Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Silent Witnesses and World War I: A Monumental History

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A wise nation preserves its records, gathers up its muniments, decorates the tombs of its illustrious dead, repairs its great public structures, and fosters national pride and love of country, by perpetual reference to the sacrifices and glories of the past.   Joseph Howe

This is the second post of books about Canadian war memorials. You can read the first post here.

Silent Witnesses

The focus of Silent Witnesses by Herbert Fairlie Wood and John Swettenham is the war cemeteries in which Canadians are buried. It was published in 1974 to serve as a comprehensive record and as a guidebook for next-of-kin and other visitors. (It is a good example of a government project trying to be everything to everyone. Was there ever a time when an 8.5×11”, 2.5 lb tome would be a useful guidebook on a European tour?)

More recent travel-friendly volumes have superseded the guidebook aspect of the book. The accounts of battles and their relationship to specific cemeteries stand the test of time.

The value of Silent Witnesses for my purposes is the historical account of how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission came into being, and its work in the cemeteries … the look and feel of the gravestones, landscaping and other details of remembrance. Two prominent monuments grace each Commonwealth cemetery: the Cross of Sacrifice designed by Reginald Blomfield and the Stone of Remembrance designed by Edwin Lutyens. The ubiquitous “Their name liveth for evermore” from Ecclesiasticus was chosen by Rudyard Kipling.

A short chapter at the end visits the main Commonwealth grave sites and war memorials in Canada.

World War I: A Monumental History 

World War I: A Monumental History is the newest of the books I consulted, published by Robert Konduros and Richard Parrish in 2014. Text takes a back seat to photos of statues in Canada and the Vimy Memorial in France. No steles or cairns here … except for the clock towers, the monuments all feature human forms.

The delights:

  • The colour photos are beautiful.
  • Most chapters group monuments by theme to tell interesting stories … of the sculptors, the clock towers, the popular repeats, and so on.
  • The authors carefully document the sculptors of each statue.

More than other books I’ve consulted, this one notes the influence of a few prominent monument companies and the sculptors who worked for them. This accounts for the same statue gracing monuments in several communities.

The disappointments:

  • The layout does not always show the photos to advantage. They often abut each other, either to make them bigger or to fit more on a page. More white space would have given them more distinction.
  • Photos over a two-page spread often lose the focal point in the fold. Is that the Peace Tower on pp 45-46?
  • The text is sometimes oversimplified to the point of inaccuracy.

Chapter 5 starts with the bold statement that “All of Canada’s Great War statues and memorials were built with voluntary donations.” Two sentences later, the authors state that only the National Memorial in Ottawa and the Vimy Memorial were built with government money. The second statement contradicts the first. And both statements are wrong. Local monuments were mostly built with donations. Government money also built the Peace Tower and several Canadian monuments in France and Belgium.


 

The Great War 100 Reads book lists continue to grow as I keep finding more to read. Many thanks to those of you who have made suggestions. New books on the fiction list are in grey for the next while. At some point, I will try to organize that page to make it more useful than a long alphabetical list. I have also added a page on guidebooks … very much a work in progress.

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Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at greatwar100reads.wordpress.com.

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