On Nov. 11, I stood at the back of the crowd gathered in Old Town to mark Remembrance Day.
I thought that here, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the occasion would reflect the profound influence that the military and military service has had on the evolution of the town.
Sadly, I was mistaken.
The original settlement here was established in large part by the refugees from and the loyalist soldiers who fought in the American Revolutionary War.
In 1792, John Graves Simcoe chose the little town as the temporary capital of the new province of Upper Canada and, before he returned to England in 1796, had ordered the construction of Fort George to counter the growing American threat posed by Fort Niagara across the river.
While the lands associated with the military and subsequent surveying performed under military direction fundamentally shaped the physical development of the town, it was the economic benefits derived from the military’s presence that, in large part, made the town’s growth viable (and supported it for many decades thereafter).
Indeed, it could be argued that the principal reason for the rebuilding of the town after the War 1812 (as anything more than a rural village) was the ongoing presence of the military, jobs associated with supporting its infrastructure and military dollars than flowed into the local economy.
And, speaking of that particular war, we will never know the actual count of people under arms who gave their lives in the service of the King since the military only recorded the deaths of actual soldiers – not those of militiamen and Indigenous fighters.
However, it has been estimated that total mortality (from all causes) for all those bearing arms on the British side was in excess of 20,000.
We will not explore the participation of between 35,000 and 50,000 Canadians who fought in the American Civil War nor the Fenian Raid, which culminated in the Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie (in which 13 Canadian volunteers lost their lives).
Then in 1899 came the Boer War. Seven thousand Canadians fought in South Africa and 40 were killed in action.
Between 1914 and 1918, the First World War raged across Europe. In those four years, roughly 650,000 Canadians served with more than one in 10 (about 66,000) giving their lives, while another 172,000 were wounded.
It was to be “the war that ended all wars” but, of course, it was not. In 1939, the Second World War erupted and, by its end in 1945, approximately 1.1 million Canadians – 10 per cent of the country’s total population – saw active military service.
Over 45,000 of these men and women died, while roughly 55,000 were wounded.
Only five years later in 1950, 26,000 soldiers in the Canadian military were back in action in Korea, where 516 lost their lives and more than 1,200 returned home wounded.
Whether by choice or mischance, about 30,000 Canadians fought in the Vietnam War, leaving more than 134 dead behind.
In 1990 came the Gulf War, wherein more than 5,100 Canadian military personnel served. While there were no battlefield deaths, 1,800 of these men and women subsequently died as a result of “debilitating medical conditions.”
Most recently, some 40,000 Canadian soldiers were on the ground in Afghanistan.
The tally of 158 dead and 2,071 wounded does not encompass those “thousands of other veterans of the war (who) were wounded physically and psychologically, leading to additional deaths by suicide” (Canadian War Museum: “Remembering the Afghanistan War”).
Finally, let us not neglect those 125,000 men and women of our Canadian Armed Forces who served this country in “peacekeeping missions” wearing the bright blue target helmet of the United Nations and under strict orders not to shoot until shot upon.
In Cambodia, Cyprus, East Timor, Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Golan Heights, Haiti, Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkans – wherein Canadian personnel saw some of the heaviest fighting since Korea (look up the Battle of the Medak Pocket for insight) – 130 Canadian soldiers lost their lives and untold thousands were wounded.
It is quite a list, isn’t it?
From 1899 to 2012, at least 111,844 Canadians died in war and more than double that number came back physically wounded.
The mental scars and trauma have never been fully tallied, but there is a published estimate that one in seven of the soldiers who served in Afghanistan returned with some level of PTSD (which might imply similar numbers for over two million Canadian soldiers who have served in other war theatres).
Fact is, this country has – to a significant degree – been shaped by the wars Canadians have participated in – both by the loss of those who never returned and by the impact left on those who did come back.
My own family had members who served in the Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. My circle of friends includes men and women who served as “peacekeepers” in the Gulf War and Afghanistan. And, I am far from unique in this regard.
It isn’t that Canadians glory in war: on the contrary, most of us consider it to be the ultimate expression of human stupidity.
However, when there is no other alternative and we are forced to take up arms, we accept the cost and get the dirty job done.
So, by now I’m sure you are wondering: why I am writing about this in the Arch-i-text column?
The answer is quite simple. Look around this town, at the built heritage, the cultural landscapes, and everywhere you turn, your eyes will bear witness to the hands, minds and example of men and women who served.
Among many other items, a quick sampling of these marks might include: The landmarks represented by Old Town’s cenotaph, the soldiers’ memorial in Queenston and Brock’s Monument on the Heights.
The majority of surviving pre-1812 houses in NOTL were built by loyalist refugees and soldiers (the Field House on Niagara River Parkway and the Clement House on Four Mile Creek Road being two examples).
The rebuilding of town after the burning in the War of 1812 and military backbone of the local economy bequeathed to us the highest concentration of Neo-Classical and Regency dwellings in the country.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (within which is located Fort Mississauga), the oldest in the country, was developed on former military reserve lands. The enclaves of Wartime (Victory) Houses in Virgil and Old Town. And so on.
For more than 200 years this town has provided men and women to serve their country and the military tradition has, in turn, become an intrinsic part of the warp and weave of this town.
Remembrance Day is not a tourist event nor is it simply a time for old soldiers to gather. It is an opportunity for Canadians to reflect, consider and appreciate the contributions made by the men and women who have served, to the community we live in today.
Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.