In Conversation VI: Making Sense of the Centenary of Canada’s First World War

By Mary Chaktsiris, Sarah Glassford, Chris Schultz, Nathan Smith, and Jonathan Weier

 

Preamble

During the first half of 2019, we the editors of www.ActiveHistory.ca’s long-running series “Canada’s First World War” stepped back and reflected on the editorial work we undertook over of the course of four and a half years of Great War centenary commemorations, 2014-2019. In response to a series of questions circulated over email, two parallel discussions ensued. The first, about precariously-employed scholars doing unpaid academic labour, and the origins of this series, was posted in October 2019. The second, which revolves around the highs and lows of the centenary commemorations in Canada and abroad, and of our own modest contribution to it through the “Canada’s First World War” series, is presented here.

At the time of writing, the editorial team consisted of:

  • Mary Chaktsiris, PhD (Queen’s, 2015) – Assistant Professor, Wilson Fellow, Wilson Institute for Canadian History, McMaster University
  • Sarah Glassford, PhD (York, 2007) – Archivist, Leddy Library, University of Windsor
  • Chris Schultz, PhD ABD (Western, withdrew 2016) – Open Government Team Lead, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada
  • Nathan Smith, PhD (Toronto, 2012) – Professor, Seneca College, Historical Consultant, Applied-History.com
  • Jonathan Weier, PhD ABD (Western) – Instructor, George Brown College; Broadbent Institute Research Fellow

The poster we made for our July 2016 post calling for more contributions to the series.

 

Our Conversation (More or Less)

Part I:  Best and Worst of the “Canada’s First World War” Series

Sarah:
Well gang, we’ve come to the end of our centenary series that explored lesser-known aspects of Canada’s Great War experience and reflected on the 100th anniversary commemorations unfolding around us. Looking back, what are we most proud of or happy about?

Mary:
I really like the variety of voices that we included: graduate students, established scholars, public historians, librarians, educators, etc. I know we could have included even more, and I want to acknowledge our series isn’t perfect, but I feel we helped bring more perspectives to the table where conversations about the Great War happen than were there before.

Chris:
Like Mary, I liked the diversity of the work, in terms of author experience levels and interests, and the sheer range of topics and styles.

Nathan:
I have to echo the others and say that it was gratifying to give a platform to a number of different voices and perspectives.

Sarah:
The series covers such a broad array of topics, too, when you look at the full list from 2014-2019. We have excellent pieces about women, children, francophones, Indigenous Canadians, prisoners of war, conscientious objectors, and men unable to enlist; disputes over memorials; analyses of recent commemorations; excerpts from longer works; a podcast or two… it’s fantastic.

[*Check out the complete contents of the Canada’s First World War series on Active History.]

Jon:
Looking back through the list of articles I realize we published some really great stuff. I think Zach Abram’s “Sexing up the First World War” might have been my favourite, but I love the fact that we published some really good articles on the Indigenous Canadian experience of the First World War. I think I’m most proud of those. I also think that in this era in which reconciliation has come to dominate so much of our national discourse, it was really important that we hosted significant work by Indigenous scholars and other Indigenous Canadians.

Chris:
I’ll admit some bias in favouring a piece I helped edit, Lynn Gehl’s “Bleeding Him White.” It confronts a lot of fascinating topics, from epistemology to legal definitions, all against the backdrop of an Indigenous veteran whose identity was stolen by the state, and the repercussions of such actions across the generations.

Sarah:
What makes it stand out for you?

Chris:
It required so much care and attention in crafting the right narrative, not least because of the sensitivities involved in assisting someone to tell their own story, but also because Indigenous voices have been so obscured by virtually all mainstream narratives. It really forced me to stretch as an author, as an editor, and more generally, as a person, to recognize the enormous privilege I’ve lived with, and to learn to confront it constructively and meaningfully in the face of historic wrongs. It’s selfish, I know, but it was priceless and deeply personal, and has informed a great deal of my personal growth since then.

Sarah:
I’m especially fond of the posts that pick up on a particular artifact, document, or monument, and somehow engage with it in the present day. Rebecca Beauseart’s piece about wartime quilts is a good example. I notice now, looking at the list of posts, that my own contributions increasingly headed in this direction as the years went by (like this one about propaganda toilet paper, and this one about a girl’s WWI story). Maybe it’s because I became an archivist?

Nathan:
I’m also a fan of posts that address a specific moment or thing. It’s too hard to pick a favourite, but a post I am especially happy about is Jackson Pind’s piece about the monument in Alderville, Ontario. This one provides insight into a war memorial I have visited and wondered about, and one, as Pind discusses, that Jonathan Vance commented on in his Death So Noble. The post includes a number of valuable insights absent from Vance’s book.

Chris:
I also have a soft spot for the posts that do interesting comparative work. I still like Sarah’s post comparing the commemorations of 1864 and 1914 in Charlottetown: two momentous dates, two foundational myths, two very different circumstances.

Sarah:
So basically it’s all one big love-in and we’re proud of all the posts in the series and grateful to all the authors who contributed them. Or is it? Is anybody disappointed about anything?

Nathan:
I hoped that a few more established historians would submit something to the series, but am pleased with the contributions we did get. The series also seemed well-suited for contributions from museums and archives, but we received fewer than I thought we would.

Chris:
I agree wholeheartedly about established scholars and museum contributions. We did end up with a few of the latter, but almost none from the former.

Sarah:
Our methods for soliciting contributions weren’t exactly scientific. Maybe we didn’t approach enough museums or established scholars? Or didn’t have enough personal contacts in those categories, because of our own unestablished and non-museum status?

Chris:
I asked plenty of people for contributions, nationally and internationally, and got very little back from them. I say this somewhat facetiously… but it’s almost as though some established scholars would rather publish for their twelve closest friends in the field, than for an audience of several thousand. Of course, the latter approach would involve taking risks and exposing your ideas to others who might disagree with you, so… (I sound very bitter toward academia by now, don’t I? Well, tough. Some of its practitioners deserve to be raked over the coals far more often than they are, for a lot of reasons. Remaining in the ivory tower is about the least of criticisms one could lob at academia these days, but it is certainly one of the ones that harms their credibility the most. But that’s a much longer, more involved topic.)

Sarah:
To be fair, our series is not entirely devoid of established scholars. Cecilia Morgan gave us a great post about actresses’ war efforts, and I had a good conversation with Jonathan Vance about the Great War’s influence on his career.

Chris:
And, funnily enough, I sorta kinda might have strong-armed one established scholar into writing for us, in Amy Shaw (who wrote about conscientious objectors). But she told me afterward that it was a great stretching exercise for her. Most scholars, no matter their aspirations to write accessibly – and Amy certainly writes that way – still don’t often consider using the short-form article as a primary means of expressing ideas.

Jon:
I think this issue also speaks to larger problems within academia. More innovative fora for historical debate and discussion become places where less-established scholars and graduate students engage in these practices, but more established scholars are generally reluctant to populate them.

Nathan:
I put a fair bit of effort into soliciting contributions in the project’s first two years, roughly up to the publication of our sort-of halfway post, A View from the Editing Trenches. In addition to contacting people I know, even if only a little, and talking about it face to face when I had the chance, I visited the book fair at the 2015 CHA[i] conference and encouraged publishers to contact any authors who might be interested in our series. I was pleased with the submissions these efforts led to, such as Dimitry Anastakis’s post about remembering Pvt. Harold Carter, but the return rate was not high (which is understandable, I think).

Sarah:
I got a few contributions from people I talked to at the 2015 CHA conference, too. There seemed to be a lot of Great War-related papers that year, and it was easy to nab people at the end of their sessions.

Nathan:
I also helped set up an arrangement with Canada’s History magazine to share posts, with author permission, on their online Great War Album. This led to a conversational post between Canada’s History and our series, in September 2016. But by the end of 2016 I had decided not to put extra effort into soliciting contributions.

 

Part II:  Best and Worst of Canada’s Centenary Commemorations 

Sarah:
Thinking beyond our own modest efforts, what did everyone think of the wider commemorative landscape around the 100th anniversary of the Great War? What worked and what didn’t? 

Mary:
I’m honestly not quite sure how to answer this question. So maybe I won’t! It’s not that I disliked everything about the commemorations, it’s just that I am having a difficult time clearly identifying what, if anything, I particularly enjoyed. I will say that to a certain extent the commemorations helped more research get out into the public.

Chris:
Our “Canada’s First World War” series, and my scholarship in general, gave me many opportunities to discuss my ideas with scholars from around the world. I was pleasantly surprised that many shared similar ideas to my own, felt that WWI history was due for a serious shakeup, and were also disillusioned by many commemorative efforts. I was surprised at how far we in Canada were lagging behind global trends in public scholarship.

Mary:
I personally participated in interviews for television and radio, even co-chairing a Remembrance Day Ceremony on CBC, and was invited to give public talks in ways that might not have happened without the centenary. So, perhaps the centenary helped to open up conversations we haven’t yet had about the relationship between war and nation-building in Canada. Whether or not these were needed is a separate question.

Chris:
Many of the international scholars I engaged with around the centenary were established scholars, and they hosted well-attended public debates, were on television, were writing in newspapers… which only reinforced my opinion that we’d lost the pulse in Canada. Where were our established scholars, in this public discourse? It was nice to be able to point to some international precedent when leveling my critiques.

Jon:
I was also really disappointed with much of what came out of academia. I thought that some younger historians produced some really good stuff, but most of the content that came from more established historians followed more established narratives. And when mainstream media and organizations engaged with the First World War centennial, they tended to go back to a small number of established scholars for comment while ignoring more current and complex discussions about the First World War and its meanings. That was disappointing, too.

Nathan:
There were initiatives by local history groups or archives and museums that I appreciated. They told me about local stories and remnants of the past that were new to me.

Jon:
I found the official commemorations almost universally to be disappointing and problematic. For me the saving commemorations were the artistic engagements with the First World War.

Sarah:
After a hundred years, the creative arts definitely seem to produce some of the most effective efforts to grapple with the war and its legacies. Just stating the plain facts often fails to adequately convey the tragedy, absurdity, or strange juxtapositions that characterized the war, let alone the intensity of emotion associated with it. But sometimes art can.

Nathan:
I especially found that good art gave me fresh approaches to engaging with war experiences I was familiar with. Sarah Hatton’s “Detachment” jumps to mind.

Sarah:
Yes! I really liked “Detachment” by Sarah Hatton, too. For those who missed it, it was a visual art installation of starry nighttime skies as they would have been seen by Canadian troops in the trenches. The “stars” were brass paper fasteners originally used to hold together the military service files of Canada’s First World War soldiers at Library and Archives Canada. I love the way Hatton intertwined tangible artifacts and imagined experiences. I also got a lot out of a University of New Brunswick Faculty of Music concert I attended in 2019 that featured music for piano and violin written by European composers in 1917, showing the influence of that year’s tumultuous events.

In terms of international commemorations, I was very moved by what I saw and read online of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s sea of ceramic poppy sculptures installed in the moat around the Tower of London.

Jon:
I visited that installation (entitled “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red”) in 2014 and it was by far the most powerful public engagement with the First World War that I saw. It was also particularly powerful in that it included sponsorship of individual poppies by organizations and individuals. That element of public engagement really broadened the meaning and reach of this artistic expression of commemoration and grief.

Sarah:
And speaking of public engagement, was the First World War centenary as big a deal in the public sphere as we may have expected it would be?

Nathan:
I was surprised that moments in the war, such as Second Ypres, or conscription, or women earning the right to vote, did not register more in the public sphere.

Jon:
Yeah, I thought it would be a much bigger deal. A lot happened, but I think that most Canadians were largely unaware of it. I was surprised by that, given how much money and effort went into official commemoration.

Nathan:
One feature of centenary commemoration I found unsurprising was the focus on soldiers, the tragedy of their deaths, and our difficulty in imagining their experiences. Art does a great job of engaging people with these themes, and a Remembrance Day-like approach to public engagement can accomplish it, too.

Mary:
The Vimy pilgrimage in 2017 really stood out for me, as well as what I saw as increased funding for school programs to bring students overseas to tour battle sites, cemeteries, and memorials, and in the process to “educate” them about the war. What kind of “education” are they getting in these programs? And getting back to your point, Nathan, what does it mean to feel an emotional connection that might be more about nationalism than personal suffering in war?

Nathan:
Frankly, after a century of the “Flanders Fields”[ii] approach I was hopeful that there would be more reflection on other significant themes. There hasn’t been. I’d argue that the public memory of the war has been reduced to essential Remembrance Day-ism.

Mary:
The presence of members of the British Royal Family at the Vimy ceremony also reinforced the problematic ways that imperial and national histories seem to overlap in reference to this conflict.

Sarah:
Given that Canada fought in the Great War because it was part of the British Empire at the time, I don’t find it inappropriate for representatives of the Royal Family to pay their respects at what we, as Canadians, have chosen as our major overseas war memorial, during our major national commemorative event there. But certainly the reminder of our former colonial status sits awkwardly with the oft-repeated myth that Canada’s sense of being a united and independent nation was born during the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge.

A 1915 poster, held at the British Library. Publicly accessible here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Are_we_Afraid%3F_NO!_(cartoon)_(HS85-10-29954).jpg.

Mary:
Exactly. Was this war really a fight for freedom? It seems that the ceremony at Vimy Ridge reinforced many of the narratives that emerged in the 1920s, which Jonathan Vance has called a preferred version of events rather than a realistic rendition of them.

Jon:
I’m really devastated about the continuing power of nationalist mythologies.

Chris:
And I’m dismayed at the truly alarming demise of pacifism in our political discourse. It is well and truly dead, if even the political parties who practically invented the idea are now repeating the same nonsense as those on the opposite end of the spectrum. There is no succor in that for people who believe proactive peace measures are the only solution to the world’s problems, and that investment in civil society is the answer.

Sarah:
I don’t think many people (except historians, obviously) see strong connections between the Great War and the world we live in today. It’s easy to look at black and white photos of people long-dead whose clothes and hairstyles and social norms were so different from ours, and think “Boy, were they ever stupid to go to war over imperial rivalries.” When in fact, we’re not as different from them as we like to think. Territorial ambitions, greed for resources, national rivalries, the lust for power – it’s lurking (sometimes not very subtly) behind a lot of headlines these days.

Jon:
I’m struck, too, by how the language that many of us grew up with – the “Never Again” messaging of the War Amps and other veteran and/or peace organizations – has largely been lost, especially in the past twenty years.

Chris:
Sadly, even the veterans today don’t seem particularly smitten with ending war, as they were when my great-grandfather and grandfather returned home from the world wars.

Jon:
The 1980s and 1990s seem to have been a high point of this attitude: there was a real fear of a nuclear apocalypse in the 1980s, followed by the hope of a peace dividend when the Cold War ended in the 1990s. It was almost like three quarters of a century of conflict that had started with the First World War was coming to an end. And now we’re back in a place where war has become an inevitability again. We’re more militarized than we have been in 75 years.

Chris:
What a mess. And what a shame.

Mary:
I actually don’t think we need national commemorations of these conflicts. There – I just said it! I think the best way to commemorate them, if we must, is to talk about the realities of war in our world today and have open and honest conversations about Canada’s foreign policies and refugee policies. The danger of these commemorations is that they cast war as something over and done with, rather than a reality in our contemporary world. They also tend to gloss over the conflicts of the time.

 

Part III:  The Contested Field of Commemoration and Collective Memory

Sarah:
As Mary suggests, there does seem to be a measure of forgetfulness (especially of inconvenient or undesirable elements) that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of national commemorations. Simple “remembering” becomes mythmaking when we overlook or leave out the parts that don’t fit the story we want to tell.

Along those lines, why do you think the June 18, 1919 signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty fails to resonate in Canadians’ collective memory the way the November 11, 1918 Armistice does? The Armistice was basically just a ceasefire agreement until the treaty was signed to officially end the war, was it not?

Nathan:
If the Armistice and the Versailles treaty have any place in collective memory then Versailles is usually remembered either as a failure, or as the cause of the next world war, whereas the Armistice resonates as a positive achievement, either of peace or of victory.

Sarah:
True. Which means that, at least by the 1930s, Versailles is a non-starter if people are looking for feel-good commemorative opportunities.

Nathan:
Plus, Canadian troops were significantly and tangibly involved in the offensive that forced Germany to surrender in 1918, whereas the inclusion of Canadians in the talks that led to the 1919 Versailles treaty was little more than symbolic.

Sarah:
So you’re suggesting that, as a country, we’ve latched onto the bit in which we actually mattered to the outcome?

Nathan:
The contrast, I think, points to the essentially positive or nationalist tone of Canadian First World War memory.

Mary:
At the same time, I wonder how much room there is for discussions of peace within narratives about the Great War more generally. I would ask: does the signing of the Armistice really resonate at all? In Remembrance Day ceremonies, when the bells ring and the trumpet is played, are people thinking of peace or war? Or, both?

Jon:
I also think that, as historians, we forget how little the broader public actually knows about the First World War. How many people really know what we’re talking about when we talk about Versailles?

Nathan:
We can add another element to considering the social memory of the end of the war: Canada’s involvement in the Allied intervention in Russia. Canada was the British Empire’s representative in the Allied intervention in Siberia against the revolutionary Bolsheviks, who created the Soviet Union and became the Communist Party.

This has no place at all in Canada’s memory of war, or its sense of its own international relations history. This is partly because no fighting broke out with the Bolsheviks in Siberia, but the troops Canada sent to the White Sea region did fight. The Armistice meant nothing in these parts of the world, and accounting for Canada’s anti-Bolshevism demands that Versailles be placed in the broader politics of 1919. It’s not surprising that these themes do not resonate in public memory.

Sarah:
In terms of post-Armistice events, we also know that nearly as many people died from the global “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-1919 as from the war itself. Has anyone heard of memorable commemorative efforts over the past year related to that?

Mary:
There’s the Defining Moments Canada project about the flu explained by Neil Orford, during Active History’s Spanish Flu theme week last year.

Sarah:
I helped arrange for the travelling exhibit associated with that larger project to visit the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick this autumn, and I know it has been making the rounds across the country. I also know of a few middle-schoolers in Fredericton who chose the Spanish Flu as the subject for their (excellent) Heritage Fair projects.[iii] So the flu centenary is not as unheralded as that of the Siberian Expeditionary Force – but clearly, here in Canada at least, the Spanish Flu deaths lack the widespread cultural resonance (or perhaps more to the point, the ongoing political utility?) of the military war dead.

We’re only 20 years away from the centenary of the Second World War. When we get there, do you think it will be commemorated in similar ways to what we’ve just seen with the First World War centenary?

Jon:
I worry that it will continue to follow established patterns and that there will be little effort to examine Canada’s Second World War history in a meaningful way.

Mary:
I don’t see a blueprint for the next 20 years: what will our political climate look like? What will our ecological climate look like? I think the answers to these two questions will determine the nature of the commemorations, if there are any.

Nathan:
A lot can change in 20 years, but my prediction is that Ottawa will adopt the general approach we observed during the First World War centennial. And that approach was Remembrance Day-ism, by which I mean focusing on soldiers’ service, casting their death as sacrifice, and having it all be part of an important national past no one is going to try to interpret or relate too closely to the present.

Canadians returning from the Dieppe Raid, August 1942. Image from the Imperial War Museum, and publicly accessible here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Are_we_Afraid%3F_NO!_(cartoon)_(HS85-10-29954).jpg

Chris:
My assumption is that it is likely to reinforce, with an even more bucolic view, that those who lived through it were the “Greatest Generation.”

Jon:                  I
think this ground has already been established. We’ve had any number of film and television interpretations (generally American-produced), such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers.” They’ve already established a collective memory of the “Greatest Generation” that has significant power, and I’m sure this will continue to build over the next twenty years. Last June I attended a commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. This was very much the tone of the event. And of course the Second World War has the benefit being considered a “good war.”

Chris:
I’m not saying my grandparents didn’t suffer terribly during the war years, but I am always skeptical of those kinds of labels. They’re highly celebratory, while ignoring some of the more distasteful elements (racial segregation, residential schools, and so on).

Nathan:
Exactly. For Canada the Second World War may be a “better” war to remember than the First World War, but its history includes social and political conflicts, and state repression that national figures will want to avoid. It will be safer to remember the fallen, partly because they should be remembered, and partly because simple “remembrance” steers away from talking about history.

Sarah:
That would certainly fall in line with our recent lack of attention to awkward Great War-adjacent events like the Spanish Flu and the anti-Bolshevik effort in Siberia… not to mention the ethnic, linguistic, and regional tensions unleashed by the conscription question and the 1917 federal election.

Mary:
But more broadly, even now our public narratives around the Second World War are decidedly different than those around the First World War. The 1939-1945 conflict seems, in many ways, more directly connected with the world around us today. So, I still think that what the world looks like in 20 years’ time will shape what commemorations of the Second World War look like – or don’t.

Sarah:
It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, won’t it? Now, as we come to the end of our conversation, let’s circle back to the First World War. Has the centenary of the Great War produced a legacy of any kind, for the future?

Mary:
Wow, this could (should?) be the subject of a full-length piece of its own! My (short) answer would be that the legacy of the Great War is about the lasting divides of war, and how we in the present try to smooth out the rough edges and disagreements of the past. It’s worth recalling that the loudest voices in the immediate interwar period were about both RETRIBUTION and PEACE – impulses that counteracted one another.

Sarah:
Those tensions in the early interwar era are certainly worth a much longer discussion than we can manage here.

Mary:
Luckily, I just happen to be organizing a peace conference on May 7-8, 2020 to be hosted by the Wilson Institute for Canadian History, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s called “Remembering Peace: Global Perspectives on Commemorating War,” and that link takes you to the Call for Papers. It would be great to have some of my fellow editors, or readers of this post, submit paper proposals or even just attend and be part of the conversation. We’re taking a global approach and are open to papers related to any war between the 17th and 21st centuries, so it’s sure to be a fascinating discussion. Join us!

Sarah:
That sounds like as good a place as any to call it a day on this post, and on our series as a whole: we’ll leave it to Mary’s conference to talk about legacies of the Great War. After five years of editorial labour I think we’ve all earned a bit of a rest.

Armistice Day, Munitions Centre, 1919, by Frederick Etchells. Part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum. Publicly accessible here: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederick_Etchells_-_Armistice_Day,_Munitions_Centre.jpg

– – – – – – – – – – – 

 

Canada’s First World War ~ Series Acknowledgements

“I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever thanks”[iv]

Now that the curtain has dropped on the Canada’s First World War series (2014-2019), the editors would like to thank www.activehistory.ca for providing a platform, audience, and moral support for non-traditional scholarly work by precariously-employed historians.

We would also like to thank our many contributors for sharing their research and insights, and everyone (including Canada’s History magazine) who shared our posts on blogs or social media, used them in their teaching, or otherwise helped increase the reach of the series.

Lastly we would like to thank all of the series’ readers (past, present, and future) for being open to something other than unreflective remembrance: a healthy democratic society needs to critically engage with its past, and (whether you agree with what you’ve read or not) you are part of that ongoing process.

 

Notes

[i] CHA = Canadian Historical Association

[ii] Lieutenant-Colonel John McRae, “In Flanders Fields,” Punch, 8 December 1915.

[iii] This is a shout-out to Anna, Ben, and Angus, for their cool Spanish Influenza heritage fair projects at George Street Middle School, Fredericton, New Brunswick, during the 2018-2019 schoolyear… and also to the awesome archivists at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick for helping them locate some of the evidence they needed.

[iv] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 3, lines 1503-1504.

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