First World War analyzed in new books for centennial
A First World War soldier places stones on a Canadian grave near Vimy, France on June, 1917. (National Archives of Canada)
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press
Published Sunday, September 7, 2014 10:39AM EDT
TORONTO -- It's been 100 years since the start of the First World War and there's still a lot of inaccurate information about the conflict, says military historian Gwynne Dyer.
"A great deal of what people think they know about the First World War isn't true, like the generals were all fools and it was all about an endless trench stalemate and it meant a great deal because we were fighting for freedom," he said in a telephone interview.
The former member of the Canadian, British and American navies looks at the mythology surrounding Canada's role in the Great War -- as well as its military engagement in general -- in the newly published "Canada in the Great Power Game 1914-2014" (Random House Canada).
"I'm quite cynically using the First World War as a hook on which to hang 100 years of Canadian military history, foreign policy," he said. "But it's quite legitimate, because that's where our reflexes were formed."
Dyer is among several writers with new books offering fresh looks at the Great War for the centennial.
Historian Margaret MacMillan's "The War That Ended Peace" (Penguin Canada), now on shelves, looks at the factors and decisions that led Europe from a long period of peace and prosperity into a catastrophic conflict.
Novelist Michael Winter puts a personal spin on his look at the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Battle of the Somme with "Into the Blizzard" (Doubleday Canada).
Frances Itani's newly published novel "Tell" (HarperCollins Canada) is set just months after the end of the Great War and follows a young soldier and his family on Ontario's Bay of Quinte.
And in "Valour Road" (Viking Canada, Sept. 23), journalist John Nadler looks at the true story of three Canadian soldiers who were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery during the First World War. Coincidentally, all three also hailed from the same street on the outskirts of Winnipeg.
"I think this war will be analyzed and scrutinized, of course, for decades to come, centuries to come and historians will be constantly changing their minds about it and ideas will evolve," said Nadler.
"From the point of view of this last century, it just seems like a calamity, just a catastrophe. It really shouldn't have happened, but it did and it kind of changed everything and ruined so much. But there will be other perspectives and other interpretations."
Dyer's book examines why Canada engages in major conflicts and the price it pays for doing so, starting with the Boer War in South Africa in 1900 through to the decade-long mission in Afghanistan.
The title comes about 25 years after he and Tina Viljoen published the book and produced the TV series "The Defence of Canada." Back then, they intended on releasing a second volume, but the bulk of the material for it -- which is in now in "Canada in the Great Power Game" -- "was killed for political reasons" and "because it was a little bit less than reverent about the mythologies" surrounding the war, said Dyer.
Such mythologies give meaning to the war experience, he said.
"People really want meaning," he added.
"In fact, I'd go further than that -- they can't do without it, particularly when you consider what an enormous loss it was. A quarter million casualties killed and wounded basically out of five million English Canadians, because the French Canadians weren't going. So that's the pool you were fishing in and one in 20 of them was killed or wounded -- we're talking about all the men, women and children.
"So that can't be an experience that meant nothing or was a terrible mistake or would just as well have been missed and so it's got to be about vital issues, momentous moral questions. It's got to be a crusade."
Nadler's "Valour Road" looks at Victoria Cross winners Leo Clarke, Robert Shankland and Frederick Hall, who were neighbours from what was originally known as Pine Street and is now called Valour Road.
"I know of no other incident throughout the entire British empire or former empire where this has happened," said Nadler, "It's a fascinating thing because it's not like it was this one very long city street which three guys happen to come from. They were a cluster of houses, they lived at this house, that house and the house across the street type of thing."
Hall won the VC in 1915 and Clarke won his in 1916. Shankland was honoured in 1917 and was the only one of the three to survive the war.
The Hungary-based Nadler, who grew up in British Columbia, said he embarked on the book several years ago after writing about the Second World War in "A Perfect Hell." During the research process he became close with some of the descendants of the Valour Road heroes.
"The more I researched the war, I realized that as extraordinary as these men were, they were only as extraordinary as so many other men in that conflict who didn't necessarily win medals but served and that street was actually very typical of so many streets right across the country," he said.
"So many men participated in that war, such a large proportion of the Canadian population. It's staggering when you think about it in today's terms. Canada's population I think at that time was just under eight million and yet we had 620,000 Canadians enlisted in that war ... 61,000 Canadians died in the war, 172,000 wounded.
"It was truly this calamity that stretched right across the country and there were very, very few communities that weren't touched by it."
As Nadler puts it, the war changed Canada and "led to every subsequent calamity in the 20th century, from the Second World War to the arrival of fascism and the advent of communism."
"We're still reeling in the wake of the calamity of the First World War," he said. "But it certainly changed Canada, and I think in a lot of ways it pushed Canada in the direction of becoming a lot more assertive internationally, a lot more assertive within the British Commonwealth or even empire at that time."
But, says Dyer: "We're still not a great power and we still live in probably the safest part of the world."
"The Americans will defend you ... against anybody else. You could have a complete free ride if you wanted it," he said. "So what are you going to do in the military field? The answer is, as much as you think is necessary for a bunch of purposes that do not include the physical defence of Canada, because that's not an issue."
Other new books on the topic include "The First World War in the Middle East" by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (Oxford University Press), "World War 1: Commemorating the 100th Anniversary" by Kim Lockwood (Wilkinson Publishing) and "First World War: Still No End in Sight" by Frank Furedi.