Reflections on the First World War

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By Eric Story, Brittany Dunn and Alexander Maavara

Anniversaries invite reflection. Regardless of historians’ tendency to hastily dismiss commemorations or celebrations of the past as pesky purveyors of myth, these events nonetheless generate discussion––sometimes informed, other times less so––about history. The centenary of the First World War was no different. Between 2014 and 2018, people around the world engaged in a wide array of commemorative activities reflecting on the First World War and its legacies. These activities ranged from the modest to the immense, from digital memorials to colourized documentary film to vast public art displays.[1] At the very least––and putting aside the historically-based criticisms they may engender––they reveal an ongoing interest in the history of the First World War and an unspoken impulse among the participating nations to commemorate it.

The Boots of the Fallen public art display on the slopes of Vimy Ridge at the Vimy 100 ceremony in April 2017. The boots represent the 3,598 Canadian soldiers who died fighting at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Courtesy: Katrina Pasierbek.

For its part, in 2014 the foremost journal in Canadian history, Canadian Historical Review, asked several historians to reflect on the current state of First World War scholarship in Canada. Three of the articles published in the Canadian Historical Review’s commemorative issue discussed the war in three broad themes: overseas, homefront and memory.[2] Approximately thirty books have been published about Canada during the First World War since then,[3] and, given the conclusion of the centenary this past November, we thought it appropriate to do some reflecting of our own. In reviewing these books and situating them within a broader historiographical framework, we have found that the centenary did not usher in a new wave of scholarship on the First World War––a point we return to in the conclusion.

The traditional interpretation, not only in Canada but more broadly across most participant countries, was that it fundamentally changed Western industrialized society. In the context of Canada, this narrative was––and continues to be––bolstered by the myth of the Battle of Vimy Ridge where, as the myth recounts, Canada as a nation was born at Vimy when four Canadian divisions successfully defeated the Germans where the British and French armies had previously failed. Beginning in the late 1990s, a revisionist school of Canadian historians began to express skepticism of the transformation thesis, seeing the post-1918 period as not all that different from pre-1914. Although the books published over the past four years certainly represent an ongoing commitment to the debate over continuity versus change in the era of the First World War, there are some indications that the field is beginning to move beyond this centralized debate to questions of both localism and transnationalism.


Revisionism is one of the most striking aspects of the overseas literature written since 2014. The Canadian historiography of the First World War is still relatively young in comparison to its British and Australian counterparts––originating in the early 1960s with the long-delayed publication of a complete official history.[4] Because of this delay, many of the foundational interpretations of the First World War laid in the 1960s and 1970s remain largely unchallenged today. And of them, the failure of and resulting discord arising from conscription is arguably one of the most dominant. During these past centenary years, Patrick Dennis has written the first sustained revisionist account of Canadian conscripts’ contributions to the war effort, refuting the commonly-held notion that the 25,000 conscripts that eventually served in an active theatre of war did not justify the domestic discord that ensued after the passage of the Military Service Act.[5] By ignoring homefront divisions and focusing solely on conscripts’ contributions on the battlefield, Dennis forcefully argues that these men had an influential role to play in the Allies’ eventual victory in the final campaign of the First World War.[6]

The first truly revisionist academic account of the First World War in Canada was Jonathan Vance’s seminal book Death So Noble in 1997. Responding to an international literature that saw 1918 as a point of rupture from the Edwardian to the modern, he instead found that the ways Canadians remembered and found meaning in the war during the interwar period resembled the modes of remembrance of the nineteenth century rather than anything resoundingly new or modern.[7] Since then, Canadian historians have periodically challenged the time-worn argument that the war transformed Canada through examinations of the wartime economy, Indigenous peoples, women and a variety of other topics.[8] The 2014-18 literature on Canadians overseas provides further evidence that the war sustained structures of the pre-1914 world rather than upended them. For volunteer nurses who served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, as Linda Quiney argues in her 2017 book, their wartime work in England and France was a “limited term patriotic act that was not permanent.” While they deviated from traditional gendered expectations during the war––such as by driving ambulance vehicles––they returned to a world largely dictated by the conservative notions of the pre-war period.[9] Mark Humphries similarly expresses skepticism of the progressive myth that saw psychology triumphantly replace the regressive, somatically-oriented treatment of traumatized men. In fact, what Humphries finds in his exploration of shell shock during the war is that patients in 1918 were treated no different than those in 1914, biological predisposition was identified as the reason for traumatic responses, and neurologically-based understandings of trauma remained standard for the treatment of veterans into the interwar period. “For the history of psychiatry,” Humphries concludes, “the Great War was never a watershed moment.”[10]

General Sir Arthur Currie, 1917. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3191901

Over the past four years, other historians of Canadians overseas have eschewed the national framework altogether by placing the Canadian Corps into a larger British imperial history. These authors remark that much of the earlier literature has largely ignored the fact that the Canadian Expeditionary Force––Canada’s overseas military formation––was not an autonomous entity but actually among several situated within the British Army.[11] Canadian operational impact was consequently much less influential than previously understood because its officers operated within a system that was dictated largely by British command. Several essays in Doug Delaney and Serge Durflinger’s Capturing Hill 70, for example, reveal that Sir Arthur Currie, appointed commanding general of the Canadian Corps in June 1917, had only a limited capacity to influence military planning and operations at the Battle of Hill 70 because he was subordinate to General Sir Henry Horne of British First Army and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.[12] Several authors over the past four years have done well to remind First World War historians that the Canadian Expeditionary Force was by no means unique but just one fighting formation among many within the imperial British Army.

While the centenary years have seen a direct challenge to the transformation thesis and a call for more transnational research from the literature on Canadians overseas, an expanding social historiography of the homefront that is more concerned with localism and the politics of the everyday has developed. Regional history has risen in popularity as historians examine the varied responses to the First World War across Canada. The Frontier of Patriotism, edited by Adriana A. Davies and Jeff Keshen, is a mammoth tome scrutinizing almost every aspect of wartime life in Alberta. Terry Copp studies Canada’s “metropolis”––Montreal––in his online book Montreal At War. And even though its title hints at international politics, Brandon Dimmel’s Engaging the Line: How the Great War Shaped the Canada-US Border is also essentially a social commentary on how three border communities, Windsor ON, St. Stephen NB and White Rock BC, interacted with their American counterparts over the border. Most recently, Jonathan Vance’s A Township at War illustrates the monotonous yet endearing rural life of East Flamborough Township from 1914 to 1918. Other works do not necessarily examine a locale but a minority group within Canada’s wartime populace. Mark McGowan traces the internal and external conflicts involving Canada’s vast Irish community in The Imperial Irish, Bohdan Kordan provides a renewed look at enemy aliens in No Free Man and in Unwanted Warriors Nic Clarke gives voice to those Canadians who wished to serve but were medically prevented from so doing.[13]

From the prairies of Alberta to the bustling streets of Montreal to the intricacies of cross-border life, these books present interpretations on the First World War’s influence on Canadian society as diverse as their subject matter. The mainstays of Canadian national history during the First World War—Canada’s baptism of fire at the Second Battle of Ypres, the 1917 Federal Election, Canada’s ‘birth’ at Vimy Ridge, the Conscription Debate and the Spanish Flu Epidemic—are depicted in each work but are often subordinate to unique local experiences. Copp, using many of the methods pioneered by British historian Adrian Gregory, challenges the established narratives on the impact of the First World War on Canadian society, at least in the context of Montreal. In the diverse metropolis, the war effort––especially the stress it placed on Anglo-French relations––and the grim reports of casualties formed an equal but by no means predominant element of everyday life where unemployment, local tragedies, sports and local politics still held sway.

Volunteers from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, 1914. Sask History Online.

Copp’s ideas on developing a more local perspective on the homefront are further fleshed out by Vance. He states that East Flamborough, much like Copp’s depiction of Montreal, was often preoccupied with its own personal tragedies and economic woes unrelated to the war. However, Vance argues that the prevalent blood ties across rural communities meant casualties resonated with the local populace far greater than they would in urban communities like Montreal––highlighting an important rural/urban divide in wartime experience. Furthermore, in the border communities examined by Dimmel, national disputes over issues like conscription paled in comparison to the local impact of the little nationally-known Order-in-Council PC 1433, which established for the first time in Canadian history the requirement of photo identification when crossing the Canada-US border. These fascinating regional depictions, combined with McGowan’s, Kordan’s and Clarke’s illumination of the lived experiences of minority communities spread across Canada, demonstrate that the commonly-held assumption of the war as an all-pervasive event encapsulating the lives of Canadians on the homefront needs to be re-examined in light of the findings that there is no quintessential ‘Canadian’ experience of the First World War.

The exception to the rising trend of regional history is Brock Millman’s Popularity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919. Millman, in arguing the First World War proved that the economic and political efficiency of the homefront was more important to victory than military achievements, scrutinizes “the unfortunate mathematics of total war in Great War Canada.”[14] By dividing the country, perhaps too broadly, into three groups, ‘British Canada,’ ‘French Canada’ and ‘New Canada,’ Millman argues that wartime repressive policies had a twofold goal. Firstly, repression was intended to ensure that no significant anti-war faction was able to form. But secondly, and more importantly in Millman’s view, repressive policies were implemented against perceived ‘dissidents’ to maintain the appearance of sufficient government action to rally the continuing political support of Canada’s pro-war factions. The Borden government, while certainly open to criticism, is portrayed as successfully balancing the resistance and jingoism that came with total war. Sadly, Millman passed away in December 2018 at the age of fifty-four. His final publication, albeit not without its flaws, contributes an innovative and stimulating methodology to the study of Canada during the First World War and of the very conception of the ‘homefront’ in conflict studies.

Most of the books published over the last four years focus on the war years but a few explore how Canadians remembered the conflict. Each of these titles fall into the three common narratives Tim Cook describes in his article in the Canadian Historical Review’s 2014 special issue: the war as senseless slaughter, as domestically divisive and as a nation-building event. For the most part, these works focus on the third narrative, making use of Jonathan Vance’s notion of a useable past in which the memory of the past serves the present.[15]

English-Canadian cultural products have proved a popular means through which to examine the memory of the First World War over the last four years. Neta Gordon contends that Canadian novels and plays from 1995 to 2007 subscribed to the idea that the First World War truly was “great.” While also acknowledging its deadly nature, the war is ultimately depicted as productive, leading to the creation of the Canadian nation.[16] In contrast, Sherrill Grace, in her examination of a variety of cultural representations (e.g. novels, plays, memoirs, poetry, art, films) of both world wars created between 1977 and 2007, argues that these texts and their creators challenged Canadians to reconsider the accepted memory of the war as transformative and to seek a more inclusive narrative.[17]

Joel Baetz takes an alternative approach to the nation-building narrative in his 2018 book on poetry and the First World War.[18] He acknowledges that ‘war as nation-building’ was the dominant myth of Canadian poetry in the interwar period but tries to provide a counterbalance to the established narrative by focusing on those exceptional poems that did not subscribe to it. While Gordon, Grace and Baetz examine different sources and time periods, they all work within the same nation-building framework and ask an oft-repeated question that remains foundational to the historiography of memory––what is the purpose of remembering? These scholars reach differing conclusions, but they all find that studying memory tells us more about the creators of that memory than of the past itself.

Vimy Ridge looms large in the Canadian imagination and tends to act as a substitute for the Canadian experience of the First World War more generally. While Tim Cook’s and Ian McKay and Jamie Swift’s books both take Vimy as their topic, they come to dramatically different conclusions.[19] Both examine how the myth of Vimy—or “Vimyism” as McKay and Swift call it—has developed and changed over time, from the immediate post-war years to the present day. Cook contends that, while its prominence has risen and fallen, Vimy has been a consistent source of Canadian nationalism––for at least some of the population––for the past hundred years. McKay and Swift, on the other hand, take an exceedingly more critical view of the Vimy myth and argue that Vimyism and its attendant martial nationalism oversimplify the past by reducing Canada’s nationhood to the battle for Vimy Ridge. They argue that the nation-building myth surrounding Vimy has always been contested and challenged by modernist, anti-war narratives, particularly during the interwar period. Even as they take issue with Vance’s work, McKay and Swift use his concept of the useable past, arguing that the conservative notions inherent in Vimyism obscure Canada’s ‘real’ history (i.e. Canada was not born on Vimy Ridge). Like the other works on First World War memory, Cook’s and McKay and Swift’s books revolve around the notion of ‘the war as nation-building’—even as McKay and Swift strongly disagree with it—and continue to ask how Canadians have constructed and made use of the memory of the First World War.

Aerial view of the Vimy monument, 1936. This image was taken during the Vimy Pilgrimage when 6,000 Canadians journeyed to France for the unveiling of the monument. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 4930589

Ultimately, historians have yet to completely break free from the dominant narratives that have characterized both academic and public understandings of the First World War for the past hundred years. They continue to frame First World War memory within the nation-building framework as well as the traditionalism/modernity dichotomy. Historians are, however, adding fresh perspectives and nuance to these narratives by continuing to assess and question them.


The literature produced over the past four years has raised many new questions about Canada during the First World War. Certainly, and because the Canadian First World War historiography is still young, much of the scholarship written over the last four years contribute further to the twenty-year-long debate over the transformation thesis. The literature on memory is dominated by questions over the politics of commemoration and whether the First World War was a transformative event for Canada. In many ways, the homefront and overseas literatures are asking these same questions of continuity versus change, particularly surrounding women and gender.[20] Some scholars, however, have begun to move the literature in new directions. Historians of the homefront have found that issues unrelated to the war were not necessarily subordinate during wartime. These local issues remained as important––and sometimes even more so––as those related to the conflict overseas, which more subtly challenges the supposed unilateral pervasiveness of the war on the homefront. And by situating Canada within a larger British imperial history, scholars of Canadians overseas have set aside national frameworks in favour of transnationalism.

In many ways, the current historiography of the First World War is more diverse than ever before. But what other questions can historians ask as the literature presses on? For one, as Mark Humphries has already noted, historians of Canadians overseas might find inspiration in the recent discoveries of homefront historians.[21] By embracing diversity of experience and the particularities of localism, the overseas literature might add nuance to the monolithic experience of the Canadian soldier. Canadians and Newfoundlanders served not only on the Western Front but in several theatres around the world. How might those serving in theatres outside of France and Belgium have experienced the war differently? Aside from location, more research into relations between soldiers (and nurses) of different social and cultural backgrounds might uncover differences alongside the similarities. And investigating whether the memory of the war similarly diverged by gender, “race,” class, region or age may also help historians explore more fully how Canadians remembered and gave meaning to the war.

Several women waving goodbye to 5,000 Canadians leaving Southampton, England in 1919. CWM 19940003-459, CWM Archives, George Metcalf Archival Collection.

Lastly, although the literature over the past four years has suggested that the transformative elements of the war have been exaggerated, it would be a mistake to ignore where and how the war changed the country. 65,000 soldiers died and nearly 175,000 were injured during the war. To put these numbers into perspective, nearly 300,000 would be dead and almost 800,000 injured in an equivalent war today. There is no question that trauma and death on such a vast scale forced change, even if it was not desired. On a personal level, how did families cope with an absent husband or father who died on the battlefield? How did individuals and families adjust to a veteran-family member returning home with a disability? And beyond memorialization, at a macro-level, how did communities, provinces and the country as a whole respond to the loss and disablement of so many men? These questions, we hope, will encourage future scholarship to seek out new frontiers in the history of the First World War. The centenary is now over, but it is certainly not the end of First World War history-writing in Canada.



Eric Story is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is the author of several articles on the First World War and its aftermath, and his dissertation looks at the history of tuberculosis in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada.

Brittany Dunn is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Book Review Editor for the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Military History. Her research examines death, grief and coping in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Alexander Maavara is a research associate at the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. He is currently working on a manuscript project examining the British homefront during the First World War.


This post is part of’s ongoing project on the First World War: “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”. Launched in 2014, the series is concluding in 2019. All the posts in the series continue to be accessible here.


[1] There are many examples of commemoration-related projects around the world. In Canada, the largest and most popular was Vimy 100 when 25,000 people visited the monument in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2017. Maclean’s First World War Centennial Issue was also a popular project where each edition featured the names of one of the 66,349 servicemen and women who died during the war.

[2] “Canada’s First World War, 1914–2014,” Canadian Historical Review 95, no. 3 (2014).

[3] Nearly all of the books consulted for this post were published by Canadian academic presses including University of British Columbia Press, University of Alberta Press, University of Manitoba Press, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, McGill-Queen’s University Press and University of Toronto Press. The four exceptions are Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016), Tim Cook, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017), Tim Cook, The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2018) and Terry Copp, Montreal at War, 1914–1918,

[4] G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962).

[5] J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1977).

[6] Patrick M. Dennis, Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Great War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). For another revisionist account, this time of a Canadian general, see William F. Stewart, The Embattled General: Sir Richard Turner and the First World War (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).

[7] Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).

[8] For example, see Timothy C. Winegard, For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012); Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, eds., A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012); and David Mackenzie, ed., Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).

[9] Linda J. Quiney, This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 162, 163.

[10] Mark Osborne Humphries, A Weary Road: Shell Shock in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1918 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018), 326.

[11] See Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger, eds., Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); and Humphries, A Weary Road.

[12] Nikolas Gardner, “Higher Command: First Army and the Canadian Corps,” 30–50 and Mark Osborne Humphries, “The Best Laid Plans: Sir Arthur Currie’s First Operations as Corps Commander,” Capturing Hill 70, ed. by Delaney and Durflinger, 78–101.

[13] Jeff Keshen and Adriana Davies, eds., The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016); Terry Copp, Montreal At War 1914-1918 (self published, 2017) available at; Brandon R. Dimmel, Engaging the Line: Great War Experiences along the Canada-US Border (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016); Jonathan F. Vance, A Township at War (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018); Mark McGowan, The Imperial Irish: Canada’s Irish Catholics Fight the Great War, 1914-18 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017); Bohdan S. Korban, No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Experience (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016); Nic Clarke, Unwanted Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015).

[14] Brock Millman, Popularity, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 7.

[15] Vance, Death So Noble, 9.

[16] Neta Gordon, Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014).

[17] Sherrill Grace, Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014).

[18] Joel Baetz, Battle Lines: Canadian Poetry in English and the First World War (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

[19] Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, The Vimy Trap: Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016); and Tim Cook, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017).

[20] See Cynthia Toman, Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); Quiney, This Small Army; and Humphries, A Weary Road.

[21] Mark Osborne Humphries, “Between Commemoration and History: The Historiography of the Canadian Corps and Military Overseas,” Canadian Historical Review 95, no. 3 (2014): 395–6.


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