Society

We are now in the 'Hundred Days' we hope will end the pandemic

Canadians have gone through something akin to war, and the end is in sight. But history tells us the last months can be the cruelest.

As more and more Canadians get vaccinated, there is a growing sense that the future is getting brighter as the days get longer. Over the second Victoria Day weekend of this pandemic, intensive care units are still overburdened in many provinces, and the number of daily COVID-19 cases has only recently started its retreat from the peak of the third wave. But there is hope amid the sorrow and pain, as well as a need to reflect on what Canada and the world has endured.

“It has been such an all-encompassing, sustained event that shaped and transformed society that analogies are rare. Perhaps the only examples from our history that come close are the two world wars,” says military historian Tim Cook. “The losses extend outward in pools of grief and bereavement, and part of that is the sheer size of the loss.” 

Cook is the director of research at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and author of a dozen books of Canadian military history. To him, those expanding circles of loss were “part of the total war”—a shared trauma that extended to almost every community across the country. Canada had 66,000 dead in the First World War, 46,000 dead in the Second, he notes, adding: “Think of the loved ones, the families who never got to say goodbye, the widows and the childrens who never got to see their older brother, or their father or their uncle. There is obviously a link there to the pandemic that we are facing today.”

RELATED: As COVID-19’s third wave recedes in Canada, what’s next? Six steps to save summer

So far, in our conflagration with COVID-19, more than 1.3 million Canadians have contracted the disease and 25,000 have died. If what we’ve endured since early 2020 is a public health war, then this spring is perhaps our version of the Hundred Days, those last three months of the First World War when Canadians, at the spearhead of the Allied advance, pushed German forces back again and again. Each gain came with a price: in all, 6,800 died with another 39,000 wounded, meaning that those last 100 days of the Great War accounted for nearly one quarter of all Canadian and Newfoundland casualties in the entire war.

Like now, it took one enormous, pivotal battle before Canadian soldiers got a sense that the war was shifting to their favour—that the years of victories measured in inches and feet may be behind them. Though Canada had endured 12,000 casualties in just four days of fighting at the Battle of Amiens in early August 1918, Cook says, there was “a sense that ‘Oh my goodness, maybe the German house is rotten and we’ve kicked in the front door.’” They did it again in Arras, driving the Germans back across the Canal-du-Nord. And again. And again. 

One of those men killed in the Second Battle of Arras was Lt. Arnold Kippen. He had been a 20-year-old clerk at the Merchant’s Bank of Canada when he enlisted near the start of the war in the autumn of 1914. Severely wounded twice, including being gassed at Vimy in 1917, he kept returning to the front. On Sept. 2, 1918, he was killed at the taking of the Drocourt-Quéant Line, in France. He was 24. 

A week later, there was a knock on the door of his family’s home in Toronto. His parents, Horace and Elizabeth, were handed a telegram informing them of his death. The next day, another knock, and another telegram: their oldest son, Major William Kippen, had been severely wounded. If that wasn’t enough, their youngest son, Lt. Eric Kippen, was taken as a prisoner of war in Germany. (Both of Arnold’s brothers survived.)

Canadian soldiers taking cover in a ditch near Arras in September 1918 (CP/National Archives of Canada)

Canadian soldiers taking cover in a ditch near Arras in September 1918 (CP/National Archives of Canada)

I know the story of Lt. Kippen because his parents placed a plaque in his honour in my church, St. Paul’s Bloor Street in downtown Toronto. As one of its volunteer archivists, I researched his life and those of the other 75 men from the congregation who were killed in the Great War for the 100th anniversary of its Armistice. Even before the war ended, families were mounting plaques honouring their loved ones—including five sets of brothers—onto the once bare walls of St. Paul’s, and commissioning memorial-themed stained glass to replace the church’s clear panes. 

As we approach the beginning of the end of this pandemic, the news is filled with obituaries of parents and children who evaded COVID-19 for more than a year before being felled just as others are saved through vaccines. And my thoughts return to Kippen and his family: What must his parents have thought when they learned that their child had died so close to the end of a war he’d been fighting for so long? The memorial hints at their grief. Placed on a wall at the front of the nave where it could be seen by the entire congregation, it includes an old-fashioned yet personal tribute: “He took the only way and followed it to a glorious end.”  Like so many, it details his wartime experiences, as if his family was determined that successive generations should know what their boy did. 

The echoes of their sorrow and remembrance can be heard today in the testimonials from friends and families to those who died, including in the “They Were Loved” obituary project of Maclean’s. It seeks not only to commemorate coronavirus victims but to mark “this historic moment in Canadian history.” There is Doris Chin, 89, who “brought her tenacity and determination along with her husband and 10 children” when she immigrated to Canada. She died in April 2020. Or Savannah Noon, 25, of the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, who shared her passion for photography with her uncle Dwayne Noon. “When I look at her work, it’s amazing that somebody could capture the soul of a picture,” he says. She died in December. 

RELATED: Canada is about to surpass the U.S. in first doses of the COVID vaccine

The pain of loss is universal. In India, the story of brothers Joefred and Ralfred Gregory went viral. The 24-year-old twins did everything together, including getting computer engineering degrees, before they both fell ill with COVID. On May 13, Joefred died. The next morning, so did Ralfred. “I keep thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have brought them to the hospital,” their father told the New York Times. “Maybe I should have kept them at home. There is a parental love that hospitals can’t give.” 

Like Kippen, most of those who died of COVID-19 were separated from their families at the end, hospitals and long-term care homes becoming analogs to the battlefields of Europe. Strict health protocols and the intubation of patients struggling for breath meant that goodbyes were often done through video chats, a distanced farewell akin to letters sent back and forth from the front. As in war, there is a human cost to the pandemic that will continue for years; the mental, physical and spiritual toll imprinted on health-care workers, as well as loved ones of the dead, is only now coming into focus. 

Since March 2020, I’ve updated the COVID-19 statistics on the Maclean’s website. Changing those graphics daily, while writing articles about the pandemic drives home the steep cost of this crisis. Though, like many, I’ve been fortunate, staying healthy while family and friends have gotten the virus. 

Especially distressing is the knowledge that, like Lt. Kippen, many Canadian are suffering and dying in the waning months of this public-health battle, when hope is on the horizon yet victory over the virus remains out of reach. Since the first vaccine was approved by Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2020, more than 900,000 Canadians have gotten COVID-19 and 12,000 have died—nearly half of all deaths during the entire pandemic. Starting the tally on March 1, at the beginning of the third wave merely dents the grim toll: from that point on, nearly 500,000 Canadians contracted COVID-19 and 3,000 died. 

***

Canadians today can see a brighter future, as countries further along in their vaccination rollouts return to “before-times” pleasures like family reunions or trips to the ballpark. That anticipation didn’t occur during the Hundred Days. Though Allied forces were advancing, few dared to think about peace. 

“It’s the forever war; these soldiers at the front can see no light at the end of the tunnel,” Cook explains. That’s in part because they knew Germany had millions of soldiers in arms. Eventually, there was a sense of momentum, and by November 1918, Cook says, “it’s quite clear among the Canadians that no one wants to be the last soldier to die in this very long, costly war. Everyone is acting very cautiously.”

Still, the Armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 came so quickly that even Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, who headed the Canadian Corps, didn’t know the war was ending until that day. 

While both world wars end on dates that are commemorated to this day, the COVID pandemic is unlikely to have such a definitive end. Experts warn that the SARS-Cov-2 virus will likely be in Canada, and around the world, for years to come. There may never be one date as a focus for commemorations. 

Then there is the matter of how to remember the dead. Even before the end of the Great War, governments wrestled with how to honour them. While every city, town and village in Canada erected memorials and cenotaphs to their dead, that tradition evolved. After the Second World War, Canadians built more functional symbols of remembrance, such as memorial hockey arenas, libraries and parks, notes Cook, who wrote about those efforts in The Fight for History: 75 Years of Forgetting, Remembering, and Remaking Canada’s Second World War

RELATED: Is Canada on track to reach herd immunity?

How we bear witness to the staggering toll of this pandemic could be quite different. Though there is a campaign in Britain to finance a traditional memorial in St. Paul’s Cathedral to those lost during the pandemic, other more intangible commemorations, such as the “They Were Loved” online tribute, may come to represent the 21st century’s version of a war memorial. Interestingly, Cook points out, Canada didn’t build memorials at the time to the Spanish flu victims of 1918-19. “Historians have calculated that about 55,000 Canadians died in those two years. That’s about double where we are now and yet there wasn’t the same desire to mark that loss as there was for the war.” 

Lt. Arnold Kippen died far away from his family and is buried among his comrades in a military cemetery in France. In his home church in Toronto, his name is carved into a stone memorial dedicated to the 508 men and women from St. Paul’s who served during the First World War. 

Near his name is that of Private Harold Carter. When the memorial was unveiled shortly after the war, Kippen would have been considered a hero, while Carter likely would have been labelled a coward: after going AWOL in 1917, he was executed for desertion. Though the clergy and congregation must have known how and why Carter died, they decided his name would be engraved on every collective memorial in their church, including another listing the dead on a screen behind the altar. (By contrast, it was 2001 before his name and those of 22 other Canadians executed for desertion and cowardice were added to the Book of Remembrance on Parliament Hill.)

Why such a real-time commemoration for a man whom many at that time considered akin to a traitor? The church archives are silent on that question. But when asked on the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, the pastor of St. Paul’s offered a simple theory that holds true to this day, and to this pandemic. They loved him, and wanted him to be remembered.