Charlotte Gray: First World War is an odd place to start our national mythology

Am I the only person feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the tidal wave of articles, ceremonies, television programs and speeches triggered by the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War?

Obviously there is a lot to remember. The extraordinary myopia of kings, emperors and prime ministers who let their countries roll inexorably toward conflict. The helplessness of those caught up in events beyond their control — both the troops and the families they left behind. The terrifying new weapons that ensured that this war would be slaughter on an industrial scale, rather than a limited engagement between professional armies.

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And most of all, the bravery of those young men who endured the nightmare of mud, poison gas, rats, disease, hunger, lice, cold, fear and homesickness in the trenches.

In researching material for the forthcoming The Great War Album, put together by Canada’s History Society, I read hundreds of letters from Canadian soldiers. Vigilant censors had ensured that few soldiers revealed the ghastly details of total war.

But behind the bravado and gallows humour, I could hear the drumbeats of fear and death. In 1915, a Mrs. Curtis in Peterborough, Ont., received a note from her 21-year-old son Howard, who had just spent 10 days under brutal shellfire, day and night.

“We see terrible sights out here that I can’t describe to you,” Howard wrote. “Our casualties were heavy, mostly wounded. It is nerve-shattering to be under shellfire. No matter how strong a man’s nerves are, they are affected. I have seen many a poor fellow break under the strain.” A year later, Howard was killed in the final stages of the Battle of the Somme.

As I read the letter, I found myself transported back in time to Mrs. Curtis’s kitchen, imagining first her daily anxiety about whether her beloved son had broken under the strain, and then the stab of grief when the mailman arrived at her door with the dreaded telegram: “Regret to inform you …” It is hard to remain dry-eyed.

Yet in these tales of individual heroism, it is too easy to lose sight of the war’s more insidious aspects, then and now.

As early as October 1914, Maclean’s magazine called the bloody conflict in Europe “the Great War.” But it wasn’t a great war, let alone “the war to end all wars,” as British writer H.G. Wells suggested. It was a failed war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure that the major European powers would never go to war again.

In fact, the Versailles Treaty turned out to be the peace to end all peace. Within 20 years of the treaty being signed, brutal conflict had erupted again in Europe.

The boundaries that the victorious powers slapped onto their maps of the Middle East reflected their own self-interest, rather than the religious and ethnic realities on the ground. The current turmoil in the Arab world can be traced back, in part, to decisions taken in the Hall of Mirrors and subsequent diplomatic get-togethers.

The second reason for my increasing unease is a disturbing thread in some of the First World War commemorations. Military battles are being presented to Canadians as significant moments in our coming of age as a country.

But you only have to read about the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge (see historian Tim Cook’s wonderful Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918) to know that this coming of age was the result of poor military planning by British generals, and involved hundreds of needless deaths.

Among those Canadians who returned, there was an undercurrent of resentment that they had been embroiled in a British imperial crusade.

This is a funny place to start the national mythology.

How much is our past being manipulated for nationalist reasons? Many of the citizens in today’s multicultural Canada have their roots in countries that were either defeated in 1918 or played no part in the conflict. What should the killing fields of Europe mean to them?

So let’s recall the nobility of individual young men who answered the summons “Your Country Needs You” and marched to their deaths. But it should not obscure the most depressing side of the story — the pointlessness of the massacre.

Charlotte Gray is the Ottawa-based author of nine non-fiction bestsellers and former chairwoman of Canada’s History Society.

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