The First World War gave Canada progressive income tax, national trade unions, the Department of Health, votes for women and daylight saving time. The price was 61,802 dead and 172,000 injured. Was it worth it?
With the passing of all eyewitnesses to the cataclysm Canadian culture has “systematically diminished the violent effects of the First World War,” notes The Great War. Politicians sense it is now safe to stand on tombstones to speak on patriotic themes that play well with focus groups. It is left to historians to correct the record.
Great War is a timely assessment drawn from a Western University conference that saw researchers, genealogists and others examine the cost and contribution of events now a century old. “Military triumphs and narratives of sacrifice will have to be weighed carefully against the brutal realities of the war’s human cost,” editors write.
“How, for example, will the 500,000 casualties sustained during the Battle of Verdun influence France’s efforts to honour its war dead and underscore national unity in the face of present-day economic turmoil and state austerity? Will the 1917 army mutinies fit into a narrative that emphasizes collective sacrifice for the survival of the Republic? Official British plans include special ceremonies and commemorative events on key dates, including the Battle of the Somme, which has long served as a horrifying symbol of senseless slaughter for the British public.”
Canada’s record is often twisted into mythologies. Great War documents the distortion.
“In the Canadian context of what is remembered and what is forgotten, the victory at Vimy dominates the national memory of the war while the sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle – with the greatest collective loss of life of medical personnel in the war – received much less attention, perhaps because it fits less easily into the story of victory,” authors write.
On June 27, 1918 the Llandovery Castle with its Canadian crew was torpedoed off the Irish coast and sank in ten minutes; 234 passengers vanished without a trace. Survivors who crowded lifeboats were rammed and shot by a U-boat crew: “It was beyond doubt the most atrocious crime of the entire war for there could be neither rhyme nor reason for the brutal murders,” author Edwyn Gray wrote in his 1972 account of the U-boat war The Killing Time.
Great War similarly recounts the fate of the Newfoundland Regiment at Gallipoli, an epic so obscure it’s forgotten even by Newfoundlanders. In September 1915 the regiment landed in the Dardanelles. Of 1,100 soldiers only 117 were left standing four months later, a casualty rate of 89 percent. The catastrophe was overshadowed by the more disastrous fate awaiting Newfoundlanders at the Battle of the Somme the following July where 90 percent of the regiment was lost in 30 minutes: “From that moment on the Somme battlefield was the primary place for Newfoundland’s national mythology,” editors note; “Gallipoli remained unremembered and indistinct.”
Canadians now subjected to official histories and propaganda deserve a fair accounting of the First War – honest, unflinching and compassionate. Only historians can do the job. The Great War is a start.
By Holly Doan
The Great War: From Memory To History; edited by Kellen Kurschinski, Steve Marti, Alicia Robinet, Matt Symes and Jonathan F. Vance; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 440 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-20500; $38.99