Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War
A UBC book, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War by Jonathan Vance, was the sole Canadian title shortlisted for this year's Lionel Gelber Prize. Opera 0-295-97610-1
So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (UBC $39.95)
In the mucky trenches of World War I, troops were more dumbfounded than delighted when they received news that an armistice had been announced in 1918. Contacted at a remote outpost in Belgium, one sergeant was typically unmoved. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said after a slight pause, “but 'oo's won?”
Canadians at home, by comparison, were unequivocably jubiliant. Jonathan Vance's Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (UBC $39.95) recalls spontaneous parades, bonfires, singing and dancing in the streets. The years of sacrifice had resulted in deserved victory. “Canadians were really celebrating not the return to peace,” says Vance, “but a victory of arms over the enemy.”
Acts of 'Hun Heinousness' was widely publicized. Unspeakable Turks were villified. Memorials declared that Canada had been saved from German occupation. Many statues were commissioned to depict Winged Victory, female versions of the goddess Nike, showing warriors the way to triumph on the battlefield.
The prevailing attitude was that the sacrifice of 60,000 Canadian lives and the wounding of 170,000 others helped save humanity from barbarism. Jesus in khaki rhetoric and art became central to Canada's memory of the conflict. Clergy emphasized Christ's suffering in order to fan the flames of patriotism. Pacifism was a bankrupt philosophy. Resurrection imagery was frequently invoked. “In Canada's vision of the war,” Vance writes, “the soldier was the twentieth century version of the Prince of Peace.”
With this uplifting interpretation of World War I arose a corresponding rise in Canadian self esteem as a nation. The Canadian soldier was lionized as 'vigorous, clean minded, good humoured, unselfish, intelligent and thorough.' Vance writes, “The individual soldier, then, was central to the mythologized version of the Great War. Battles were won by men, not machines; tanks and machine guns did not perform acts of gallantry. Establishing the humanity of the individual soldier was crucial because he had to stand for Canada.”
Although Canadian troops had been cruelly used as cannon fodder, the prowess of Canadian troops was celebrated and pride in Canada as a sovereign state was affirmed. Disasters were downplayed, victories such as the Battle of Vimy Ridge were emphasized. The conventional wisdom of historians such as Desmond Morton, J.L. Granatstein, C.P. Stacey and Pierre Berton echoed the belief that the Great War was Canada's war of independence.
The few dissenters to rah rah mythologizing of World War I were vets themselves. Vance recalls Fraser Valley pioneer George Godwin published Why Stay We Here? in 1930, a bitter and powerful tale of Stephen Craig, a British Columbia fruit grower. Although Godwin, a subaltern during the war, does invoke Christ's example of suffering, he protested the use of religion in war.
More sobering was Hubert Evans' first novel, The New Front Line, in which an autobiographical protagonist reacts to his harrowing experiences on the 'old front line' of Europe. After three horrendous years in the trenches, Evans took his shattered idealism to British Columbia where he homesteaded and became a Quaker.
Vance's study of collective memory is significant because he incorporates a wide range of popular writing, including doggerel — as well as sermons, inscriptions, letters, veterans' reunions and stain glass windows — with more than 80 illustrations, to explain how and why Canada's view of World War I differs from the perspectives of other nations. He is also the author of Objects of Concern: Canadian Prisoners of War through the Twentieth Century (1994).
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