One of the highlights of the Belgian leg of our tour of Europe was the Brooding Soldier at St. Julien. After Vimy Ridge this may be the biggest, best known, Canadian war memorial in Europe. It is a poignant site, a soldier with head bowed, grieving for his lost comrades.
The memorial is located at the site of one of the biggest slaughters of the First World War, the place where chemical warfare was introduced to the modern lexicon. This particular weapon of mass destruction was deployed first by the Germans, but that doesn’t provide any moral high ground for the Allies – they used gas too.
It was the Canadians who figured out how to deal with this new weapon. Soldiers up to that time didn’t carry gas masks (though they would shortly afterward and still. do today) which is why the initial casualties were so high. It was the Canadians who realized that placing wet cloths across their faces to breathe would help neutralize the effects of the chlorine gas. That you may have learned in school; your teacher may not have told you where they got the water to soak the cloths. It wasn’t raining when the Germans launched that first attack and the trenches didn’t have plumbing, it wasn’t a matter of turning on a tap. The only water available was the buckets the soldiers urinated in, so that’s what they used. Perhaps not the most appealing choice for improvised gas masks, but you don’t get too fussy when the other option is death.
The story of 20th century warfare seems to be that of technological “improvements” to make killing more efficient and to render obsolete the idea of the individual. Aerial combat gives a perfect example. Hot air and gas balloons were inefficient methods of killing. Early aviators shot each other down by pulling out their pistols and firing at close range. Wing-mounted machine guns quickly followed. Bombs got bigger and deadlier, then nuclear. Now drones, pardon me, unmanned aerial vehicles, deliver death and destruction controlled by operators thousands of kilometres from the target. The human element is removed; the moral quandary, whether a killing is just, seems not to be an issue when there is no difference between warfare and the latest video game. It just doesn’t seem real if the enemy is a half a world away.
St. Julien reminds us of the camaraderie that is shared by those in the military. On that battlefield daily losses could be in the thousands, the numbers so large they become mere statistics. The statue reminds us of our humanity, that those who died in the conflict were more than just a military serial number – each dead soldier was a son, perhaps a father, a brother, uncle or husband. My great-uncle Forrest died on the battlefields of France on February 1, 1918. He was 28. Needless to say I never knew him. Neither did my father, who was born in 1926. There is a hole in the family history brought about by the war. I think pretty much every Canadian family can make the same claim. If every life lost in battle was considered to belong to an individual, I suspect there would be fewer conflicts. We all need to remember that there are names behind the statistics.
That Brooding Soldier at St. Julien is weeping not just for his comrades. He is mourning a generation lost, thinking of promise unfulfilled. Today in Ukraine, in the Middle East and other conflicts around the world, he weeps still.