There was a time when military service –whether in peace or war — was an honourable expression of civic duty and self-imposed responsibility. This is a personal lament for those days. Still, there are places and institutions where the old customs have some importance.
In mid-November, I do as many Canadians often do. I remember. Cenotaph ceremonies are painful – if only because of the presence of, and speeches by, contemporary politicians who neither understand the meaning of sacrifice, nor care much for soldiers living or dead. Their annual lip-service offends. So I go to a private shrine, the memorial tablets in the front hall of my Fraternity House in Toronto, the Theta Xi Chapter of Zeta Psi.
Admittedly, a College Fraternity may seem like a facile place, where enthusiasm has more importance than reflection. Normally, this is true, but not always. Also, an institution cannot prosper for 120 years if it always lives for the moment and some fraternities do take the idea of brotherhood very seriously indeed.
For those who never joined a Fraternity, a good one is something akin to a social Mafia. Even now, almost 20 years after joining, most of my closest friends are brothers. We go to each other’s weddings and stand as godfathers for each other’s children. In the end, a dwindling circle will go to each other’s funerals. The connections between the past and the present remain strong.
The tablets in the fraternity house contain a mix of names ranging from a who’s who selection of scions from Toronto’s old elite to the sons of more everyday backgrounds. Some names are still borne by living relatives, others only now exist in stone and bronze as those who might have continued a line never came home. Still, in a very real sense, all of these men were (and remain) my brothers. Even if never met them, I am proud of them and always shall be.
These brothers of mine drowned in the Atlantic in ruptured ships, fell to earth over Germany and Asia, or died in the mud at Vimy Ridge or the Rhineland. The second name on the list of the brothers from 1914-1919 is that of John A. McCrae, the author of “In Flanders Fields”. He was among those who died in a military hospital, as overwork had left him exposed to a fatal case of pneumonia in early 1918. Those of us who read his letters and the accounts of his younger days find it hard to reconcile the bright young spark with the careworn medical officer in khaki. He went through a transformation that most of us have been spared.
In the early days of the Canadian Chapters of Zeta Psi, a number of brothers served in the Northwest Rebellion, and others went to the Boer War. In the First World War, the entire undergraduate class from both the Toronto and Montreal chapters signed up, as did some 90% of recent graduates. Canada’s first Victoria Cross in the war was a posthumous award to a 19 year old brother from the Montreal chapter, Corporal Fred Fisher. He died in the Canadian Army’s baptism of fire at Ypres, manning a machine-gun for just long enough to allow an artillery battery to escape from the advancing Germans.
Between the Wars, many young members served in both the regular forces and the militia. As a result, when the Second World War arrived, they quickly went overseas. Eventually, they were followed by many other brothers. This time none of the Canadian chapters quite emptied out as a result of wartime service, but membership rolls from those days were still very slender.
After the Second World War, Canada’s armed forces became much reduced – and the status of military service became less than what it had been. Still, even today when less than one in 240 Canadians are either in the police or military, the Fraternity still handily exceeds the average. Of some 29 undergraduate members at the time of writing, five are in uniform.
In our fraternity, we all memorize McCrae’s poem in our first year. For many, “In Flander’s Fields” is something to live up to. The image of passing the torch lives strongly, and most do it in their own ways. We take pride in the accomplishments of our brothers – the new VP of International Currencies, the new registered patent, the new article in a medical journal, or even the new Naval Captain.
Now, when the Canadian military is a shadow of its former self — both in spirit and capacity –it is hard to take pride in being a soldier. It has been broken after years of neglect, mostly by politicians who couldn’t care or understand (remember, the vast majority of Canadian politicians, even of the wartime generation, ducked service). The brothers who do volunteer for service rarely make a career of it anymore. Under current conditions, it’s hard to keep faith in the military ethos and difficult to willingly serve in something that seems so unwanted.
Still … our University Fraternity continues strong; changed in appearance perhaps, but the torch of the Brothers from 1914-18, and 1939- 45 still burns brightly. We remember — and the raw stuff of quality is still there in the young men who have never known anything but peace.