This time of year, most people are gearing up for the holidays. For me, the beginning of November is a time for reflection and remembrance. I’d like to get off the well-beaten path of personal finance this week, and share with all of you why this is my most important month.
I’ve always known that my family has a military connection. Though my mom’s genealogy research, I know that I have had ancestors in the American Revolution, the Civil War (likely on both sides, though this research is ongoing), and World War II. My great-grandfather was in the Naval Air Force during World War II, initially flying supply planes, and by the end of the war he was one of the youngest base commanders in the Pacific theatre- he was 24 when the war ended in 1945. He died when I was 10, but my mom says he rarely talked about his experiences. Because of this, I’ve always had a more somber attitude to Rememberance Day than most people my age.
When I was 16, I went on a trip with my school to London, Belgium, and France. 3000 students from across Canada were going for the rededication of a WWI memorial. This memorial sits on what is now Canadian soil, and it commemorates the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was a battle that took place near the French town of Arras in April of 1917. The German army had taken position on the escarpment, which was a huge military advantage. The French tried to get it, and couldn’t. The British tried to get it, and couldn’t. Eventually, it was decided that the Canadian Corps would all band together for the first time in history to take the ridge. After months of planning on a scale rarely seen before, they began their assault on April 9th, 1917. Obviously, they won. There were 3598 Canadians killed in the assault.
When the news of the victory hit the streets of Paris, it’s said that a French General didn’t believe it and said “C’est impossible!” When he was told who was fighting, he said “Ah, les Canadiens! C’est possible.” In the 1930s, the monument was built and Vimy Ridge was given to the Canadian government as thanks for the sacrifice.
For the 90th anniversary, the students who attended were given the name of a Canadian soldier who was killed that Easter Monday in April of 1917. We were to represent them during the ceremony, and because of this we were told to research them and find their stories. My soldier was a man named Edward J. McNaughton. He was a Canadian pipe-fitter living in Detroit who came back to Canada to enlist when the war began. He was in his 30s and married to a woman named Ena. This was all the information I found, beyond his death date- April 9th, 1917.
That trip changed me in many ways. You can’t visit these places without being moved by what you have seen. I’ve walked along the rocky shoreline of Dieppe, where 60% of the predominately Canadian Allied forces were massacred. I’ve walked Hill 52 in Belgium and marvelled at how possession of such a tiny piece of land could cause such bloodshed. I’ve drawn a Canadian flag in the sand at Juno Beach. I’ve walked through the cemeteries at Tyne Cot, Beny-sur-Mer and the Normandy American Memorial, trying to comprehend that each of the gravestones represents a man who lived, who loved, who had a story. And I’ve walked up the hill at Vimy Ridge, surrounded by classmates, remembering Private Edward J. McNaughton and the life he never got to finish. I still wish I knew more of his story.
Every November I remember the sacrifices that were made for my freedom. I remember people who died senselessly because of differences that didn’t warrant bloodshed. I remember innocent people massacred because of their religion. I remember because if we ever forget, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes once again.
So this November, even amongst the distractions of the American election/thanksgiving and getting revved up for Christmas, please take a few moments of silence on the 11th to remember those who died so we could live. Our generation has a duty to the past and the future. We need to remember how the terrible events of the past came to fruition. We need to learn to read the signs and figure out ways to stop war from happening before it comes to pass. And above all, we need to remember those who died for our freedom. If we do not acknowledge their sacrifice, they will have served for nothing. They will have died for nothing.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae
May 3rd, 1915