“And I knew that those at home would never understand. [...] We, of the brotherhood, could understand the soldier, but never explain him. All of us would remain a separate, definite people, as if branded by a monstrous despotism.”

Pacifism and Disillusionment

A Fight for What and for Whom?

Pacifism emerged with new vigour following the First World War, promising an end to conflict after the carnage that had engulfed the globe. However, unlike other socio-political movements, Canadian veterans were largely uninvolved.

Pacifism was a minor movement in Canada, largely limited to certain religious denominations and left-wing radicals, before 1914. During the war, pacifists faced harsh social stigma, as well as censorship and imprisonment under the War Measures Act.

Will R. Bird in Uniform

Submitted by Heather Murray

William R. Bird was a veteran of the 42nd battalion and author of numerous works, including And We Go On (1930), a biographical account of his experiences in the First World War. Less extreme than other veterans’ publications of this period, Bird’s account nevertheless has a clear anti-war overtones and speaks to the perceived gap between civilians and veterans.

In the 1920s and 30s, pacifism was thrust into the mainstream. International projects, such as the League of Nations, an organization meant to settle disputes between states through arbitration, and disarmament and arms limitations treaties emerged, legitimizing pacifist ideology as more than a fringe movement. While not without detractors, support was fairly widespread.

While the majority of veterans shared the pacifist revulsion towards war, few transformed their disillusionment into activism – they were, as a rule, anti-war, but not pacifist. Many regarded the largely civilian leadership of the movement with suspicion or outright disdain. The failure of pacifist projects to prevent escalation in Europe was another cause for skepticism among veterans who believed that the peace that they had fought for was squandered. More than this, many veterans simply longed to put the war behind them and to lead normal lives.

For What?

Hover to flip to the back

For What? Oil on Canvas by Frederick Varley, c. 1918. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. Canadian War Museum, CWM 19710261-0770

Varley, as some of his fellow Canadian artists, was sent to the battlefield in 1916 to document the First World War. His painting, produced in 1918-1919, depicts the futility of war and challenges the legitimacy of the First World War.