Review: Anytown On August 4, 1914

Every hometown has its triumphs and tragedies, but few produce writers as evocative as Professor Jonathan Vance of Western University, one of the most skillful Canadian historians of his generation. Vance chronicles his town’s collision with the First World War, a fascination born in Vance’s youth when he walked door to door as a hydro meter reader in the Township of East Flamborough and spoke to ordinary neighbours with extraordinary experiences.

“The statistics say that about 8 percent of its population served in uniform and about 1 percent died – or , if you prefer raw numbers, 210 out of 2,400 served and 28 died,” writes Vance. “But how much do those numbers actually reveal?”

“Its experience was replicated countless times across rural Canada,” says A Township At War. “Through English Canada were similar townships; the names were different and the geography certainly varied, but there were fundamental commonalities in how the people interacted with each other, the country and the world.”

Professor Vance’s hometown was Waterdown, Ont., population 756, long since swallowed by suburban sprawl. Waterdown was founded by a miller with 11 children. The main drag was Dundas Street, an old coach road dating from the 18th century. The town was small, self-sufficient and hardworking.

At war’s outbreak in 1914, the taproom at the local Kirk Hotel changed the name of Dawes Konigsbier to Kingsbeer, and the local paper published a phonetic guide to faraway place names like Sar-a-yav-o, where they shot an Austrian archduke. The local Women’s Institute raised $140 to build a hospital ship. One Waterdown native, Leo Clarke,  even won the Victoria Cross for killing 19 Germans in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of the Somme.

Waterdown’s war ended in conscription and coal shortages and many deaths. VC Clarke died in combat in 1916. By 1918 the local weekly was publishing soldiers’ obituaries two and three at a time — boys like Campbell, who studied mechanical engineering, and Gillies, one of the first to volunteer in 1914, and Hunter, killed at Vimy, one of three brothers to die in combat.

There was Mrs. Springer, who lost one son to war, another to pneumonia, and a husband who died from injuries suffered in an auto wreck. And there was Dougherty, who enlisted at 15 then was branded a deserter. They found his body in a reservoir, an apparent suicide.

Prof. Vance recalls speaking with the township’s last surviving veteran, Clare Laking, 102, a $6 a week bank clerk when he volunteered as a signaler with the Canadian Field Artillery. “It wasn’t a complicated job,” Laking recalled: “The machine gun bullets would zzz,zzz,zzz all around us. I’d flop to the ground, string out the wire, and run another twenty yards before I’d flop to the ground and string out more wire.”

“As he talks the years fall away – his recollections are so vivid that the village I had known since childhood starts to change in my mind,” writes Vance. “Gone are the strip malls and subdivisions, the fast food joints and traffic lights, the big box stores and skateboard parks. In their place, the Waterdown of Clare’s youth takes shape. Coming into focus are horse-drawn buggies and high, starched collars, barefoot boys in wide-brimmed hats scampering down a dirt street to the creek.”

A Township At War is a beautiful book.

By Holly Doan

A Township At War by Jonathan Vance; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 308 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-23860; $27.99

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