Pack horses taking up ammunition to the guns of the 20th Battery Canadian Field Artillery, Neuville St. Vaast, April 1917. The 20th Battery Canadian Field Artillery taking up ammunition. In the Canadian forward area, roads and tramways were repaired and extended by pioneer and engineering units for the daily hauling of more than 720 tonnes or more of ammunition, rations and stores. Artillery ammunition allotted for the Vimy operation amounted to 38,250 tonnes. Library and Archives Canada. Department of National Defence Collection 1964-114 PA-001229

Editorial: Will we ever learn?

  • November 8, 2018

A hundred years on, the numbers remain chilling — more than 15 million dead, including 61,000 Canadians.

Fought from 1914 to Nov. 11, 1918, the First World War was, at the time, the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen. It blended all of mankind’s previous knowledge about how to kill with 20th-century artillery, machine guns, poison gas and, for the first time, submarines, tanks and aerial bombardment. The planet had never witnessed such relentless slaughter on so monstrous a scale.

Some called it the war to end all wars. Surely, they believed, after so much bloodshed mankind would finally acknowledge the madness of all-out war and never allow it again. If only.

On Nov. 11 the Western world commemorates the centennial of the armistice that ended the First World War. The day will be marked, and rightly so, with remembrance, bell-ringing, reflection and prayers for the dead of this and other wars, as well as prayers that war will be conquered by peace, at last and forever.

Shortly after fighting began in 1914, Pope Benedict XV issued an encyclical, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, that proposed the bloodshed occurred because much of society had grown indifferent to Christian values. In many respects his concerns are just as valid today. He cited disrespect in how people treat each other, contempt for authority, injustice between the rich and poor and an unhealthy pursuit of material possessions.

Together, these shortcomings were “the causes of the serious unrest pervading the whole of human society,” he wrote, and those failings must be reversed “if we have any real desire for the peace and harmony of human society.”

A century later, those words still resonate. Yet, instead of any reversal, the human failings rued by Benedict appear ingrained even more deeply today. Our civil discourse has never been more disrespectful. The gap between rich and poor has never been greater. The pursuit of wealth and consumer goods has never been more universal, resulting in what Pope Francis calls a throwaway culture of self indulgence.

Praying last year at Italian war graves, Francis lamented that “humanity has not learned the lesson and seems that it does not want to learn it” about war. 

“With war you lose everything,” he said. “Wars produce nothing other than cemeteries and death.”

To mankind’s shame, 100 years after the Nov. 11 armistice to end a brutal conflict that created 15 million war dead, armed conflict remains a modern reality. We should remember and pray for all those who died, but pray just as hard for an end to all war.

As Benedict XV said a century ago, “surely there are other ways and means (besides war) whereby violated rights can be rectified. Let them be tried honestly and with good will, and let arms be laid aside.”

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