Postcard from Nova Scotia
By Matthew Townsend
For Americans, November 11 marks the moment in which we give thanks to all military veterans, living and dead, for their service to God and country. Memorial Day, held on the last Monday in May, serves to acknowledge and remember people who died in that service. Memorial Day is said to have emerged from the established practice of decorating graves of those lost in war — and the Civil War’s shocking toll.
Elsewhere in the world, it was World War I that provided a jarring entry into modern, mechanized combat, with battles lasting for months and wars for years. What began in 1914 as a war to end all wars, a short war to bring lasting peace, quickly proved to be otherwise. By the time the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, millions of combatants and civilians had died. Estimates vary, but most sources suggest about 10 million soldiers died, and roughly the same number of civilians.
In Canada and the British Commonwealth, Nov. 11 is Remembrance Day, a day in which those dead are brought to mind. Canada’s losses were felt intensely. About 61,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were killed, with another 172,000 injured, according to the Canadian War Museum. Another 1,305 Newfoundlanders (not yet part of Canada) were killed, as well. With around 424,000 Canadians sent overseas — or around 5 percent of the country’s population, at the time — the math is shocking. More than one in two Canadians deployed did not come home or did not return physically unscathed.
That pain is visible in Anglican churches throughout Canada. Many of them contain plaques that commemorate parishioners who died in the war, lest we forget.
Remembrance Day takes on special meaning at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and not only because of its losses in the Great War. Ninety-one parishioners were killed during the war; their names were read as a litany during Holy Eucharist on Nov. 11, along with names of those who died in World War II.
St. Paul’s — built in 1750 and said to be the oldest building in Halifax and oldest Protestant church in Canada is planted at the south end of the Halifax Grand Parade, the city’s most prominent public square. At the north end is Halifax’s city hall; the city’s cenotaph lies between government and church, a somber reminder of Haligonians who died in the world wars and in the Korean War. St. Paul’s front doors open upon the cenotaph.
On days like Nov. 11, the Grand Parade is Halifax’s busiest public space. This year, well more than a thousand people packed into the square to hear memorials of the dead, 100 years after World War I ended. As solemn poems and prayers were read at 11 a.m. by city dignitaries, veterans, and youth, cannons on Citadel Hill (about a quartermile away) loudly saluted the hour of armistice. They also heard of death, of sacrifice, of post-traumatic stress disorder, and of loss — but they did not hear, as St. Paul’s rector told the church before the ceremony, glorification of war. That is not a part of the Remembrance Day program.
“This is a day of remembrance. Let us give thanks for those who offered their lives in the hope that their sacrifice in a short war would create a long peace,” the Rev. Paul Friesen preached. “We remember above all the love of God that heals.”
St. Paul’s participation in events included hospitality. The church remained open as a warm space before, during, and after the ceremony — refuge from the morning’s nearfreezing temperatures and harsh winds. Staff and volunteers hauled king-sized pots of hot chocolate between the small parish kitchen and the narthex, where youth presided over cups and ladles. (Marshmallows, however, were a self-service affair.)
Canada’s observance of Remembrance Day seems to strike a balance sometimes hard to find in the United States. Somewhere in between “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Down by the Riverside,” the day creates a space and time in which antiwar sentiment and respect for service men and women can coexist. War is deeply lamented while the warriors are embraced. Warfare is not glorified, and soldiers are not sanctified, but the depth of their sacrifice is honored.
Karen Lynch, chairwoman of the Nova Scotia/Nunavut Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, told TLC that Remembrance Day, for her, is a way of “showing that we understand their commitments and the sacrifices that they’ve made, and the apprecia-
tion for what they’ve done.” Lynch, an associate member whose family served in conflicts, was among those to carry a poppy wreath to the cenotaph during the Remembrance Day Ceremony. (Poppies are the universal symbol of war dead throughout the Commonwealth, thanks to the poetry of Canadian physician and soldier John McCrae, one of those who did not see 1919.)
She said that Halifax’s military history — and the active duty personnel that call the city home — give a special significance to Remembrance Day. Lynch said support for the Legion’s work during “poppy season,” the time between the end of October and Nov. 11 when Canadians of all stripes (and politics) don lapel poppies and drop funds large and small into Legion collection boxes, had been overwhelming. She said, however, that support of veterans and the fallen is not limited to a single day.
“It’s almost like a daily part of our lives here,” she said. “It’s not just Remembrance Day. It’s something we strive to do every day, especially the Legion in its advocacy for veterans.”
For Lt. Mike Campbell, a member of Canada’s Air Force Reserve who attended the ceremony with his wife (also in uniform), the day was as much about remembering as teaching future generations. He said that Remembrance Day is a way to be sure knowledge of sacrifice is passed on. “It’s the same thing in the U.S. and a lot of other nations in the world where people have served,” he told TLC. “It’s nothing too deep — just to come, be out here, and remember.”
The Grand Parade cleared after the cenotaph was decorated with wreaths, but events continued throughout the day. On the national level, the Legion offered materials to local branches suggesting that church, municipal, and Legion hall bells be rung 100 times at sunset — “Bells of Peace.”
John D. Meehan, president of Legion Branch 161/Eastern Marine, Nova Scotia, told TLC that he worked with local churches to include them in the program. He said he promoted the event through social media, with more than 300 shares. “That might not seem a lot to you, but when you realize where we live, in the rural area, 300 shares is good.”
Meehan, a veteran who served in the British and Canadian navies (39.5 years of service, mostly attached to submarines) said he hoped people would think about the 100 years that have elapsed since the end of World War I. “But I’d also like them to think that the Great War was not the solution” that it was expected to be.
“We’ve had wars and conflicts since then, and we still have them,” he said. “Originally, I think it could have been a celebration of 100 years of peace. But, of course, that didn’t happen.”
Meehan’s view on what people should think when hearing the bells when remembering — may encapsulate why Remembrance Day sees wide adoption in Canada regardless of politics, personal views on war, and familial connections.
“Individuals will have different feelings when they hear the bells. They may look at it as a celebration. They may think of their families, their lost ones, who served in past wars, past conflicts,” he said. “It’s a mixed bag. I’m not about to tell people what they should think. Let them make up their own minds.”
Matthew Townsend and his wife, Kate Crane, live in Nova Scotia as Kate pursues academic studies. They worship at St. Paul’s and, from time to time, King’s College Chapel, Halifax.