four soldiers – two Muskoka Pioneer army cadets, joined by two members of a Base Borden signals regiment – stood vigil at the east, west, north, and south corners of the cenotaph square. Watching children reached up to hold their mother’s hand. Some adults stood alone, others as couples. People looked on from wheelchairs.
Circulating the assembly, volunteers quietly distributed the printed program for BRACEBRIDGE REMEMBRANCE DAY SERVICE 2022. It featured an 80th anniversary: The Dieppe Raid, 1942-2022. Dominating the cover was a photograph of the stony narrow beach with mangled military equipment and inaccessible high cliffs at Dieppe where this Second World War disaster unfolded on the French coast.
The ill-conceived and unjustifiable military operation’s tragic outcome stung all Canadians. Today cenotaphs across our country display the 916 names of our soldiers who perished in an hour that August 19 morning 80 years ago, trying to land under crippling firepower from the Germans who knew in advance they were coming. In the printed program, the top of the first page displayed a Canadian Legion poppy and the words “Lest We Forget.”
Register the significance of Canadian Legion’s Central Muskoka Branch 161 commemorating the Dieppe disaster to introduce sobering reality that must be in our minds on Remembrance Day. This larger lens reveals, beyond the 916 men killed, all 4,963 Canadians deployed to Dieppe. Fewer than half made it back to England, a great many of them severely wounded. The 3,367 casualties included 1,946 Canadians taken prisoners of war. The British cloaked this tragic fiasco behind self-serving lies, which we’ll return to another time.
Official program for Legion Branch 161’s Remembrance service on November 11 drew attention to the slaughter of Canadian soldiers at Dieppe on August 19, 1942.
Arrival of the Remembrance Day Parade
As the hour of 11 a.m. approached, bagpipes could be heard through the clear morning air. The parade had formed up at Bracebridge’s Memorial Arena, built after the Second World War to perpetuate the memory of soldiers from the town who’d died overseas and, in the bargain, to keep alive their cherished sport of hockey.
Peggy Lawler, Sergeant-at-Arms of Branch 161, led the tartan and red-uniformed Bracebridge Legion Pipers and Drummers who marched while playing.
Shirley Ruttan, chair of the Branch’s poppy campaign, conducted the service. Women were in the ranks of the uniformed. Silver Cross mother Shirley Campbell, representing all mothers whose sons died in war, laid a wreath. The prominence of women leading the parade, conducting the Remembrance service, and participating fully, are important measures of equality in Canadian society and reflect the evolving nature of Remembrance in Canada today.
The parade continued into Memorial Park, with uniformed contingents of Ontario Provincial Police officers and soldiers from Base Borden, then a dozen or so veterans, and young members of the Beavers. For Legion branches across Canada, the ranks of veterans continue to thin as aging warriors succumb to peacetime deaths and as fewer soldiers emerge from Canada’s narrowing role in battles abroad, including our country’s men and women serving more than a decade in Afghanistan, of whom 157 died.
The presence of smartly uniformed serving men and women from Borden and uniformed male and female officers of the OPP, supplementing the local contingent with strength of numbers, order, and disciplined performance, is the reality of today’s expanding circle of remembrance – part necessity, part recognition of all those who stand on guard to respond to today’s threats to democratic Canada, as the current inquiry into policing of the Freedom Convoy and Ottawa’s use of the Emergency Powers Act brings into focus.
Further Expanding Our Circle of Remembrance
Following Two Minutes of Silence and bagpipe-playing of “Piper’s Lament” came The Act of Remembrance. A prayer by Branch 161 padre Rev. Michael Barnes now opened a wider lens than had been the case for Remembrance Day services in this park several generations earlier. “We gather today fully aware that we do so through the sacrifice of those who answered the call to arms in time of war,” began the cleric.
“Not only do we remember those who paid the supreme sacrifice through the forfeiture of their lives in battle, but those who suffered the scars of battle both physically and mentally and lived to remember. No matter what their reasons for going to war were, theirs is a contribution that cannot be diminished in any way, shape or form. It is our duty to not let their memory slip into oblivion.”
Rev. Mr. Barnes then established the essential balanced space needed by Canadians. He did so by integrating and reconciling the contradictions that for decades swirled beneath formal public acts of Remembrance, and which caused peace activists to wear not red poppies but black ones and denounce militarism.
“We do not champion war,” Barnes stated unequivocally. “We acknowledge a just call to arms. We pay tribute to those who answered that call and now rest from their labours. It is our duty to remember. We will remember.” Close quote.
While confirming Canadians do not champion war, he widening the circle of Remembrance by linking our essential obligation of Remembrance with equal acknowledgment that many who served in battle returned home scarred mentally and physically.
Before citizens assembled and the Remembrance Day parade reached Memorial park, 18 wreaths had already been placed at the cenotaph, keeping the well-organized service from stretching an extra hour or more. Each of those wreaths called events to mind, like titles on a bookshelf of Muskoka history: the Boer War and Memorial Fountain, World War I, World War II, Korea, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Animals in War, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, Norway, South Muskoka Memorial Hospital, Bracebridge Legion Pipes and Drums, Ontario Provincial Police, Muskoka Paramedics, Bracebridge Fire Services, Ontario SPCA and Humane Society.
Branch 161 president Robert Jeffries leads Pipe and Drum Band to the town’s Memorial Park a half century ago.
Animals in War
A welcome feature at Memorial Park the past four years recurred this November 11. A large, handsome, well-groomed horse named Tex, a big red poppy affixed to his saddle blanket, arrived with the parade. Erect in the saddle, Brett McRoberts wore a Great War officer’s khaki wool uniform. His moustache and officer’s cap completed the appearance, as if man and horse had just ridden out of a history book about World War I.
Seeing Tex and McRoberts at this Memorial Service, facing wreaths laid for Animals in War and on behalf of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, brought to mind how intrinsic horses have been in wars that humans wage.
Eight million horses died in World War I, and half that number again in World War II, as well as the donkeys, mules and camels carrying food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies to soldiers, doctors, and nurses at the front. Other animals perishing in war included dogs and pigeons carrying messages. Canaries, like their counterparts in mineshafts, died in their role of detecting poisonous gas. The cats and dogs trained to hunt and kill rats in the trenches perished there, too.
This fuller picture of ground-level warfare enriches remembrance by introducing more reality, just as the movie and stage-play War Horse portrayed for contemporary society the hellish experiences of these reliable animals serving in charging cavalry units, moving artillery pieces over deep slippery battlefield mud, pulling supply wagons along roads under thundering deadly shellfire.
Remembrance is worthier for being more inclusive
As part of the ceremony, in addition to the wreaths already mentioned, a dozen more were laid by representatives of Canada’s Armed Forces, Canadian Peacekeeping, Muskoka Pioneers, Branch 161 legionnaires, and representatives of Canada’s federal, provincial, district, and municipal governments.
The morning’s musical components featured Muskoka Men of Song, for whom this annual Remembrance Day service is the most significant of their year’s impressive performance schedule.
Remembrance is worthier for being more inclusive. Bracebridge Mayor Rick Maloney’s clear and purposeful message of inclusion helped emphasize this. He paid tribute to “the incredible strength and bravery of those young men and women who served and continue to serve, from Vimy and Juno to Korea, Cyprus and Afghanistan.”
“Many of us have not sacrificed for our freedom,” the mayor observed with effect. “It was given to us by the sacrifices of more than one and a-half million Canadians who served in our Armed Forces, ordinary Canadians who by their extraordinary sacrifices ensured a better, safer and brighter future for people both domestic and foreign.
“We also remember the sacrifices of those whose names will never be engraved on this cenotaph: mothers and fathers who watched their children leave to a foreign land and war they couldn’t protect them from; children too young to understand why their mom or dad, brother or sister, would never be coming home; and in many cases, children who had to grow up far too soon in order to take care of their families.
“We are able to stand here in peace and safety – we are able to pay our respects to all the fallen, all the wounded, and all who served in conflicts for over 100 years,” concluded Mayor Maloney, “because of those who volunteered, served, fought, and sacrificed for our freedom.”
This wider embrace of Remembrance in contemporary Canada has many dimensions, large and small. While Bracebridge Legion expanded its name to “Central Muskoka Branch 161” to include with respectful dignity smaller outlying communities, the Canadian Legion itself, for whom Remembrance has from inception been the organization’s very soul, advanced to new ground, connecting the absence of war with Kipling’s inner meanings in Recessional. The Legion did so by expanding its mantra “Lest We Forget” to connect war sacrifice with a larger Canadian value of peace and peacekeeping. An expanded message from the Canadian Legion today is “Uphold Peace through Remembrance.”
Horses carry British and Canadian troops during the Boer War, where deaths of two Bracebridge soldiers gave rise to Bracebridge’s Memorial Park.
Continuity and Change in Remembrance
This year, as every year, in Muskoka as across Canada, Remembrance Day was a time of communal solemnity. Ceremonies to remember the war dead, unfolding much as they did last year, and the year before, have reassuring continuity in their specific symbols, formalized routines, and military precision. Yet as we’ve just traced, with the example of this year’s Remembrance services in Muskoka District’s capital, there is, in the Canadian way, both continuity and change.
A final point, to underscore this evolution, is realizing that Remembrance Day did not start this way.
Bracebridge’s Memorial Park was created following the deaths of James Finlay and Fred Wasdell in February 1900. They died in separate battles fighting Dutch homesteaders in distant South Africa so British interests could gain that diamond and gold rich territory. The outcome back in their hometown was that Bracebridge had a magnificent park in the town centre as a war memorial. However, no special day was set aside, in our District or for the country itself, to intentionally remember soldiers who never returned from war overseas.
It took the Great War’s aching womb of death to deliver that. The intense sacrifice from 1914 to 1918 of 66,655 Canadian lives, plus the thousands more maimed for life, demanded something greater to memorialize them.
That first November 11 in 1918, when an armistice was signed to end fighting, was one of raucous celebration and blessed relief. In the towns and villages of Muskoka, that day and night included bands, bonfires, dancing, mixed emotions, and prayers of thanksgiving.
Thankfulness for victory did not end there.
A year later on November 11, 1919, Armistice Day was observed. The essential day had been designated. It was a day free from work, too – but that was only because it had been combined with Thanksgiving Day. Previously, the Thanksgiving holiday had been a fixed Monday in October. But for 12 years, Armistice Day and Thanksgiving Day in Canada were observed together on November 11, no matter what day of the week that was.
The incongruity of mashing up commemoration of the war dead with gratitude for an abundant harvest seemed increasingly inappropriate. By 1931, war veteran MPs promoted a private member’s bill, which the House of Commons passed unanimously, renaming Armistice Day for its larger and more solemn purpose, as Remembrance Day. No more a day-long holiday, it centred on a universal Two Minute Silence at 11 a.m.
Let us strive, each day of the year, to Uphold Peace through Remembrance. It would be a very Canadian thing to do, and a personal service in remembering those to whom our debt can never be fully repaid.