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Honouring the fallen, celebrating peace

SYMBOLS OF REMEMBRANCE

The First World War and the peace that followed it had a profound impact on Canada as a nation. In 2018, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorates the 100th anniversary of the moment the conflict ended—the Armistice—with collectibles and a new $2 circulation coin Canadians can look for in their change.

It was the war that was supposed to end all wars. Between 1914 and 1918, the First World War left close to ten million dead on the battlefields in Europe, with many additional civilians to die from starvation or direct attack, and millions of returning soldiers to succumb to their wounds in the years to follow. A deep blanket of grief pervaded Europe, North America, and much of the world.

The war was a crucible that forged the spirit of Canada as a young nation. Every year, on November 11th, we take a moment to consider its impact—and the sacrifice of past generations.

"Remembrance Day was known as Armistice Day until 1931," explains Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, CM in Ottawa. "It carries a deep connection to the First World War that still resonates in Canada today. We’ve retained the two minutes of silence and the poppy still symbolizes the loss of life, as it did in John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Fields’."

 With the unfolding of the 20th century, Remembrance Day became an occasion for broader reflection on the sacrifices made in subsequent wars—and over the years has become increasingly inclusive as well, with bilingual and, in some cases, Indigenous-language ceremonies.

CANADA’S CRUCIAL ROLE

Canada’s involvement in the First World War was crucial to the British Empire at war, and its allies Belgium, France and Russia. Canadian soldiers—among them troops from Newfoundland and Labrador, which had not yet joined Confederation—became known for their courage and expertise. The country earned a reputation for its shock troops with the capture of Vimy Ridge, the assault of Hill 70, the battle at Passchendaele, and the final Hundred Days campaign. (Shock troops lead an attack, often incurring high casualties.)

"The costs to Canada were nothing short of appalling," Cook says. "We were a country of just under eight million. With Newfoundland, which was not yet part of Canada, we fielded 620,000 citizen-soldiers. These were farmers, students, and members of the working class: they were ordinary people who went to serve King and country. And of those, more than 66,000 are listed in the Books of Remembrance that are kept in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower in Ottawa. Another 173,000 were injured. And an unknown number suffered in mind and spirit."

Canadians supported the war from home and fought overseas. Vimy Ridge was a significant if costly victory in the Allied spring offensive of 1917. The Canadian Corps, four divisions strong and fighting together for the first time, captured the nearly impregnable position. The Battle of Hill 70 was the first major battle fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander – Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie – and it captured a key position. At Passchendaele, after months of unsuccessful fighting, the Canadians captured what was left of the ridge and village—at a terrible cost of more than 15,000 Canadian lives. During the Hundred Days campaign, from 8 August to 11 November 1918, the Canadian Corps delivered victory after victory.

Canada also played an important role off the battlefield as an essential supplier of food and munitions. By the last year of the war, a quarter of all shells fired on the Western Front were made in Canada.

PEACE CELEBRATED, LOSSES MOURNED

By 1918, all of Europe, Canada and even the U.S.—which had entered the war in the spring of 1917—were exhausted and war-weary.

"The conflict left Canada with terrible debt. Germany was suffering from a naval blockade that was slowly starving the country. The war exacerbated strife in Russia, eventually resulting in the destruction of the monarchy and the rise of communism," Cook notes. "Revolutions broke out in several countries. Subsequent conflicts in Ireland, Africa and the Middle East had their roots in the First World War."

 When the Armistice finally came as a result of war-fighting and exhaustion. All sides were ready for it. It was time for peace. Canadians celebrated the prospect of better days ahead. There were parties and dances. Later, monuments to the fallen were erected in cities, small towns and rural villages. Overseas, memorials were built on the battlefields, and none so powerful as Canada’s National Monument of Vimy Ridge. Names of those killed while in service were recorded and kept in libraries and museums; the wounded filled hospitals and rehabilitation centres.

SPIRIT OF GRATITUDE

In many ways, the commitment to peace that is such a deep part of Canada’s national identity was born out of the war and its consequences—and the honest understanding of the price that sometimes must be paid for justice and freedom.

Given the profound, defining impact of the Armistice on Canada and its people, the Mint is observing the centennial of that pivotal event with a number of special coins in 2018. Among them are new coloured and uncoloured $2 circulation coins featuring the iconic poppy, available individually wherever Canadians use coins as well as in a six-coin commemorative set that also includes 5-, 10-, and 25-cent and $1 coins.

In addition, the Mint is also releasing a $10 fine silver collectible coin engraved with the poignant image of a lone Canadian soldier by artist Laurie McGaw. This complements beautifully the Mint’s $100 fine silver Angel of Victory coin—a thought-provoking tribute featuring an image by Pandora Young of a fallen Canadian combatant held by an ascending angel. The overhead perspective is a seldom-seen view of Coeur de Lion MacCarthy’s bronze Angel of Victory statue, three of which were erected in Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver shortly after the war.

The Mint is also issuing a special-edition proof dollar designed by Jamie Desrochers, with a large "11" on a grand staircase resembling the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. The numeral 11 appears three times to mark the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the exact moment the Armistice went into effect.

LASTING LEGACIES

Cook says the influence of the First World War is still felt in the lives of Canadians today, even if we may not be aware of it. The country’s contributions earned it international recognition as a sovereign nation, and Canada signed the 1919 Treaty of Versailles independently of Britain—the pact that formalized the war’s end.

"Canadian women had gained the right to vote, the war’s temporary income tax measures became permanent, our manufacturing capacity grew, and Canada’s existing medical system was built on the foundations of the medical services offered to the war-wounded and veterans," Cook says.

While the First World War did not end up being "the war to end all wars", its legacy has allowed generations of Canadians to know—and value— service, sacrifice, and peace.

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