By Scott Taylor
We have just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice, which brought hostilities to a cessation on the Western Front of the conflict known alternatively as ‘World War One’, ‘the Great War’ and by those who fought and survived its horrors, as ‘the War to end all Wars’.
With the passage of time, those horrors of trench warfare have been all but forgotten, and the usual cabal of ‘Drums and Bugles’ historians would have us all believe that it was a glorious affair worthy of national celebration one century later.
True to form, last week Canada’s leading glorifier of all things military – historian Jack Granatstein penned an editorial chastising Prime Minister Trudeau for not bringing enough public attention to the battlefield exploits of the Canadian Corps during their offensive in the final ‘100 Days’ of the Great War.
According to Granatstein, all Canadians should reflect upon the sacrifice made by those brave warriors in that campaign – 30,000 dead another 210,000 wounded – as we attend our Remembrance Day ceremonies this year.
Personally, I fully support the notion that every November 11, Canadians mourn those who paid the ultimate price while serving Canada in foreign wars. However, rather than glorifying those conflicts, we should use this occasion to reflect upon the suffering and sacrifice made by those veterans.
While the guns may have gone silent in Flanders at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the truth is that this did not result in an instant euphoric homecoming for our troops.
According to the Official History of the Canadian Army, written by Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, there were a total of thirteen instances of violent disturbances by Canadian troops in the U.K. awaiting repatriation between November 1918 and June 1919. The most serious of these was a two-day mutinous riot in Kinmel Park, Wales.
Four months after the end of the war, there were 15,000 Canadian troops still based at Kinmel Park. Due to a shortage of supply ships, they were existing on half-rations, there was no coal for their stoves to stave off the biting damp cold of a Welsh winter, they were crammed forty-two men per hut meant for only thirty and they had not been paid for over a month.
As a result of these deplorable conditions, riots broke out on March 4, 1919, and the authorities were compelled to allow the provost marshals to use lethal force in order to restore discipline.
When the dust settled, five Canadian soldiers were dead, 23 wounded and seventy-eight mutineers had been arrested. A total of twenty-five were tried and convicted of mutiny.
Then there was the little told tale of Canada’s Siberian Expeditionary Force, which first deployed to Vladivostok, Russia in August 1918.
At that juncture it was hoped that an allied-force – including 4,200 Canadians – could assist the White Russians to defeat the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War in order to bring Russia back into the war against Germany.
With Germany’s capitulation in November 1918, this exercise became nothing more than an international anti-communist intervention in Russia.
This point was not lost on two rifle companies of the 259th Battalion who were being embarked in Victoria, B.C. on December 21, 1918 enroute to Vladivostok.
The mostly French Canadian conscripts mutined in the streets of Victoria to express their extreme displeasure at being sent off to fight in a Russian Civil War.
Officers fired their pistols in the air to bring the mutineers into line and when that failed, other – still obedient - Canadian soldiers (mostly from Ontario) beat the French Canadians into submission with their canvas web belts.
Once aboard the SS Teesta and finally enroute to Vladivostok, a dozen of the Quebecois ringleaders were charged and convicted of mutiny.
These sentences were later overturned on the basis that the deployment to Russia did not meet the legal requirement under the Military Service Act of the soldiers’ conscripted service being necessary for the “defence of the realm”.
Nonetheless, a total of 17 Canadians paid the ultimate price during this failed intervention in Russia, before the last of our soldiers were repatriated in June 1919.
If more historical focus were directed at these admittedly less than glorious chapters in our history, it would be easier to understand the similar failures by current governments.
The veterans of our twelve year failed intervention in Afghanistan were not left starving and shivering in the mud of northern Wales, but they have been forced to take drastic measures to demand the resources and medical support they need in the aftermath of being deployed on a doomed expedition.
As the old saying goes, “It ain’t like the good old days – and it never was.”