Tag Archives: World War One

Presenting On the First World War: Memory and Remembrance

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to present at the Humber Liberal Arts @IFOA Conference, “Representing World War I: Perspectives at the Centenary. The First World War was a monumental event and the way it is remembered is important. Recently it has become important to look at the way the war is remembered by those outside the dominant narrative. The paper I presented on, titled “Red Man On The Warpath”: The Problem of Native Canadian Enlistment During the First World War,  dealt with these themes:

Close to 4,000 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were of Aboriginal descent, a very high number given the limited civil rights afforded to Aboriginals in the early twentieth century. This number is especially striking given the problems that many Native men faced when attempting to enlist in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, Canada did not have a clear military policy and the Militia Act of 1904 was especially ambiguous regarding the role Aboriginals were to play in the military. Much of this ambiguity was due to the idea at the turn of the century that Aboriginals were “a disappearing race.” Because at the state of the war, recruitment centres were flooded with volunteers, local recruiting officers could afford to be very picky, and most agents would have relied on their own personal prejudices against Natives when considering their attempts to enlist.

This paper will build on much of the scholarly research done on Native Canadian contributions to the war effort, but focus purely on the early days on the way and the problem of recruitment by looking at popular images of Aboriginals in Canada at the time. Within these popular images includes the reoccurring tropes of the “Nobel Savage” or the “Bloodthirsty Redskin.” Local recruiting officers would have accepted or rejected Native recruits based on personal prejudices, which would have been necessarily informed by the dominant images of Native Canadians at the time.

The response to the paper was largely positive and I fielded some really engaging questions from the audience. The question on everyone’s mind however, seemed to be “Why did they fight?” It is a difficult question to answer, and can be applied to almost everyone in the First World War. The truth is I don’t think we’ll ever really know. Native Canadian men enlisted in the First World War to show their support for the crown, to better their own communities, for a sense of adventure, and for many other reasons that we may never be aware of. Not knowing the reasons for enlisting makes remembering the war difficult. We remember those who fought and died, but do we remember what they died for? With the case of the First World War it is quite tricky and the reasons for fighting were not as clear as they would be 20 years later. As many others who spoke mentioned we need to re-evaluate what we remember on November 11th. Yes we remember the Canadians that died in battle, but we also need to remember that they died to ensure a lasting peace. Peace. That is what the remembrance of the First World War, and any war for that matter, should be about.

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Margaret McMillan – Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World

200px-Paris1919bookcoverIn current scholarship, the end of the First World War and the Paris Peace Talks have rarely been treated as their own events. Rather they have been viewed together as merely a jumping off point to the outbreak of the Second World War. When the Paris Peace Talks are discussed they are remembered for one thing, their failure.

Margaret MacMillan devotes her entire work to an event that deserves the time. She spins a complicated story of competing people and ideas that all converged to try and make sure a war of this scale would never happen again. This is without a doubt the formative work on the subject and what’s better is that it is written to appeal to the average reader. Even while 600 pages may deem daunting, her narrative style or writing makes it easy to get lost in her story.

MacMillan does sometimes get bogged down in detail, especially in her discussions of the personalities involved. While there is no doubt that these people were important, and understanding them makes them more human and relatable, it wasn’t necessary to provide the reader with every single biographical detail of “The Big Three.”

What most impressed me was the attention paid to minority groups, leaders from India, Vietnam, and Korea, present at the conference. While recent scholarship has began to pay attention to effect of Wilsonian ideas in these countries, MacMillan is the first who weaves these “outsiders” into the fabric of the Conference.

I was incredibly impressed with this work and am looking forward to reading her most recent book The War that Ended the Peace.

Ken Follett – Fall of Giants and Winter of the World (2010, 2012)

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There is no doubt that Ken Follett is a master of the sweeping historical narrative. His previous projects, Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End, follow the lives of families and their descendants through the building of a Cathedral in the 12th century. As this period of history is not one of my favourites, I had a hard time with these books. His new trilogy, however, I find quite interesting and fun to read.

Keeping with his style of following families through history, Follett, in Fall of Giants, follows five families through the events of the First World War. The story moves chronologically jumping around from the five different families he introduces at the start, The Dewar’s from the United States, the Fitzherbert’s who are members of the English aristocracy, the Williams’, a Welsh mining family, the Von Ulrich’s who are German aristocracts, and the Peshkov’s, a pair of Russian brothers. Follett follows these families as their paths cross through the events of the First World War, and continues to tell their stories in Winter of the World, which takes place in the years between 1920-1945. Is third book plans to follows these families through the events of the Cold War.

Through Fall of Giants, Follett captures perfectly the romanticism and tragedy of the First World War. The relationship between the English Earl Fitherbert and the German Walter Von Ulrich, is especially poignant as the two go from friends and schoolmates to fighting on opposing sides of the war. The aristocracy in Europe often had connections to one another, and many of those ties were severed during the First World War when loyalty to one’s country had to take the place of loyalty to one’s class.

Winter of the World, was a bit of a let down for me, and maybe just because Follett tried to do too much. In the second instalment of this trilogy Follett tries to detail the events of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, The Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. He stretches himself a bit too thin and some of the plot lines seems forced.

I have one more gripe with Follett and that is his portrayal of female characters. While the female characters in these books are strong women, they often seem one-dimensional and lack depth. The characters of Maud and Ethel, while both being fiercely independent, tend to still fall into stereotyped stock characters. Maud is a woman trapped by her class, while Ethel is a servant in the Great House and falls into trouble. It’s a minor fault of his, and I may be the only one to feel this way.

These books both provide an enjoyable trip through history and I am looking forward to the third installment.

Rating: 3/5