Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lest We Forget

It was called the "war to end all wars".

It officially ended as pen was placed to paper in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest, just outside Paris, on this day in 1918.

That final stroke at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, formally signalled enough blood had been shed for one generation. The principal signatories, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of the Allies and Matthias Erzberger of Germany, concluded a treaty that ended the First World War, but not without a portent of things to come.

Erzberger, a civilian who had made a passionate plea for peace in the Reichstag more than a year earlier, protested the harshness of the Allied terms. Before leaving the railway car, he concluded by saying, "a nation of seventy millions can suffer, but it cannot die". (Marshall Foch ignored Erzberger's attempt to shake his hand and is said to have replied, "Très bien".)

Erzberger later became Germany's finance minister in 1919 before being assassinated by right-wing extremists who viewed his signing of the armistice as treachery. Other extremists would soon emerge to form the Nazi party and convince the German people they had been "stabbed in the back" by the Treaty of Versailles; fuelling flames that would eventually erupt in 1939 with the start of the Second World War.

Decades later, American author Joseph Campbell would write, "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself".

"It's a song written about the military cemeteries in Flanders and Northern France. In 1976, my wife and I went to three or four of these military cemeteries and saw all the young soldiers buried there"

The song "Willie McBride" is still a powerful indictment of war, and has been recorded many times since it was composed by singer-songwriter Eric Bogle in 1975. A version by Makem and Clancey is reputedly the largest selling single in Irish history. The song has also been covered by the Chieftains, the Dubliners, John McDermott and the Dropkick Murphys among others.

Lest we forget heroes like Matthias Erzberger and "Willie McBride".

"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.

P.S. ... Look at the back right-hand side of a Canadian $10 bill. You will see an old veteran standing at attention near the Ottawa war memorial. How he got there is another story altogether.

Robert was one of the 400,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force sent to the mainland where they found quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the German blitzkrieg. While treating a wounded comrade, he was hit in the legs by shrapnel. En route to hospital, his ambulance came under fire from a German panzer, which then miraculously ceased fire. Evacuated from Dunkirk, Robert recovered, and joined the allied campaigns in North Africa and Italy.

During the Italian campaign, he met his future wife in a Canadian hospital. They were married in the morning by the mayor of the Italian town, and again in the afternoon by a British padre. After the war they settled in Chatham, Ontario where he went into politics and became the warden of the county and on his retirement he and his wife moved to Ottawa. Over a 45 year period, he helped raise thousands of dollars on behalf of veterans in need of pensions, recreation and medical centres. He also served as a Royal Canadian Legion speaker in the "Encounters With Canada" program, addressing grade 12 and 13 students.

One day, out of the blue, Robert received a call from a government official asking him to go downtown for a photo op. He wasn't told what the photo was for or why they chose him. "He had no idea he would be on the bill", his daughter said.

And now you know the story of Robert Metcalfe, the veteran on Canada's $10 bill.

Robert passed away in 2007 at the age of 90.

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