Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Sun Life Assurance Company Honour Roll, Montreal

The Sun Life Building* overlooks Dorchester Square (on boul René-Lévesque between rue Metcalfe and rue Mansfield) in Montreal. Step inside the main entrance on Metcalfe into a soaring lobby of marble and brass. Look up between the Corinthian columns to check the time as you move into the elevator lobby – beneath the brass clock, the years of WW1 and WW2 and “we will remember them.” Continue reading

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Alfred and Emily

Even though I was born several decades after WW1, veterans and others who had lived through the war were all around as I was growing up. The influences of the war were woven into the fabric of my life.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919, much closer to the war’s direct impacts. As she says in the introduction to her 2008 book, Alfred and Emily, “The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.” (p viii)

Lessing’s parents had come together because of the war – her father an injured soldier, her mother one of his nurses in a London hospital. Lessing came to realize the extent to which their lives had been damaged by it. Her father dreamt of being a country farmer, but lost his leg in the war. Her mother worked at the Royal Free Hospital after her love of her life was killed, showing promise for a career in hospital administration.

In Alfred and Emily, Lessing gives her parents the lives that might have been, were it not for the war. The first part of the book is a fictional what-if, where the two make each other’s acquaintance but do not marry each other. Alfred Tayler is a successful gentleman farmer, a stalwart of his community. Nurse Emily McVeagh becomes a socialite married a doctor. When she is widowed, she turns her skills to organizing a charity to create schools in poor neighbourhoods.

For a long time I knew I had never known my father, as he really was, before the war, but it took me years to see that I had not known my mother, as she really was, either. The real Emily McVeagh was an educator, who told stories and brought me books. That is how I want to remember her. (p 192)

The fiction also offers glimpses of the England that might have been. Still, thoughts of war bubble to the surface, with restless young men eager to be tested in battle and parents anxious for them not to find a testing ground.

The second part of the book is a stark look at the reality of Alfred’s and Emily’s lives, disappointment and hardships laid bare on a farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Lessing’s parents were not their true selves … their true selves had been destroyed by the war. 

But he and I understood each other very well. When I sat with him on those long afternoons and evenings, he would hold my hand and we were complicit in a rage of understanding. I think my father’s rage at the Trenches took me over when I was very young, and has never left me. Do children feel their parents’ emotions? Yes, we do, and it is a legacy I could have done without. What is the use of it? It is as if that old war is my own memory, my own consciousness. (p 257-258)

Lessing explored autobiographical themes throughout her career. Sophia Barnes concludes in a 5 April 2017 article in the Sydney Review of Books: “In her final work, then, Lessing was fascinated as she had always been by the permeable border between fiction and autobiography, and by the idea that our lives are simply stories that we write and re-write, constantly transforming experience into narrative.”


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Royal Newfoundland Regiment memorials, Amiens, France

Yesterday, July 1, was Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador, a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate.

The City of Amiens was a key Allied base in WW1. Located just behind the lines, many soldiers visited the city. After the war, Notre-Dame d’Amiens Cathedral soon became a site of remembrance, with memorials from several Allied countries, battalions, communities and individuals. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – HMHS Llandovery Castle and Halifax Memorial

The Llandovery Castle served as a hospital ship during WW1, ferrying wounded soldiers from England back to Canada. On 27 June 1918, nearing the end of its voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Irish coast. The passengers rushed to lifeboats, but the submarine surfaced and destroyed most of the lifeboats. Only 24 survivors lived to tell the tale.

Amongst the 234 dead in Canada’s worst naval disaster of WW1: all 14 of the Canadian nursing sisters on board. Continue reading


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An Interview with Mary Swan, author of The Deep

The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds against the backdrop of WW1 in The Deep, a novella by Canadian writer Mary Swan. She has graciously agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

Why did you write The Deep?

Mary Swan: Some years ago I heard an interview with the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who was asked a similar question about his books. He talked about ‘the collected tinder in your own heart, waiting for a spark to be thrown onto it’ and I think that’s the perfect way to describe how books come about, certainly how they do for me. I’ve always been fascinated by twins, although — or maybe because — there aren’t any in my family. And I’d been interested in World War I for a very long time too, and read a lot about it over the years, wrote a few short stories that involved the war in some way. Then one day a friend told me about a footnote she’d come across in an essay on a completely unrelated subject. This footnote referred to an historical incident and that was my ‘spark’. I began working almost immediately, with no real idea of what I was going to end up with, and very gradually the fragments of incident and character I was writing shaped themselves into The Deep. Continue reading


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Let Darkness Bury the Dead

Murdoch Mysteries (Les enquêtes de Murdoch in France and The Artful Detective in the US) is a popular TV series featuring William Murdoch as a Toronto police detective in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The series is based on seven novels by Maureen Jennings. The novels went on hiatus when the TV series took off, and after 11 seasons the TV storylines have gone beyond the books.  

A decade later, Jennings has published an eighth Murdoch novel, Let Darkness Bury the Dead. To avoid TV-vs-novel plot confusions, the latest book jumps ahead to November 1917. Murdoch is now a senior detective, widowed for many years. (His wife died giving birth to their daughter, leaving him alone with their young son.) Jack, now 21, is returning from France as a wounded soldier. His father longs to reconnect. But Jack is troubled and distant, more concerned about his friend and fellow veteran, Percy. Murdoch Sr is not his confidante of choice. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – War Memorial, Beckwith Township, ON

Beckwith Township, population about 7600, forms the easterly part of Lanark County, just west of Ottawa. The war memorial erected by the township remembers 12 names, nine from WW1. The monument has moved over the years. It now stands in Beckwith Park, on the 9th Line about 2 km east of Hwy 15 and Black’s Corners, surrounded by a vast stretch of baseball diamonds and playing fields. Continue reading


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An Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

In The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s first novel, WW1 is a map to explore ruin, redemption, and the strength of human connections. I am pleased to welcome her to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.    

Why did you write The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?

P.S. Duffy: For me, the creative process isn’t really a calculus. It’s an act of faith. What happens is that scenes, bits of dialogue, a shape of a character begin to form, unannounced. The origin of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land was an image of a boy standing on a rocky beach. I could see the grains of wet sand on his high black fishing boots, the dried seaweed above the tide line, the blond lashes on his squinting eyes. In the shallows, drifting like a log, he sees what appears to be his father. He’s torn apart, fears the worst, but before racing from rock to rock to save him, he hesitates. Why? I had a sense that the father had changed, had perhaps experienced a great loss. Maybe at sea, with downstream ripple effects on all his relationships. I didn’t use that scene, and nothing of the kind happens in the novel. But it propelled the idea of how a deep and tender relationship can be broken by the response to external forces and had me ask the question that forms the basis of the novel—can we come back from such wounds, and if so, how?     Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Nurses Monument, Reims, France

A monument dedicated to all nurses from the allied countries can be found in the centre of Place Aristide Briand, Reims, essentially a traffic circle at the intersection of boul. Lundy, rue Cérès and av. Jean Jaurès. With no pedestrian access, you take your life in your hands and dodge traffic for a close look.

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