Lest we forget

I once met Pierre Berton at an authors’ event at his home in Kleinburg, Ontario and he was hosting. The venerable historian wrote many books. One of them captured the glory and horror of Vimy, and that’s what the book is called.


Of course, I caught all the media coverage about that momentous World War I battle. The CBC documentary. The articles. The interviews with descendants of those young men who fought and died in the assault on that ridge in France. It has been said that Vimy helped forge the nation of Canada.

Maybe it did.

Berton’s book got into detail about trench warfare, but Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road probably described it best.

It was Easter Monday, 1917, when the battle began and four divisions of the Canadian Corps would go on to take a ridge held by the Germans. The British couldn’t do it. The French couldn’t do it and over the course of four years the French suffered 150,000 casualties trying. But the Canadians, fighting as a national entity, did take it at the cost of 10,000 casualties of their own, a huge toll for a nation in only its 50th year of existence.

Yet, this business we keep hearing of ‘lest we forget’ is a bit of a conundrum.

Canadian students went to Vimy for a ceremony that involved Prince Charles and his sons, as well as the leaders of Canada and France, and more power to them for taking in such an experience. I am sure it is something they will never forget. But what about those who didn’t go?

What about high school grads who go on to college or university and don’t know the first thing about Vimy? Or if we move on to World War II, about the Beaches of Normandy, or who the Allies were, or on which side Canada – or for that matter the United States – fought?

By and large, the young and not-so-young don’t know our history and this ailment is not confined to Canada. In the USA, the situation is just as dire.

It isn’t their fault because they are victims. They are victims because our schools let them down and I guess we let ourselves down for allowing it to happen.

The other day the Press Secretary for the President of the United States said that Hitler never used gas on people.

We hear the masses were shocked.

In Canada’s last federal election an NDP candidate with a Master’s degree revealed she had no idea what happened at Auschwitz.

We hear the masses were shocked.

If you go to a university or college campus today and ask students about history, I suppose the masses would be shocked again with what the kids don’t know. But then who are the masses?

Lest we forget? For far too many that will never be and not because we are mired in memory. It’s because you can’t forget what you haven’t learned.

It is indeed a shame and a tragedy to think of all those young men buried in Vimy as they turn in their graves.

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