New Perspectives on the First World War (and its memory)

 

Cover image for Canada's Great War album : our memories of the First World War

The direct living links to the First World War are no longer with us, but we are still living in the world that it helped shape perhaps more than any other event in the 20th century.  Popular interest in the conflict has seen a resurgence worldwide because of the Centennial commemorations, and this also led to the re-examining of what we really “know” and how we choose to remember the “War to End All Wars”.  Winnipeg has monuments  and plaques to commemorate the sacrifices of a generation, regimental museums preserve artifacts and records of past members of their units, and libraries (both ours and others) have many titles of both fiction and non-fiction works that helps preserve the history of the war for the living.
Though there are plenty to recommend from, two recent additions are personal favourites I would like to share.  The first is Canada’s Great War album : our memories of the First World War ,  which is an excellent source of information for anyone, no matter how knowledgeable you are on the subject.  It’s seventeen chapters are written by different authors, including historian Tim Cook and Peter Mansbridge who writes about how Canadians have chosen to remember.  This particular title covers a variety of topics and is filled with gorgeous photography, memorabilia, and personal stories from veterans or their relatives.  You will learn about the use of  animals on the frontline, innovations in battlefield medicine, and the Conscription Crisis.  The authors also discuss the nascent Canadian Navy and Air Force, how the mobilization of the home front permanently changed Canadian society, and much more.

 

Cover image for Band of brigands : the first men in tanks

Another book I discovered recently is Band of brigands : the first men in tanks by Christy Campbell, which uses diaries, letters, and personal accounts to tell the story of what was at the time a new breed of soldiers: the British Tank Corps.  This is actually not a very well covered part of military history, which might sound strange since Great Britain was the first nation to develop and field tanks in large numbers (which is why I found this book fascinating).  You can read about how tanks were developed specifically as a breakthrough weapon to overcome the network of trenches and barbwires of the Western Front, clearing the way for the infantry in an effort to end the bloody stalemate.  The men who trained and fought in those unfamiliar and unreliable machines faced miserable living conditions inside overheated metal boxes surrounded by fuel and explosives (such were the infernal conditions of being in an early tank that it required 36 hours recuperation for each day fighting in one).  However, their appearances in battle had a dramatic effect in France and Belgium, while changing the face of warfare forever.

 

Cover image for Capturing Hill 70 : Canada's forgotten battle of the First World War Cover image for The greatest victory : Canada's one hundred days, 1918

In Winnipeg, as in Canada, the First World War is part of the collective identity because we have linked our success to not only the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, but also our sense of Canada as an emerging fully-independent nation.  At the time, the Canadian Corps gained a reputation as an elite attack force and the victory raised the morale of allied forces in what had been a dismal year of bloody stalemate with no end in sight.  But what is forgotten was that Vimy Ridge was only a small part of a much larger Allied offensive, one in which Canadians continued to successfully contribute with a high cost of casualties.  This is why Serge Durflinger’s newly released book Capturing Hill 70 : Canada’s forgotten battle of the First World War is useful in highlighting an overlooked chapter in our military history.  In the early morning of August 15, 1917, the Canadian Corps successfully seized the high ground  near the French City of Lens and repelled twenty German counterattacks at a cost of 9,000 dead and wounded.
When we think of the First World War, we associate it with static trench warfare, because that was what the majority of combatants on the Western Front experienced for years.   This changed dramatically in 1918, as that was the year where soldiers on both sides exited the trenches and the war became mobile again.  Ironically this is also where the Canadian Corps took a central role in the final offensive that forced Germany to sue for peace.   The greatest victory : Canada’s one hundred days, 1918  by J.L. Granatstein is a well-researched and well-illustrated book that I recommend for anyone interested in learning more about Canada’s role in ending the war, as well as the innovation in training and tactics it helped invent.

 

Cover image for The long shadow : the legacies of the Great War in the twentieth century  Cover image for Antiques roadshow : World War One in 100 family treasures

In Antiques roadshow : World War One in 100 family treasures by Paul Atterbury, we have the opportunity to learn about the personal histories of the people who lived and fought through the war via the various mementos they left to their descendants.  When the famed television program launched an appeal for artifacts related to the Battle of the Somme in 2011, hundreds of families answered by bringing objects like postcards, keepsakes, artwork, photographs, military documents and decorations, from which  100 were selected for the book.  The personal stories of courtships, close brushes with death, and painful loss are quite poignant, helping  us relate to the world back then through the experiences of various individuals.  Some of the objects featured are quite unusual – a violin that was used as a diary, an egg that was used to communicate messages between two lovers, and a football that used to signal the start of an offensive.
The long shadow : the legacies of the Great War in the twentieth century by David Reynolds is an original book to read because it focuses on how American society was directly affected by the war.  As well, Reynolds discusses how the war has been commemorated but forgotten and mis-remembered over  the ensuing decades, largely fading from collective memory.  This is a dense read less suitable for the casual reader but it’s focus is quite relevant as we are in the middle of celebrating the war’s centennial.  We have seen a constant evolution over the decades of it’s mythology, choosing to emphasize lessons in addition to whose voices were heard.  Because the Second World War and the Cold War overshadowed the lives of the generations that came after, conflicting mythologies that had been created to justify the outcomes of the First World War were further distorted and changed to fit new narratives, a process that is still happening today.

 

Cover image for The great class war, 1914-1918

A case in point is the continuing debate of what we see as the root causes that caused the outbreak of the First World War.  In his new book The great class war, 1914-1918 , Canadian author Jacques Pauwels has challenged what he sees as the old widely held belief the European heads of state blundered into the war with reluctance and little idea of how things would escalate into an industrialised slaughter.  He takes the long view instead, noting many of the upper classes of the warring nations saw the war as a way to curb what they perceived as the rise of the lower-class that reversed the trends of liberalism and democracy that were challenging a century-long status quo – one that had benefitted them through nationalism and crushing “un-patriotic” dissent against a war fought mostly by the working classes of the warring nations.  Ironically, the war ended merely accelerating many of these popular movements, and lead to the birth of radical parties that would hasten the fall of the old order and gave birth to fascism and communism, and later the post-colonial movement.

 

Cover image for Testament of youth [DVD videorecording]
Vera Brittain was a young British woman planning to begin her studies at Oxford University.  She decided to enlist as a nurse when the war was declared at the same time as both her brother and fiancé fought in France and Italy.  They would all live through hellish events, and some would pay with their lives.  Vera published Testament of youth, a memoir of that period of her life, and it has now been adapted as a film under the same title with Alicia Vikander in the starring role.  This is a great example of how the film medium can help expose real historical accounts to a new generation.   While the film shines by the excellent acting and historical reconstruction, the real record of her experiences that are dramatized near the front, and the changing role of women in society (many countries saw the achievement of female suffrage as a direct result of wartime mobilization, including Canada) has long been considered a classic, and it is great that it is given this chance to keep the memory alive.
Louis-Philippe

 

 

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