1917 was a year of triumph and tears for Canada. The triumphs in the form of heroic victories at Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele are well-known. The tears are not. They came from the thousands of families torn by the physical and mental toll of the war. The stories of two soldiers who intersected during and after the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 reminds us why we must remember both the victories and tragedies if we are to live up to our commitment of remembrance.
A century ago, the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps were coming off a spring and summer of victories. These victories showed the tremendous ability of Canada's soldier, but they also came at a heavy cost. When Canada was ordered to reinforce the lines at Passchendaele in October 1917, heavy rains and months of fighting had already transformed the once fertile Belgian landscape into a hell of waist-deep mud and bloodied earth. Our allies had been mired down in these horrific conditions for several months. At Passchendaele, the losses were heavy and the gains terribly slow, but the bravery of Canadians was the constant. By the time victory was proclaimed just weeks later, on Nov. 10, more than 4,000 Canadians had been killed and another 12,000 wounded.
The valour of Canadians was also unparalleled. Nine Victoria Crosses — our highest medal for bravery were awarded to Canadians fighting at Passchendaele. One of those recipients was Major George Pearkes. His Victoria Cross citation described his "supreme contempt of danger and wonderful powers of control and leading" his men in the battle. He led his troops through harrowing and successful engagements while overcoming a wound to his leg. Following the battle, he was transferred to the 116th Battalion and would shortly thereafter relieve its Commanding Officer. Pearkes later served as a Member of Parliament, Minister of National Defence and finally the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia at the end of a long and distinguished career. National Defence headquarters in Ottawa still bears his name.
The valour of Canadians was also unparalleled.
While Pearkes' valour at Passchendaele became the hallmark of a career on its way up, the Commanding Officer he replaced at the 116th Battalion following Passchendaele had the opposite trajectory. Sam Sharpe built the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion man by man. He was the sitting Member of Parliament for part of Ontario County in southern Ontario and many of the young men joining his battalion were constituents.
As a militia officer in his forties, Sharpe viewed his troops the same way a father would view his sons and the losses experienced by the 116th at Vimy, Avion and Hill 70 weighed heavily on him. While he was fighting at Passchendaele, the 1917 Canadian election was underway back home. Prime Minister Borden himself campaigned for Sharpe in his hometown of Uxbridge, where the campaign slogans read "He is fighting for you!" Not only did Ontario County trust their sons to Sharpe, they elected him for a third time a few weeks following victory at Passchendaele.
The hellish conditions at Passchendaele and losses of the young men he had recruited caused Sharpe's mental condition to deteriorate rapidly. A few weeks after the victory at Passchendaele and mere days after his re-election, Sharpe handed over command of his beloved Battalion and returned to England where he was eventually hospitalized for "shell shock." Five months later, Sharpe would die by suicide. His return home to Ontario County was for his funeral.
The scars from battle linger long after and so should our passion to help and remember.
While George Pearkes' life was defined by his valour at Passchendaele, that battle marked the beginning of the end for Sam Sharpe. From a heroic national figure who was re-elected to Parliament while at war, Sharpe's life was largely forgotten outside of his hometown and regimental community until quite recently. His alma mater high school held a gala in his name to fundraise for their school trip to Vimy Ridge for the centennial commemorations and later walked the hallowed grounds of Vimy researching the graduates who had fought there 100 years before.
A century after the valiant acts and profound losses of the Great War, we are beginning to appreciate the enormous cost of that war on a young Canada. We now understand that battles do not end once a ridge is taken or even when the troops return home. The scars from battle linger long after and so should our passion to help and remember.
Erin O'Toole is a retired RCAF Captain, the MP for Durham and Shadow Minister of Foreign Affairs.
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