Commentary – Always remember those who served

Mac Olsen

Next Sunday marks the centennial of the end of the First World War – and it is imperative for us to ensure for posterity that the fallen and all veterans will always be remembered.

The last Canadian veteran of the First World War, John Babcock, passed away in 2009, at the age of 109. The last of all WWI veterans, an American, Frank Woodruff Buckles, passed away in 2011 at the age of 110.

So, direct experience of the First World War is no longer within living memory. We no longer have veterans’ stories to learn from and their wisdom to heed, which makes it all the more important to maintain a record and keep their memory alive. Now we must rely on books, films, documentaries, online media, archives and monuments to acquire knowledge of that dark page in human history.

These sources can give us an appreciation for the horrors of the First World War, but direct contact with someone who participated and did bare witness, is the most profound connection to that event. Since childhood, I’ve been an avid student of the First and Second World Wars and was keen to learn from our veterans of both wars who attended school assemblies and Remembrance Day services. Sometimes they were willing to discuss it, but sometimes the memories were just too painful to repeat to others.

Films seem to be the one of the most engaging ways to learn about the First World War. ‘Passchendaele’ a Canadian film released in 2008, tells the story of a Canadian soldier’s experience in the Battle of Passchendaele, in the summer and fall of 1917. It was a good, but not compelling, portrayal of the Canadian experience.

The book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ has been made into two movies, and is considered a classic of First World War literature. Both movie versions convey the young Germans’ youthful idealism as they leave school to serve in the German Army on the Western Front.

The movies also depict the grim reality of the battle field, the loss of comrades one by one, until the survivors realize that war is a horrifying experience, stripping them of their innocence and making them commit barbaric, unspeakable acts.

Although these two film versions of the book may seem outdated compared to the gritty reality of movies like Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’, they are still a definitive exploration of the human condition during the First World War.

If it’s a documentary you’re looking for, check the 10-part TV series entitled ‘The First World War’, released by an Australian broadcaster in 2003. All aspects of the war are covered and this series offers a sobering reminder of regional conflicts like that remain with us today, such as that in the Balkans.

If your preference is to go online and explore original archival materials about the Canadian Expeditionary Force that served in Europe during the First World War, there is the federal government’s Library and Archives Canada website at Files on the CEF: soldiers, nurses and chaplains are available there, as well as many others.

The propaganda that all sides used in the war is also informative; the online source at is a good place to begin.

These are but a few of the historical sources regarding the First World War to learn from. They can help us to always remember those who served.


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