The University of Ottawa, University of British Columbia and Canadian War Museum are sponsoring Canadian Literature of World War One this week, a conference well timed to coincide with the anniversary of the outbreak of the war. I am taking in the plenary sessions. I will report on each as time permits. (My day job keeps me from attending the whole conference, but I hope the conference papers will be published.)
Interesting that two of the keynote speakers are historians. Tim Cook and Margaret MacMillan give a broader context to the writings during and after the war. Frances Itani, author of Deafening, will share her reflections as a novelist writing about the war.
Canada and the Commemoration of The Great War, 1918-2018
In Canada and the Commemoration of The Great War, 1918-2018, Tim Cook talked about the strands of memory about the war in Canada – the terrible losses, a move from colony to nation, the overall impact on all aspects of society, and a legacy of disunity – and how the memory has changed over time.
Losses: Over 66,000 Canadians and 1,200 Newfoundlanders were killed. Close to 200,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders were wounded. In the same proportion of today’s population, 250,000 would be dead. It took years to come to grip with those losses, not only in grief, but in the impact on families, communities and the economy.
Colony to nation: Canada was proud of its contribution to the war. It built a reputation and paid for it in blood. It was ready to step out of the shadow in England.
Extensive impact: absence of fighting forces was a burden on the economy; growth of government intervention in the lives of citizens; new roles for women; changes in cultural products; growth of a medical care system to care for veterans.
Disunity: The war almost tore the country. The conscription crisis made the 1917 election the most divisive in Canadian history. Organized labour grew, yet labourers were enlisting. Tensions grew between farmers and city dwellers with the move from an agrarian to an urban, industrial society.
Cook outlined five phases of memory about the war.
1919-1929: marking the sacrifice of a “just war”; witnessed by building memorials
1929-1939: disillusionment and questioning the meaning of the war, as marked by memoirs of participants. Recognition that the problems hadn’t been solved.
1939-1960s: WW1 disappears with WW2 and its aftermath.
1960s: anti-war interpretations of a useless conflict with bungling leaders, like Oh What a Lovely War.
1980s to present: rediscovery of WW1 and a renewed effort to understand its causes and consequences
Now: hyper-interest to commemorate the anniversary. Cook hopes that this will be a critical look of all the shared experiences of the war, not just a partial commemoration of dead soldiers.
I agree. My reading list explores the widest experiences of war. Two of Cook’s books are on my reading list.
Lots of commemorative events this week to mark the last moments of peace and the first shots of war. Even the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival is getting into the act. En blanc et noir featured piano works of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Understanding the context of the war surrounding these composers brought new meaning to the music. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, dedicated to six friends killed in the war, was criticized at the time for not being sufficiently somber. Ravel’s reply: “Les morts sont assez tristes dans leur silence eternal.” … “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”
All this is cutting into my reading time! Another book review soon … promise!
Welcome and thanks to the early adopters who are already following this blog. I hope you will enjoy the journey.