By Sean Graham
Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to lead immersive educational programs of Canada’s First World War history through Belgium and France. One of the best parts of these programs is visiting Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries where students have selected a soldier killed during the war to present on their life and military service. These can be remarkably powerful moments that serve as stark reminders that each stone represents a unique story.
There are thousands of tales of how someone ended up in western Europe, their war experiences, and the loved ones back home. That’s the power of biography. Where large numbers and general overviews can be, at times, difficult to process, it can be easier to relate to, and empathize with, individual stories. And when a great biography comes along, it makes you truly care about the person you’re reading about.
In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Tyler Wentzell, author of Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Part of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War. We chat about the benefits of biography, the mystery and hearsay surrounding Cecil-Smith’s life, and the challenges of researching someone who didn’t leave much of a paper trail. We also discuss Cecil-Smith’s childhood in China, his transition from banker to communist activist, and how the Great Depression influenced his worldview.
If you want to hear more about Cecil-Smith’s time in the Spanish Civil War and Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, be sure to check out Tyler’s chat with The New Canadian History series from the Wilson Institute and Canada and the Spanish Civil War. You can also learn about the research material Tyler found after the book’s publication in his post from earlier this summer. And for more on the Mac-Paps, check out my chat with Janette Higgins about her father’s experience during the Spanish Civil War.
Sean Graham is a historian, Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca