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True tragedy of First World War forgotten

No Remembrance Day speech is complete without mentioning that the First World War Armistice was declared on the “11th hour of the 11th day of…

No Remembrance Day speech is complete without mentioning that the First World War Armistice was declared on the “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” — bringing an end to 1,561 days of the most bloody and futile conflict the Western world had yet seen.

The ‘11’ triad certainly has a nice ring to it -— but speechmakers often forget to include a fourth ‘11’: the 11,000 soldiers who were killed or wounded on the morning of November 11th, 1918.

The armistice was actually signed at 5 a.m., but was timed to come into effect six hours later. Even as commanders knew full well that peace was only hours away, they decided to carry out already planned attacks — running thousands of their men into the machine guns of the vanquished enemy.

The First World War’s 11th-hour casualties would outrank the opening-day battles of D-Day only 26 years later.

The men who died on D-Day were fighting for allied victory. The men who died on November 11, 1918, did so in a war that had already been decided, said historian Joseph Persico, author of 11th Hour, 11th Day, 11th Month.

Only two minutes before 11 a.m., Canadian Lawrence Price from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, 25, was struck by a bullet while chasing retreating German soldiers through a cottage in Mons, France.

A minute later, in the Argonne, American Henry Gunther was involved in a final charge against astonished German soldiers who were forced to open fire on the advancing men. With his commander counting down the final seconds on a stopwatch, Gunther was mowed down in the futile assault.

On Remembrance Day, the honour and sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers must never be forgotten, but the true tragedy of their sacrifice is often glossed over.

In gymnasiums and auditoriums across Canada on November 10th, Canadian schoolchildren are told that their right to freedom is owed to men in faded black-and-white photographs clad  khaki and tin helmets. And while Canadian soldiers have been at the frontlines of some of history’s most valiant battles for freedom, the true tragedy of Canada’s sacrifice in the First World War is seemingly ignored.

More than 90 years ago, students were told that the freedoms of their country and their way of life were being threatened by German “Huns” on the battlefields of France.

These youth, almost a generation of them, left behind lives of peace and prosperity to die fighting for a few metres of mud in the hellish Western Front of France.

In Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele, they were treated as little more than pawns by out-of-touch and ignorant commanders who pursued near-pointless “victories” at unbelievable human cost.

In Passchendaele alone, allied troops captured mere hectares of territory at the cost of 140,000 lives — only to abandon it four months later in order to free divisions to meet a German offensive in the south.

Private Lawrence Price no doubt donned a uniform for the honourable purpose of duty and patriotism — but his hope of ever growing old would ultimately be snuffed out as a result of the whims of generals who wanted “one last shot” at the defeated Germans.

On November 11th we remember that when duty calls, Canadians have always been ready to lay down their lives for their country.

But amid the poppies, hymns and speeches we often forget that if a generation of Canadians are going to be asked to trade their adulthood for a name engraved on a monument, it had better be vigilantly for the cause of freedom, and not just the madness of lines on a map.