How can we properly remember what we don’t know in the first place? And why should we remember?

The First World War was so horrible, so appallingly savage, so vast and terrible, that it amounted to more than four years of ghastly indifference to human dignity. The numbers challenge our imaginations to comprehend: Worldwide, an estimated 8.5 million soldiers died. Two hundred and twenty-eight soldiers were killed every hour. Four every minute. One every fifteen seconds. That is slaughter on a scale that seems impossible. And that does not include the civilians who died.

None of us alive today was a personal witness to the battlefield conditions of the Great War. Most of our population was born at least fifty years after the war ended. That may not be a long time in history, but it’s a long time for any individual. I was born less than fifty years after the Boer War, in which 7,000 Canadians served and 244 were killed. That conflict seems like ancient history to me, no more memorable or concrete than Marathon or Waterloo.

So how can we properly remember what we don’t know in the first place? And why should we remember? The history books tell us we should be proud of Canada’s contributions to the war effort. We punched above our weight. We fought like tigers. Our men came together for the first time as a true Canadian contingent, freed from British commanders. In 1917, we won a bloody victory at Vimy Ridge, a place where the Germans had thrown back British and French attacks time and time again. It is said that Canada came of age during the war. No one dared to deny us a place at the 1919 peace treaty negotiations in Versailles, France.

We should know all that. But there will come a time — inevitably — when our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren will be so far removed from the war that it is probably expecting too much to hope that they will recall much more. History tends to tell big stories: who won, who lost. It concentrates on government leaders and commanding generals. It looks for heroes and analyzes blunders.

But if we are careful now to capture a vivid picture of what happened during the First World War, how it was unlike anything that had come before, them maybe future generations will appreciate more than the bare-bones facts. Maybe they will understand, even remember, the everyday citizens of a young country who answered when they were called and whose lives were snuffed out in a relentless series of frontal assaults that usually changed nothing.

— Text by Peter Mansbridge