History isn’t always as distant as we sometimes imagine it to be.
Or maybe it is.
About 15 years ago, while researching something unrelated at the National Archives, I stumbled upon an old newsreel from 1945.
It showed footage of a large parade somewhere in the United States, held shortly after the Allied victory in the Second World War.
Among the marchers that day was a small group of elderly men, some in wheelchairs, all of them veterans of the American Civil War.
The scene took me aback because it seemed so incongruous that there were still Civil War vets alive during the lifetime of my own parents, who were children when the newsreel was shot.
For me, the American Civil War seemed part of distant history. Book history. The Second World War, though, was more recent history. Living history.
I knew living, breathing, speaking people who had experienced the Second World War. There were veterans of that war in my family and in my community. From an early age, I’d heard first-hand accounts from vets and from Holocaust survivors.
But the American Civil War? It seemed almost ancient… prehistoric even… by comparison, although (I looked it up) there were still Civil War veterans alive well into the 1950s.
There were once people on this earth who lived through both the death of Abraham Lincoln and the birth of Rock and Roll.
To someone of my generation, the First World War is right on the frontier between book and living history. A great uncle I never met served in the Canadian armed forces during that war, but never saw combat.
From another branch of my family, my mother’s late aunt used to tell me stories of the maimed, vacant-eyed, younger-than-they-looked veterans of the Great War who would wander the streets of Saint John, New Brunswick after returning from the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. They frightened her as a child growing up there in the early part of the last century, and she still had vivid memories of them in her 90s.
At school, First World War vets occasionally would talk to us on Remembrance Day. But they were already quite elderly by the time I was a kid – older than my grandparents. It was hard to picture the frail old men speaking at our school assemblies as young soldiers in the trenches of Passchendaele or Ypres.
The Second World War and Korean War veterans were younger and more accessible. Also, they fought in wars documented by relatively modern cameras, with clear and crisp pictures. The First World War was all old-fashioned photos and fuzzy, silent film footage.
Twelve years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the Canadian government brought 17 of that war’s veterans to France and Belgium to revisit old battle sites. At the time, there were several hundred Canadian veterans of the War still alive, most in their late 90s and early 100s. Many of those still around in 1998 had only seen action as underage soldiers near war’s end.
Just a few were strong enough to make the trip. It would be the last major official commemoration of the First World War involving so many living veterans.
Before they left for Europe, they gathered as a group in Ottawa with the family members who would accompany them overseas: Septuagenarian children and 50-year-old grandkids. I was lucky enough to interview a few of those vets for a TV program. Their war experiences were unimaginably horrific, and some still found it difficult to talk about them eight decades later.
Those veterans are all gone now. Book history. And the World War II vets and Holocaust survivors who speak to my own kids’ classes may seem as prehistoric to them as the First World War vets seemed to me as a kid. Some day soon, their living history will also become book history.
The other day, I stood among thousands of onlookers in a cold drizzle at the National War Memorial during a ceremony commemorating Vimy Ridge Day. Officials made poignant speeches. A vintage First World War plane flew overhead. Sixty-five doves – each one representing 10,000 of the 650,000 Canadians who served in the war – were released into the sky.
But for the first time, there were no living witnesses in attendance. The last Canadian Great War vet died in February.
History can’t help but grow more distant. But maybe as the living memory dims, the imperative to remember strengthens.