Canada and the First World War: Conduct and Commemoration

August 4th marked the 100th anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany and the start of the First World War for the British Empire, including Canada. University of Toronto Press is proud to have had the opportunity to publish scholarship on the Great War for almost as long. What follows is a selection of recent UTP titles that may be of interest to readers looking to learn more about the war.

Conduct

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The first Canadian contingent of troops left for Europe in October 1914. After training in England, they fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in late 1915. Their experience is the subject of Andrew Iarocci’s Shoestring Soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at War, 1914–1915. They were followed, fairly swiftly, by a second, then a third, fourth, and fifth – what eventually became the famed Canadian Corps.

The brutal nature of the trench experience is one of the most persistent images of the war, but historians have tempered their descriptions of the futility of trench warfare over the years. In 1992, Bill Rawling published Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914–1918. Rawling used staff reports, battle diaries, and interview transcripts to examine how the Canadians trained to overcome the challenges of trench warfare, and he argued that the Canadians were able to adapt and triumph over that environment. Twelve years later, UTP is happy to be able to release a second edition of Rawling’s book, featuring a new introduction on the book’s origins and influence.

While he was researching in the Nova Scotia Archives, historian Brian Douglas Tennyson discovered an unpublished manuscript about the Canadian army’s 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Regiment). Its author, Captain Robert N. Clements, had joined the unit as a private in 1914 and fought in France until he was wounded in August 1918. Merry Hell: The Story of the 25th Battalion appeared in 2013, edited and with an introduction by Tennyson. Steve Harris, chief historian for the Department of National Defence, calls it “a singular contribution to our knowledge of the First World War and those who fought it. Anyone who calls himself or herself a First World War historian will read this book with a smile of satisfaction on their face … and for those who haven’t read much on the First World War, at least at the battalion history level, this will be a revelation.”

Commemoration

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The process of memorializing the war and its lessons began even before the war itself was over. Working on behalf of the Canadian War Memorials Fund and funded by newspaper baron Max Aitken, British and Canadian artists – including future members of the Group of Seven – painted more than 800 works memorializing the Canadian war effort. Maria Tippett’s Art at the Service of War (re-released last year with a new introduction) is a cultural history of the CWMF that studies its substantial contribution to how the war was perceived within Canada.

Looking at a very different medium, Susan R. Fisher’s Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land studies representations of the war in English Canadian children’s literature – both before and after 1918. And, moving beyond Canada, Laura Wittman’s The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier examines the creation and reception of these symbolic national burials as emblems of modern mourning.

A peculiarly Canadian aftershock of the war was the so-called Currie libel trial. In 1927, the Port Hope Evening Guide published an editorial which blamed Sir Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps, with throwing away Canadian soldiers’ lives in the push to capture Mons in the last days of the war. Currie sued for libel and prevailed in a hard-fought trial that became national news. The Last Day, the Last Hour by Robert J. Sharpe, himself a justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, tells the story of that remarkable trial.

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Looking to learn more about Canada and the First World War? A good first stop are the First World War chapters in Jack Granatstein's Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace or the essays in Canada and the First World War. Written by noted Canadian historians including Margaret MacMillan, Jonathan Vance, Desmond Morton, and Granatstein, they cover a wide range of important themes.

Interested in digging deeper? The Canadian Historical Review has released a bibliography of every First World War-related article they've published since their first issue in 1920 – and made each of those articles Open Access. Check it out.

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