By Teresa Iacobelli
In 1964, fifty years following the start of the First World War, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) aired the seventeen-part radio series In Flanders’ Fields. Now, at the centenary of the Great War, the CBC has again leaned upon this series as one of its programming highlights to commemorate the anniversary. In Flanders’ Fields recently re-aired as The Bugle and the Passing Bell. The series was re-edited into ten, half-hour radio programs. While each episode had a brief introduction by host Beza Seife, essentially the programs relied upon the same information and oral histories presented in 1964.
The original In Flanders’ Fields purported to tell the story of the war through the voices of those who were there. The series was drawn from over 800 hours of interviews with 600 veterans from across Canada. While In Flanders’ Fields should be recognized for the breadth of topics that it covered, the program also suffered from significant flaws that included the manipulation of oral history and the practice of “thesis-based research.”
A comparison of the raw interview transcripts with the on-air programs makes these flaws strikingly clear. Raw transcripts reveal interviewers frequently committing blatant transgressions that compromised the integrity of the interviews. For example, interviewers would often talk over their subjects, substituting their own knowledge in place of a veteran’s account. In one interchange, an interviewer suggested to Gregory Clark, a Major with the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles and a Military Cross Recipient, that a wave of cynicism and resentment towards veterans had engulfed Canada in the postwar period. Clark disagreed with that assessment, yet the interviewer remained insistent that it was a period of strong anti-war sentiments in which no one wanted to hear about the war. In his insistence the interviewer failed to take Clark’s interpretation of events at face value.
In cases where veterans had no memory of events, the raw transcripts show interviewers clearly overstepping their role and going so far as to tell veterans what had happened to them on certain occasions. For example, A.D. McEtheren was asked what he remembered of the battle at Neuville-Vitasse. When McEtheren freely admitted to remembering very little of it, the interviewer proceeded to tell him the actions the battalion was involved in rather than simply moving on to another topic.
Even more troubling than these flaws in interviewing techniques was the regular practice of selective editing in order to conform to a storyline that was in place long before any interviews were even conducted. As early as 1961 CBC documents reveal that the producers of In Flanders’ Fields planned on telling a story that would place a particular focus on poor leadership, or the so-called ‘lions led by donkeys’ thesis. The final program was indeed overtly critical of British military leadership during the war. While some veterans certainly expressed these opinions during the interviews, what is more interesting is that many more did not. Instead, in their later years many veterans continued to praise their leaders or offer a nuanced view of the challenges that they faced. Yet these views, which provided a sharp contrast to the already established thesis, never made it to air. Instead, producers focused on sound-bites that fit their already established narrative, or in some cases, asked leading questions in order to get the quotes they wanted. In one telling exchange veteran F. Ross is asked whether he blames anyone for Passchendaele. Ross responds that with the exception of the weather, there really is no one to blame. Ross is pushed further on the issue, with the interviewer stating, “Because it does not seem to me in the very limited analysis that I have been able to make about what I heard about Passchendaele. There was really nothing taken was there?” A further exchange ensues in which Ross finally concedes that there was nothing to take, to which the interviewer responds, “This is what I have been waiting for you to say.”
In its latest iteration The Bugle and the Passing Bell has undergone some significant changes. Condensing the original seventeen one hour long episodes into ten half hour long programs necessitated the cutting of material. Entire episodes, including those on military tactics and the aftermath of the war, have been cut. Other previously stand-alone episodes, including ones on the Battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, have been condensed into a single half hour. These changes have resulted in certain topic areas lacking sufficient context or background information. For example, while the episode on the Somme addresses the experience of the Newfoundland Regiment, there is a failure to adequately explain Newfoundland’s colonial status at the time of the First World War, or the impact of the losses on the colony – all areas where a present-day listener might potentially need information.
In addition to the issue of context, the revamped series is also interesting in that the “lions led by donkeys thesis” has been significantly watered down. While this theme was central to the original broadcast, in the current iteration of the program the idea appears, but much more intermittently. This may simply be the result of shorter programs that incorporate less quotations and narration, or it may be a conscious effort on the part of series producers to reflect a changing narrative of the war, and to focus more on the Canadian experience and less on the issue of British leadership.
As it stands, the updated series continues to suffer from the original flaws of its predecessor in that it incorporates the same oral history clips from the original program and fails to incorporate any new quotations from the original interviews that offer an alternative view of the war, or more accurately reflect the content of the 1964 interviews. The updated series, in its edits, has abandoned some of the old one-sided paradigms, but these same edits also contribute to a lack of context, and a program without a strong viewpoint.
The biggest improvement to the series could have come from reinforcing the fact that this was a program originally released in 1964, and drawing on that to explore facets of war and memory and the evolution in our understanding of the First World War. In that respect, the episode titled, “The Aftermath” from the original series, which was cut from the modern version, may have been the perfect opportunity to explore the changing social memory of the war in Canada. While the original episode explored how the war had impacted Canada fifty years on, a new program, showing how this changed with the addition of another fifty years, and without surviving veterans in our presence, could have provided an interesting contrast and a platform to discuss the continuing evolution of our understanding of the war in Canada.
Teresa Iacobelli is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at Queen’s University and author of Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Marital in the Great War. Her current research focuses on issues of memory and pedagogy.
ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.