The War That Didn’t End All Wars

I reach out to touch the portrait of his youthful face, scarcely wrinkled and smiling. Why did you have to die so young? Tears form—it is almost too much to bear. Almost, no, it is too much to bear. I look down at the floor. A map painted on the floor points me to Amiens. For a moment, I am thrown back one hundred years to the first of the hundred last days of World War I, August 1918. It is uncanny. I am in the Ottawa War Museum exhibition “Victory 1918—the last hundred days.”

I can hear the ear-crushing roar of guns. I can almost see the muddy, rat-infested trenches and barbwire twisted and gangly. Yes, rats because the troops have no way of getting rid of rotting food. It is taking me into a place of the imagination that I don’t really want to travel. I am afraid of what I might meet. I am afraid I will fall into the darkness of hell where neither God nor hope exists.

The exhibition has set out a journey through the last hundred days of a war some supposed would end all wars. The narrative of the accomplishments of the four divisions of the battle-hardened Canadian Corps frames the exhibit. That’s the big story, but there are many other stories woven into the larger narrative. For one hundred days, beginning at 5:20 a.m. on August 8th, the Corps battled from Amiens, to the Drocourt-Queant Line, the Canal du Nord, Cambrai and finally Valenciennes. And victory. Most Canadians have not even heard of these names. And perhaps have forgotten that 45,000 soldiers from Canada were killed in these hundred days.

The “Victory 1918” exhibit is both brilliant and disturbing. It is designed as a kind of maze that hems you in. There is not much room between the walls. It feels claustrophobic. In fact, one can look skyward and see models of bombs filling the ceiling. The sounds of explosions and battlefield screams are constant. One turns a corner and a large screen shows an NFB film of a Canadian tank that appears suddenly out of the smoke and mist as it crushes a German bunker. You are there, and, astonishingly, see a German soldier reach over to see if his comrade is alive. He isn’t. War historians tell us that these oddly shaped World War I tanks often broke down. Armour-piercing rounds of high explosives could penetrate the machine’s steel hull. Tanka crews could be “splashed” by flying metal fragments. Even wearing a leather helmet that looked like a Jacques Plante goalie mask didn’t help much.

The horror, the horror is everywhere you turn. I see a green hand grenade on display that looks like a small pineapple. Pull the pin and you have four seconds to toss it. War historian Jack Granatstein (The March to Victory: Canada’s Final 100 Days of the Great War [2012]) explains what it did:  “Its explosion sent shards of metal in all directions: it was a key weapon in destroying enemy strong holds.”

As you move through the maze on your way to Valenciennes, artefacts appear magically. I see a gun-shell, a 4.5” howitzer MKX. It is huge. There’s a rattan rum-jug. Soldiers drank rum to calm their nerves before heading to a probable death. Over there one stares in amazement at a German anti-tank rifle. It’s two metres long and could pierce tanks.  A field telephone also reminds us that pigeons were widely used as messengers in the first world war. That started me thinking about the use of animals in war for various purposes. Dogs were mascots and murderers, scouts and detectors.  I have seen a photograph of a dog wearing a gas mask.

I have also seen photos of a first world war American Boston terrier  called “Sergeant Stubby,” dressed in a flack jacket. He used his extraordinary sense of smell to alert the soldiers to mustard gas attacks. He comforted the wounded (and was wounded in his foreleg). And this tough little terrier, who served in 17 battles, even caught a German soldier by the pants and held him until an American soldier arrived.

I have also seen an awkward-looking gas mask for a horse. Horses have been used for centuries in various wars. Photos of horses and mules at war show them massacred and lying in some pitiful ditch. They must have been afraid when they were commandeered from their usual duties on farms. Priv. C.J. Cate, 12h Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, wrote home that “the bodies of men and horses were strewn about, mangled in every possible manner.” 20,000 horses and mules were used by the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. This ghastly scene of despair may be one reason why a mule was named Shrapnel.

Some soldiers, it is said, wept at the suffering of their beloved animals. Even insects were used to carry deadly viruses into enemy territory. There is, I discovered, a war memorial in Ottawa for animals who died at war. I must go and lay a wreath. No wonder scholars speak of World War I as a “total war.” Every possible thing or innocent creature that could help to kill the enemy was pressed into service.

We reach Arras and I am brought to immediate attention by a replica of the German pill-box. German co-ordinated machine gun fire took a serious toll on Canadian troops. I reach out to touch what looks like barbed wire (but is only thread) and peer through the loophole. I see the MG 08 heavy machine gun. It fired 500 bullets a minute. To knock-out a pillbox one did three things: bombardment, followed by fire from the 26.5” long Lewis light machine gun fire (it could fire accurately from 880 yards) and the final assault by riflemen and grenadiers. Lieutenant Horatio Cromwell of the 38thCanadian Infantry Battalion looked “back on our advance through machine gun and shell fire over open country and I feel that nothing but the power of prayer ever saved me.” Private George Bell, first Canadian Infantry Battalion simply cried out: “Damn this dirty, lousy, stinking bloody war.”

My attention is caught by a display of Gunner Phillip Henry Button’s Pay Book. An insert message (Army Form W.3066) posted in his book tells the soldiers preparing for a surprise strike to the east of Amiens to  “Keep your mouth shut!” The men were instructed not to talk, or be inquisitive about what other units are doing. “The success of the operations and the lives of your comrades depend upon your SILENCE.” And if the enemy takes you prisoner, “don’t give the enemy any information beyond your rank and name. In answer to all other questions you need only say, ‘I cannot answer.” How could thousands of soldiers, horses, equipment, supplies, ammunition and food be quiet? Did a bullet await the refusal to give the enemy much information?

As we near the exhibit’s mind-boggling end, the designers have used a curtain with printed images of marching soldiers as a wall. We reach the end of the canvas curtain and notice a painting by the famous Group of Seven artist F. H. Varley in 1919. Lonely trees and people-less vistas are the Group’s signatures. Here, however, German prisoners trudge along what else, a muddy road, with trees blasted, twisted, and tortured. An expanse of destruction! No wonder Varley and others sought spiritual solace in the idealized peaceful landscapes of Algonquin Park in Ontario. We watch and we hear the sounds of birds chirping. Is that to remind us that a few were still present after massive bombing? Bird song lifts the spirit. It is a sign of beauty. It is a symbol of hope.

Another black and white drawing on display shows an Allied soldier thrusting a bayonet deep into the chest of a German soldier. I stand there for a minute unable to grasp the horror of this drawing and the ignominious insanity into which western civilization had fallen. Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers (2012), says that the “protagonists of 1914, were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” Rabindranath Tagore, the great and wise Indian intellectual,  wondered if the “torch of European civilization was not meant for showing light, but to set fire.” Once a qualified admirer of the West, the renowned Chinese thinker Ling Qichao himself  wondered if the West had sunk into the depths of barbarism (see Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: the Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia [2012]).

I reach the end of the maze, rattled and unsettled. It is now November 11, 1918. I enter a three-sided room with cinemagraphic images showing soldiers patrolling the streets one last time. And then it happens: a German sniper shoots a Canadian named Private George Lawrence Price a few minutes before Armistice. “He didn’t want to shoot anybody,” said George Barkhouse, Price’s nephew and namesake, who turned 90 in 2018.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.