Oh What a Lovely War
Clare Laking (1899-2005)
A news story I've been dreading for some time came over the radio today, and I'm not talking about the non-confidence vote in Parliament. It was reported that Clare Laking, the last of Canada's frontline First World War veterans, is dead at 106.
I've always had a fascination with the First World War, a.k.a. The Great War or The War to End All Wars. Partly because of the absurdity of it all--it's no wonder the Dada and Surrealist movements arose as a result--a war that happened for no apparent reason and yet took such an astonishing toll in human life with nothing even coming close to a positive result. (Yes, I understand the geopolitical situation of shaky alliances and a crumbling aristocracy...it still doesn't make any sense at the end of the day that an anarchist's bullet in Sarajevo could ignite a powder keg that would leave 15 million dead.)
I don't know where the fascination began...maybe watching old footage (and recreations like Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms) on TV, or perhaps around the time my parents took me to see the musical The Dumbbells, about the Canadian WWI soldier's troupe that went on to take Broadway by storm. But every year on Remembrance Day, I'd notice a group of veterans growing smaller and frailer with each passing Nov. 11. Later I'd read about when the last of the American Civil War veterans passed away in the '30s and '40s, and realized I'd soon be witnessing a similar death of history in my own lifetime.
Although there are still four left alive who were in the Canadian services during the First World War, Laking was the last one to see action in the trenches. As a member of the artillery, it was his job to run telephone wire up and down the lines, frequently dodging live machine gun fire. At one point he was injured when shrapnel from a shell struck him in the head, but he survived this flesh wound, and was eventually awarded the French Legion of Honour and the Golden Jubilee Medal.
Of course, now there's a war going on that makes about as much sense as the First World War did, that has more to do with political maneuvering and profiteering than notions of freedom or democracy, and thankfully Canada is not involved. Of course, if a different government had been in place at the time, we might very well have signed up for the so-called cause. Hopefully the risks that Laking took, and his comrades that weren't so lucky, won't have been in vain in the long run.