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Reflections on the First World War – Active History

By Eric Story, Brittany Dunn and Alexander Maavara

Anniversaries invite reflection. Regardless of historians’ tendency to rapidly dismiss commemorations or celebrations of the past as pesky purveyors of fable, these events nonetheless generate dialogue––typically knowledgeable, other occasions less so––about history. The centenary of the First World War was no totally different. Between 2014 and 2018, individuals around the world engaged in a wide selection of commemorative actions reflecting on the First World War and its legacies. These activities ranged from the modest to the immense, from digital memorials to colourized documentary movie to huge public artwork displays.[1] At the very least––and placing aside the historically-based criticisms they could engender––they reveal an ongoing curiosity in the history of the First World War and an unspoken impulse among the collaborating nations to commemorate it.

The Boots of the Fallen public artwork show on the slopes of Vimy Ridge at the Vimy 100 ceremony in April 2017. The boots characterize the three,598 Canadian troopers who died preventing at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Courtesy: Katrina Pasierbek.

For its half, in 2014 the foremost journal in Canadian history, Canadian Historical Evaluate, asked a number of historians to mirror on the current state of First World War scholarship in Canada. Three of the articles revealed in the Canadian Historical Assessment’s commemorative problem discussed the struggle in three broad themes: overseas, homefront and memory.[2] Roughly thirty books have been revealed about Canada during the First World War since then,[3] and, given the conclusion of the centenary this previous November, we thought it applicable to do some reflecting of our personal. In reviewing these books and situating them within a broader historiographical framework, we’ve got discovered that the centenary didn’t usher in a brand new wave of scholarship on the First World War––some extent we return to in the conclusion.

The normal interpretation, not solely in Canada but extra broadly throughout most participant nations, was that it basically modified Western industrialized society. In the context of Canada, this narrative was––and continues to be––bolstered by the fable of the Battle of Vimy Ridge the place, as the fable recounts, Canada as a nation was born at Vimy when 4 Canadian divisions successfully defeated the Germans the place the British and French armies had previously failed. Starting in the late 1990s, a revisionist faculty of Canadian historians began to precise skepticism of the transformation thesis, seeing the post-1918 interval as not all that totally different from pre-1914. Though the books revealed over the previous 4 years definitely symbolize an ongoing dedication to the debate over continuity versus change in the period of the First World War, there are some indications that the area is starting to maneuver beyond this centralized debate to questions of both localism and transnationalism.


Revisionism is one among the most putting features of the abroad literature written since 2014. The Canadian historiography of the First World War continues to be comparatively young in comparison to its British and Australian counterparts––originating in the early 1960s with the long-delayed publication of an entire official historical past.[4] Because of this delay, lots of the foundational interpretations of the First World War laid in the 1960s and 1970s stay largely unchallenged at present. And of them, the failure of and resulting discord arising from conscription is arguably one among the most dominant. During these past centenary years, Patrick Dennis has written the first sustained revisionist account of Canadian conscripts’ contributions to the struggle effort, refuting the commonly-held notion that the 25,000 conscripts that ultimately served in an lively theatre of conflict did not justify the home discord that ensued after the passage of the Army Service Act.[5] By ignoring homefront divisions and focusing solely on conscripts’ contributions on the battlefield, Dennis forcefully argues that these males had an influential position to play in the Allies’ eventual victory in the ultimate campaign of the First World War.[6]

The primary really revisionist educational account of the First World War in Canada was Jonathan Vance’s seminal guide Demise So Noble in 1997. Responding to a world literature that saw 1918 as some extent of rupture from the Edwardian to the trendy, he as an alternative found that the methods Canadians remembered and found which means in the struggle throughout the interwar interval resembled the modes of remembrance of the nineteenth century moderately than anything resoundingly new or trendy.[7] Since then, Canadian historians have periodically challenged the time-worn argument that the struggle reworked Canada via examinations of the wartime financial system, Indigenous peoples, ladies and quite a lot of different subjects.[8] The 2014-18 literature on Canadians overseas supplies further proof that the conflict sustained buildings of the pre-1914 world relatively than upended them. For volunteer nurses who served in the Voluntary Assist Detachment, as Linda Quiney argues in her 2017 ebook, their wartime work in England and France was a “limited term patriotic act that was not permanent.” Whereas they deviated from traditional gendered expectations throughout the struggle––akin to by driving ambulance automobiles––they returned to a world largely dictated by the conservative notions of the pre-war period.[9] Mark Humphries equally expresses skepticism of the progressive fantasy that saw psychology triumphantly exchange the regressive, somatically-oriented remedy of traumatized men. In truth, what Humphries finds in his exploration of shell shock during the conflict is that sufferers in 1918 have been handled no totally different than those in 1914, organic predisposition was recognized as the cause for traumatic responses, and neurologically-based understandings of trauma remained normal for the remedy of veterans into the interwar interval. “For the history of psychiatry,” Humphries concludes, “the Great War was never a watershed moment.”[10]

Basic Sir Arthur Currie, 1917. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 3191901

Over the past four years, different historians of Canadians abroad have eschewed the nationwide framework altogether by putting the Canadian Corps into a larger British imperial historical past. These authors remark that a lot of the earlier literature has largely ignored the undeniable fact that the Canadian Expeditionary Drive––Canada’s overseas army formation––was not an autonomous entity however truly amongst a number of situated inside the British Army.[11] Canadian operational influence was consequently a lot less influential than previously understood as a result of its officers operated inside a system that was dictated largely by British command. Several essays in Doug Delaney and Serge Durflinger’s Capturing Hill 70, for instance, reveal that Sir Arthur Currie, appointed commanding common of the Canadian Corps in June 1917, had solely a restricted capability to influence army planning and operations at the Battle of Hill 70 as a result of he was subordinate to Basic Sir Henry Horne of British First Army and Subject Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.[12] Several authors over the past four years have executed properly to remind First World War historians that the Canadian Expeditionary Pressure was certainly not distinctive but only one preventing formation among many inside the imperial British Military.

While the centenary years have seen a direct challenge to the transformation thesis and a call for more transnational research from the literature on Canadians abroad, an expanding social historiography of the homefront that’s extra concerned with localism and the politics of the on a regular basis has developed. Regional historical past has risen in reputation as historians look at the assorted responses to the First World War throughout Canada. The Frontier of Patriotism, edited by Adriana A. Davies and Jeff Keshen, is a mammoth tome scrutinizing virtually every facet of wartime life in Alberta. Terry Copp studies Canada’s “metropolis”––Montreal––in his online ebook Montreal At War. And regardless that its title hints at international politics, Brandon Dimmel’s Partaking the Line: How the Great War Formed the Canada-US Border can also be primarily a social commentary on how three border communities, Windsor ON, St. Stephen NB and White Rock BC, interacted with their American counterparts over the border. Most just lately, Jonathan Vance’s A Township at War illustrates the monotonous yet endearing rural lifetime of East Flamborough Township from 1914 to 1918. Other works don’t essentially look at a locale but a minority group within Canada’s wartime populace. Mark McGowan traces the inner and external conflicts involving Canada’s huge Irish group in The Imperial Irish, Bohdan Kordan offers a renewed take a look at enemy aliens in No Free Man and in Undesirable Warriors Nic Clarke provides voice to these Canadians who wished to serve however have been medically prevented from so doing.[13]

From the prairies of Alberta to the bustling streets of Montreal to the intricacies of cross-border life, these books present interpretations on the First World War’s affect on Canadian society as numerous as their material. The mainstays of Canadian nationwide history during the First World War—Canada’s baptism of fireside at the Second Battle of Ypres, the 1917 Federal Election, Canada’s ‘birth’ at Vimy Ridge, the Conscription Debate and the Spanish Flu Epidemic—are depicted in every work however are sometimes subordinate to distinctive local experiences. Copp, utilizing lots of the strategies pioneered by British historian Adrian Gregory, challenges the established narratives on the influence of the First World War on Canadian society, at the least in the context of Montreal. In the numerous metropolis, the conflict effort––especially the stress it positioned on Anglo-French relations––and the grim studies of casualties shaped an equal however under no circumstances predominant aspect of everyday life where unemployment, native tragedies, sports activities and local politics nonetheless held sway.

Volunteers from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, 1914. Sask History On-line.

Copp’s ideas on creating a more native perspective on the homefront are additional fleshed out by Vance. He states that East Flamborough, very similar to Copp’s depiction of Montreal, was typically preoccupied with its personal personal tragedies and economic woes unrelated to the conflict. Nevertheless, Vance argues that the prevalent blood ties across rural communities meant casualties resonated with the local populace far higher than they might in urban communities like Montreal––highlighting an essential rural/urban divide in wartime expertise. Moreover, in the border communities examined by Dimmel, national disputes over issues like conscription paled in comparison to the native impression of the little nationally-known Order-in-Council PC 1433, which established for the first time in Canadian history the requirement of photograph identification when crossing the Canada-US border. These fascinating regional depictions, combined with McGowan’s, Kordan’s and Clarke’s illumination of the lived experiences of minority communities spread across Canada, reveal that the commonly-held assumption of the struggle as an all-pervasive event encapsulating the lives of Canadians on the homefront needs to be re-examined in mild of the findings that there isn’t any quintessential ‘Canadian’ experience of the First World War.

The exception to the rising development of regional history is Brock Millman’s Reputation, Patriotism, and Dissent in Nice War Canada, 1914-1919. Millman, in arguing the First World War proved that the financial and political efficiency of the homefront was more essential to victory than army achievements, scrutinizes “the unfortunate mathematics of total war in Great War Canada.”[14] By dividing the country, maybe too broadly, into three teams, ‘British Canada,’ ‘French Canada’ and ‘New Canada,’ Millman argues that wartime repressive insurance policies had a twofold aim. Firstly, repression was meant to make sure that no vital anti-war faction was capable of type. But secondly, and extra importantly in Millman’s view, repressive policies have been carried out towards perceived ‘dissidents’ to take care of the appearance of adequate authorities motion to rally the continuing political help of Canada’s pro-war factions. The Borden authorities, whereas definitely open to criticism, is portrayed as efficiently balancing the resistance and jingoism that came with complete struggle. Sadly, Millman passed away in December 2018 at the age of fifty-four. His remaining publication, albeit not with out its flaws, contributes an progressive and stimulating methodology to the research of Canada during the First World War and of the very conception of the ‘homefront’ in conflict research.

Most of the books revealed over the last 4 years focus on the warfare years however a number of discover how Canadians remembered the battle. Each of those titles fall into the three widespread narratives Tim Prepare dinner describes in his article in the Canadian Historical Evaluate’s 2014 particular concern: the struggle as mindless slaughter, as domestically divisive and as a nation-building occasion. For the most half, these works focus on the third narrative, making use of Jonathan Vance’s notion of a useable previous through which the reminiscence of the past serves the current.[15]

English-Canadian cultural products have proved a well-liked means by means of which to examine the memory of the First World War over the last 4 years. Neta Gordon contends that Canadian novels and plays from 1995 to 2007 subscribed to the idea that the First World War really was “great.” While additionally acknowledging its lethal nature, the conflict is finally depicted as productive, leading to the creation of the Canadian nation.[16] In distinction, Sherrill Grace, in her examination of quite a lot of cultural representations (e.g. novels, plays, memoirs, poetry, artwork, films) of each world wars created between 1977 and 2007, argues that these texts and their creators challenged Canadians to reconsider the accepted reminiscence of the warfare as transformative and to seek a more inclusive narrative.[17]

Joel Baetz takes an alternate strategy to the nation-building narrative in his 2018 ebook on poetry and the First World War.[18] He acknowledges that ‘war as nation-building’ was the dominant fable of Canadian poetry in the interwar interval however tries to offer a counterbalance to the established narrative by focusing on those distinctive poems that didn’t subscribe to it. While Gordon, Grace and Baetz look at totally different sources and time durations, all of them work inside the similar nation-building framework and ask an oft-repeated query that is still foundational to the historiography of memory––what is the function of remembering? These students attain differing conclusions, however they all discover that learning reminiscence tells us extra about the creators of that memory than of the past itself.

Vimy Ridge looms giant in the Canadian imagination and tends to behave as an alternative to the Canadian expertise of the First World War more usually. Whereas Tim Prepare dinner’s and Ian McKay and Jamie Swift’s books both take Vimy as their matter, they arrive to dramatically totally different conclusions.[19] Each look at how the fantasy of Vimy—or “Vimyism” as McKay and Swift call it—has developed and altered over time, from the speedy post-war years to the present day. Prepare dinner contends that, whereas its prominence has risen and fallen, Vimy has been a constant supply of Canadian nationalism––for no less than a few of the inhabitants––for the past hundred years. McKay and Swift, on the different hand, take an exceedingly more crucial view of the Vimy fable and argue that Vimyism and its attendant martial nationalism oversimplify the previous by decreasing Canada’s nationhood to the battle for Vimy Ridge. They argue that the nation-building fantasy surrounding Vimy has all the time been contested and challenged by modernist, anti-war narratives, notably during the interwar interval. Whilst they take situation with Vance’s work, McKay and Swift use his idea of the useable previous, arguing that the conservative notions inherent in Vimyism obscure Canada’s ‘real’ history (i.e. Canada was not born on Vimy Ridge). Like the different works on First World War memory, Prepare dinner’s and McKay and Swift’s books revolve around the notion of ‘the war as nation-building’—whilst McKay and Swift strongly disagree with it—and continue to ask how Canadians have constructed and made use of the memory of the First World War.

Aerial view of the Vimy monument, 1936. This image was taken during the Vimy Pilgrimage when 6,000 Canadians journeyed to France for the unveiling of the monument. Library and Archives Canada, Mikan No. 4930589

Finally, historians have but to utterly break away from the dominant narratives which have characterized both educational and public understandings of the First World War for the previous hundred years. They proceed to border First World War memory inside the nation-building framework as well as the traditionalism/modernity dichotomy. Historians are, nevertheless, including recent perspectives and nuance to those narratives by continuing to assess and question them.


The literature produced over the past four years has raised many new questions on Canada during the First World War. Definitely, and because the Canadian First World War historiography continues to be younger, much of the scholarship written over the final 4 years contribute further to the twenty-year-long debate over the transformation thesis. The literature on memory is dominated by questions over the politics of commemoration and whether the First World War was a transformative event for Canada. In some ways, the homefront and abroad literatures are asking these similar questions of continuity versus change, notably surrounding ladies and gender.[20] Some students, nevertheless, have begun to maneuver the literature in new directions. Historians of the homefront have discovered that points unrelated to the conflict weren’t essentially subordinate during wartime. These native issues remained as essential––and typically much more so––as these associated to the conflict abroad, which extra subtly challenges the supposed unilateral pervasiveness of the warfare on the homefront. And by situating Canada within a larger British imperial history, students of Canadians abroad have put aside nationwide frameworks in favour of transnationalism.

In some ways, the current historiography of the First World War is more numerous than ever before. But what different questions can historians ask as the literature presses on? For one, as Mark Humphries has already famous, historians of Canadians overseas may discover inspiration in the current discoveries of homefront historians.[21] By embracing variety of experience and the particularities of localism, the abroad literature may add nuance to the monolithic expertise of the Canadian soldier. Canadians and Newfoundlanders served not only on the Western Entrance but in a number of theatres round the world. How may these serving in theatres outdoors of France and Belgium have experienced the struggle in a different way? Except for location, more research into relations between troopers (and nurses) of various social and cultural backgrounds may uncover variations alongside the similarities. And investigating whether the memory of the conflict equally diverged by gender, “race,” class, region or age may help historians explore more absolutely how Canadians remembered and gave which means to the conflict.

A number of ladies waving goodbye to five,000 Canadians leaving Southampton, England in 1919. CWM 19940003-459, CWM Archives, George Metcalf Archival Assortment.

Lastly, though the literature over the previous 4 years has instructed that the transformative parts of the conflict have been exaggerated, it will be a mistake to ignore the place and how the warfare modified the nation. 65,000 soldiers died and almost 175,000 have been injured during the struggle. To place these numbers into perspective, almost 300,000 can be lifeless and virtually 800,000 injured in an equivalent warfare in the present day. There isn’t any question that trauma and demise on such an enormous scale pressured change, even if it was not desired. On a private degree, how did households deal with an absent husband or father who died on the battlefield? How did people and households regulate to a veteran-family member returning house with a disability? And past memorialization, at a macro-level, how did communities, provinces and the country as an entire reply to the loss and disablement of so many men? These questions, we hope, will encourage future scholarship to seek out new frontiers in the historical past of the First World War. The centenary is now over, however it’s definitely not the finish of First World War history-writing in Canada.

Eric Story is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier College. He’s the writer of several articles on the First World War and its aftermath, and his dissertation seems to be at the history of tuberculosis in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Canada.

Brittany Dunn is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of History at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Ebook Evaluation Editor for the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Army History. Her analysis examines demise, grief and coping in the Canadian Expeditionary Drive.

Alexander Maavara is a research affiliate at the Laurier Centre for Army Strategic and Disarmament Studies. He’s at present working on a manuscript venture analyzing the British homefront during the First World War.

This publish is a part of’s ongoing undertaking on the First World War: “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”. Launched in 2014, the collection is concluding in 2019. All the posts in the collection proceed to be accessible right here.


[1] There are various examples of commemoration-related tasks round the world. In Canada, the largest and most popular was Vimy 100 when 25,000 individuals visited the monument in France to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2017. Maclean’s First World War Centennial Challenge was additionally a well-liked challenge the place every edition featured the names of considered one of the 66,349 servicemen and ladies who died during the struggle.

[2] “Canada’s First World War, 1914–2014,” Canadian Historic Assessment 95, no. 3 (2014).

[3] Almost all of the books consulted for this submit have been revealed by Canadian educational presses together with University of British Columbia Press, University of Alberta Press, University of Manitoba Press, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, McGill-Queen’s College Press and University of Toronto Press. The four exceptions are Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, The Vimy Lure: Or, How We Discovered to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Strains, 2016), Tim Prepare dinner, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017), Tim Prepare dinner, The Secret History of Troopers: How Canadians Survived the Nice War (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2018) and Terry Copp, Montreal at War, 1914–1918,

[4] G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Pressure, 1914–1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962).

[5] J.L. Granatstein and J.M. Hitsman, Broken Guarantees: A History of Conscription in Canada (Toronto: Oxford College Press, 1977).

[6] Patrick M. Dennis, Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts and the Nice War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017). For an additional revisionist account, this time of a Canadian basic, see William F. Stewart, The Embattled Basic: Sir Richard Turner and the First World War (Montreal, Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).

[7] Jonathan F. Vance, Demise So Noble: Memory, Which means and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).

[8] For instance, see Timothy C. Winegard, For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012); Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, eds., A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Ladies and Women of Canada and Newfoundland throughout the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012); and David Mackenzie, ed., Canada and the First World War: Essays in Honour of Robert Craig Brown (Toronto: College of Toronto Press, 2005).

[9] Linda J. Quiney, This Small Army of Ladies: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 162, 163.

[10] Mark Osborne Humphries, A Weary Street: Shell Shock in the Canadian Expeditionary Pressure, 1914–1918 (Toronto: College of Toronto Press, 2018), 326.

[11] See Douglas E. Delaney and Serge Marc Durflinger, eds., Capturing Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); and Humphries, A Weary Street.

[12] Nikolas Gardner, “Higher Command: First Army and the Canadian Corps,” 30–50 and Mark Osborne Humphries, “The Best Laid Plans: Sir Arthur Currie’s First Operations as Corps Commander,” Capturing Hill 70, ed. by Delaney and Durflinger, 78–101.

[13] Jeff Keshen and Adriana Davies, eds., The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016); Terry Copp, Montreal At War 1914-1918 (self revealed, 2017) obtainable at; Brandon R. Dimmel, Partaking the Line: Nice War Experiences alongside the Canada-US Border (Vancouver: College of British Columbia Press, 2016); Jonathan F. Vance, A Township at War (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier College Press, 2018); Mark McGowan, The Imperial Irish: Canada’s Irish Catholics Struggle the Nice War, 1914-18 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017); Bohdan S. Korban, No Free Man: Canada, the Great War, and the Enemy Alien Expertise (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016); Nic Clarke, Undesirable Warriors: The Rejected Volunteers of the Canadian Expeditionary Pressure (Vancouver: College of British Columbia Press, 2015).

[14] Brock Millman, Reputation, Patriotism, and Dissent in Great War Canada, 1914-1919 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 7.

[15] Vance, Demise So Noble, 9.

[16] Neta Gordon, Catching the Torch: Modern Canadian Literary Responses to World War I (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier College Press, 2014).

[17] Sherrill Grace, Landscapes of War and Reminiscence: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2014).

[18] Joel Baetz, Battle Strains: Canadian Poetry in English and the First World War (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

[19] Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, The Vimy Lure: Or, How We Discovered to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (Toronto: Between the Strains, 2016); and Tim Prepare dinner, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017).

[20] See Cynthia Toman, Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Military Medical Corps (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); Quiney, This Small Army; and Humphries, A Weary Street.

[21] Mark Osborne Humphries, “Between Commemoration and History: The Historiography of the Canadian Corps and Military Overseas,” Canadian Historical Evaluation 95, no. three (2014): 395–6.