Friday, November 18, 2016

The Guns Below

I suppose that in a day where most of the warzone casualties we hear about are the result of things like drone strikes, air-deployed munitions, or improvised explosive devices, that a 105mm howitzer probably does seem a bit anachronistic. But it is a poignant reminder of the noise and fury of war, both past and present.

This year our rotating Remembrance Day observances took us back to the Legislature Grounds. The artillery battery for the 21 gun salute had moved from the west side of the building to lower down on the south side. There were a few people in attendance when we arrived, some availing themselves of the disposable earplugs being handed out by the military personnel in attendance.

An officer from the reserve artillery regiment running the event came around a few times to tell us that safety regulations required him to ask us to stay 50m away from the three guns.  He was also careful to add that he couldn't actually make us do that. The table and microphone were perhaps 25m away from the emplacement, and we ended up a short ways away from the table, so we could better hear the address.

Looking at the spades on the stanchions of the big guns, meant to dig into the ground to brace against recoil, Audrey asked, "How far back do those things go when they fire?"

"I'm not sure," I confessed, "Not too far, because they aren't actually throwing any mass, right? I mean, it's not like they are shelling Old Strathcona or the University..."

"How far could they reach?" she asked.

I squinted. "Across the river pretty easy," I mused, "Certainly to Whyte Avenue...after that I couldn't say."

A gentleman standing next to me handed me his smartphone. "I was wondering the same thing," he said, "There's the specs, if you want."

"Thanks," I said, looking at the display. The Wikipedia page for the M101 Howitzer listed the maximum firing range of over 11km. I handed the phone back, thinking about the scales in play.

This meant that these guns could conceivably throw a shell from the Leg grounds in the heart of the city to out past the Anthony Henday ring road. It's daunting to think about your city in such terms, but it does make one grateful for the privilege of living in peace.

The red dot is about where the Legislature grounds are.
There are a few reasons I appreciate the outdoor services on Remembrance Day. I like that they are a little less comfortable, and the speeches and addresses are often shorter as a result.  The proceedings feel a little less perfunctory than they sometimes do inside. It was gratifying to see a good-sized crowd turn out- in fact, they ran out of earplugs, forcing some attendees to use their fingers or cup their hands over their children's ears.

This year we got a really good address as well.  The regiment's chaplain spoke at length about the joy of service as well as the pain of loss; unapologetically referring to the military as a profession of arms, but without glorifying war. He closed off with an emotional recounting of a veteran's widow trying to pay him for officiating at a funeral, to which he said, "How can I possibly take your money when I owe so much to your husband, and to you?"

One of the big guns was fired to mark the start of the two minutes of silence, another to mark the end. During the 21 gun salute, poems were read; In Flanders Fields, of course, then a couple of unfamiliar ones. A verse or two, then a pause, followed by a barked command, and the next gun was fired. Once the smoke had drifted away and the ringing had fallen from the crisp autumn air, the reading would resume.

It took nearly half an hour to complete the salute, but amid the noise of these guns below, that meant time for reflection. In reflection come gratitude; gratitude for peace, at least where we are, and gratitude for those willing to give up their own safety to preserve it.

I pray for a future where olive drab trucks are even more out of place in the city centre, where howitzers such as these are only more dated, and where the only time my daughters hear them fired is in salutes on November 11th.

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