Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War is a gossipy, luscious social history, seen through the eyes of several Canadians who had ringside seats or a view further back from the action.
Our guides were chosen from a variety of vantage points on the basis of their diaries and letters, not necessarily because their importance in the war effort. Gwyn jumps from one person to another, from Ottawa to London to the Western Front, intricately weaving the tales. Some are more interesting than others, but all have a purpose.
Gwyn also jumps from the war period to past or future in elaborate asides, offering glimpses of cause and effect. (Ouf! What a contrast after reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.)
Three themes flow through the stories: Canada’s emergence from colonial coattails to an independent nation; the ability to exploit opportunities to survive and thrive in war; and the senseless loss of a generation’s potential.
Colony to Nation
Ottawa socialite Ethel Chadwick was nowhere near the war, but her diaries bear witness to the evolutionary decline of the power of vice-regal circle. Before the war, Rideau Hall was the centre of officialdom’s social circles in Ottawa, and Ethel was part of it. By the end of the war, she had been flung to its edges.
Execution of the battle plans at Vimy Ridge showed Arthur Currie’s military pluck and Canadian troop’s pride for derring-do.
Brooke Claxton and Harold Innis were foot soldiers in the war. Their experiences helped to mold them respectively into a builder of Canadian culture and an important thinker on political economy.
Survive and Thrive
Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), the Canadian government representative in London, is the ultimate social and political climber and exploiter.
The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLIs) were born with royal patronage. Ultimate commander Agar Adamson’s letters to his wife Mabel document the brutality of war and the evolution of the PPCLIs.
Mabel Adamson followed the path of many officers’ wives and mothers, moving to London to be closer to the action. She used her considerable business skills to create and operate several Belgian relief projects.
Grace McPherson travelled from Vancouver to Étaples to be a VAD ambulance driver. Her “cheeky and infectious” smile (p 435) made her the poster woman for the emerging role of women in society.
Talbot Papineau saw the war as a way to foray into politics. As heir to a Quebec political dynasty, he shares ideas of Canadian nationhood, debating through published letters with his cousin Henri Bourassa. Papineau was killed at Passchendaele. His intimate letters to Beatrice Fox (a correspondent whom he never met) and to his mother reveal the tragic hero.
Gwyn draws us into an intriguing history, often grim, sometimes funny: trying to copy voluminous records, Henry Beckles Willson (who served for a time as Aitken’s 2IC in the War Records Office) finagles the services of a staff of female copyists, only to discover that the building where the documents are stored has no “ladies’ lavatories”. So he finagles to have the records moved, only to discover that the copyists do not know how to type. “All their transcribing work is written out, because forsooth, in Biggar’s opinion, ‘Typewriting is not permanent writing!’” (p 271)
Tapestry of War is well researched, a compelling read.
I first encountered Talbot Papineau about 33 years ago, in Willie – A Romance, the first (and best) volume of Heather Robertson’s trilogy of novels about the King years. Robertson sets up Papineau and William Lyon MacKenzie King as rivals in politics and in love, with the fictional Lily Coolican between them. With so many books on the list, I’ve decided not to reread any for Great War 100 Reads. That means no full review of Willie, but I will recommend it as a witty take on history.