Thursday, November 11, 2004

Raiding the Archives 10 - Remembering

The irony of freedom is never more starkly illustrated than on those days set aside to remember how fragile said freedoms can be.

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada, a day to remember the sacrifices made by our armed forces in the name of freedom. The cenotaph in London's downtown Victoria Park once again echoed with the footsteps of a generation that gave it all up so we could live our lives free of anarchy. Those footsteps grow more faint with each passing year as more of these heroes pass away, and those who remain find it increasingly difficult to make the journey.

I came along long after the war ended, so I always tend to feel incredibly inadequate when I'm amongst this group of people. My life, in comparison, seems trivial. After all, the worries of maintaining a career, a household, and a family seem fairly mudane when you consider a soldier's likelihood of never coming home, or coming home a shell of his/her former self.

I always wished that I could do something to show them how much we valued what they had done. Thankfully, my writing once again came to the rescue. They may be mere words, but if they bring comfort to one person who bore witness to war, they will have accomplished their goal.

The fact that I have the freedom to write whatever I wish because of their efforts is not lost on me. The fact that these witnesses to and participants in history are now passing away makes it even more important for those who follow - us - to pick up the mantle of remembrance and remind current and future generations why the passage of time should never erode the importance of the message.

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Originally published Wednesday, May 5 in the London Free Press.

Battle of Atlantic never forgotten

History can sometimes be tough to fully appreciate when you weren't around to witness it.

But watching naval veterans commemorate their involvement in a pivotal battle of the Second World War, it was easy to understand how their actions very likely saved the freedoms we take for granted today.

They gathered at HMCS Prevost last Sunday to remember the 59th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Atlantic. It lasted from 1939 until hostilities in Europe ceased in May 1945, making it the longest battle of the war.

When fighting first broke out, German U-boats prowled the North Atlantic Ocean with near-impunity, picking off Allied ships with frightening efficiency. Had they succeeded in shutting down the sea lanes, Britain would have been choked off. And things might have ended up differently for the Allies in Europe -- and for us.

"We did it for freedom," said Walter Weston, who served aboard numerous ships during that time and never forgot why this mission was so important. "Britain would have failed if we hadn't gotten the supplies across. They probably would have lost the war.

"We had to get the food, oil, gas, tanks, ammunition and people over there."

To maintain the vital lifeline, Royal Canadian Navy ships began escorting the convoys across. By 1944, RCN vessels were the only units running the North Atlantic convoys. The supply lines for the Allied victory lay securely in Canadian hands.

But those hands suffered dearly. The Germans sent 24 Canadian naval ships and 70 merchant vessels to the bottom. More than 3,000 Canadian sailors and another 900 airmen died in the waters of the North Atlantic; a huge sacrifice for a country the size of Canada.

Despite the historic rationale for Canada's involvement, Weston remains humble.

"I'm a Canadian and I'm proud of our country," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "We did our share, and we did our duty."

Weston, a London native who retired from the reserves in 1961 and worked in the mechanical trades afterward, said despite enduring the hardships of shipboard life, he ended up with a lifelong extended naval family.

To many, the battle represented Canada's military coming of age. When Canada first declared war on Germany in September 1939, its tiny navy numbered less than a dozen fighting ships. As the war progressed, the RCN expanded by a factor of 40, and by 1945 was the world's third-largest naval force.

At 83, Weston remains actively involved in speaking to younger generations, whose only exposure to war has been via television and the Internet. He works with the Dominion Institute's Memory Project. The Toronto-based organization's mission is to improve Canadians' ability to remember and appreciate our common history. He regularly talks to students, sharing his wartime experiences and the lessons that remain applicable today.

"They don't teach nearly enough history in schools," he said. "We need to share what we know."

The ceremony, organized by the London branch of the Royal Canadian Naval Association, poignantly exhibited that sense of history and sacrifice. The bell tolled once for each of the 24

Canadian warships lost during the campaign. The echo of each barely had time to reverberate off the industrial green concrete walls of the gymnasium before the next ship's name was read.

The veterans in the colour party stood ramrod straight, flags high, throughout the ceremony. Their faces showed no emotion, but it was clear to anyone watching them where their thoughts were.

Afterward, they gathered in the officers' mess to quietly reflect and catch up with old friends.

I wasn't there in 1945, but for a couple of hours on a rainy Sunday morning, I was privileged to look through a window of history to better understand why it matters as much today as it always has.

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Carmi Levy is a London freelance writer. He may be e-mailed at
carmilevy@msn.com.

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Carmi here: As I rode my bike to the office earlier today, I saw a number of vehicles with Navy or Army bumper stickers on them that were clearly on their way downtown for the ceremonies. I couldn't help but feel like I needed to do something to acknowledge them as they passed me. So as I pulled up next to one uniformed gentleman at a red light, I simply nodded my head - the standard cyclist's salute of respect - and said thank you. He smiled back, and made my day.

2 comments:

Dean said...

I agree, Carmi.

It is moderately appalling to me that young people, by which I mean under-thirty, know so little about WWII. We've been living the repurcussions for 60 years, and will continue to do so.

A truly astonishing number think of it as a European war won by the Americans with a few Brits thrown in for local colour.

In some ways, I feel the lack of a cause to fight for: my father and uncles fought in WWII. My grandfather and great uncles fought (and were wounded/killed) in WWI. My generation didn't have a Great Cause. In WWI, it was a manufactured cause, that of pure nationalism. In WWII, it was real.

I sometimes wonder if our brothers to the south aren't suffering from a certain amount of the same thing, of desiring a Good Cause.

Carmi said...

I like your perspective on fighting for a cause. Somehow, when an entire generation galvanizes to fight a great threat, society ends up better for it. Not that we WANT dark clouds to hang over free society, but the coming together necessitated by fighting for your very right to exist, against an unspeakably horrible enemy, makes for really great people at the other end.

The sustained post-WWII economic boom is all the proof we need. (I know I'm being simplistic here, but it's Friday...)

Someone who I know (and won't identify to protect the guilty) asked yesterday why Remembrance Day was such a big deal in Canada. "It's not like Canada had a part in the war," was the comment that escaped from said person's mouth.

That summarizes the ignorance right there. And it saddens me. I would like to spend a few hours educating this individual, but I suspect it would be for naught. I'd rather spend that time speaking with someone who was actually there.