Eric McGeer has studied epitaphs from WW1 graves in Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them,* and from WW2 in Words of Valediction and Remembrance. Eric joins me on Great War 100 Reads today to discuss his work.
What first interested you in the epitaphs on Commonwealth war graves?
Eric McGeer: About twenty years ago I made a long desired trip to the Canadian battlefields of both world wars in France and Flanders. It was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life, and it stirred the wish to write something about what I had seen and learned. It was about this time that I read Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble, a study of the myth and memory of the Great War that took shape in Canada during the 1920s and 1930s, which triggered my interest in the epitaphs as an overlooked source for the effect of both wars on the Canadian population. The value of an epitaphs book really hit me while I was walking through the Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer (near the D-Day landing zones). There was one in ancient Greek, a quotation from the Iliad, which I recognized from my background in classics. It made me wonder who else would understand it, not just the words but the context of the quotation and the ennobling farewell it conveyed from a father who had served in the First World War to a son who was killed in the Second. The more I examined the epitaphs, the more I came to see how they were the most powerful and authentic responses to the tragedy of the wars from the people, mothers, wives, children, who used these farewells to express so many things — sorrow, consolation, gratitude, love and loss. What occurred to me was that the cemeteries and memorials attest to the courage of the battlefield, whereas the epitaphs record a different kind of courage, the kind it takes to accept and endure such devastating loss and to leave a lasting record of the moral fortitude with which two generations of Canadians faced the ordeal of the wars.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in researching the WW1 epitaphs?
EM: Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned, or came to realize, in my research was the timelessness of the epitaphs. They belong to a certain time and place and yet they are universal in the themes of grief and consolation which they present. I think that’s why they can still affect people today, far removed from the world wars, who thankfully have no direct experience of such terrible events, and yet can relate to the suffering of the bereaved and measure the effect of the wars not just in historical but in deeply human terms. No matter how far the wars recede in time and memory, the epitaphs, I think, will always have a claim on the sympathies of the people who read and reflect upon them.
So many epitaphs to choose from! How did you decide which to include in the book?
EM: That was the hardest part and I still agonize over the choices I made. There were several factors at play. Some are unique or original, others best expressed themes or reactions found in many more, and still others seemed to capture the wider meaning of the war or of particular events. My aim was to give a representative sampling of the epitaphs so that readers could appreciate their range and variety without too much repetition. I often consoled myself for the omission of an epitaph I liked with the thought that the book’s ultimate purpose was to inspire Canadians to visit the war cemeteries and see the epitaphs for themselves — what they didn’t see in the book they would see in situ.
What do you hope readers will take away from Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them?
EM: Many things. First of all, a keener sense of the impact of the Great War on Canadians of the time and the debt of remembrance we owe not just to the soldiers who fell but to the next of kin who bore the burden of the war for years afterwards. Greater admiration for the sons of the fathers who enlisted for overseas service in the Second World War, knowing full well what war was and what the risks were — they were much more pragmatic and less given to the idealism that spurred the call to the colours in 1914. Most of all, however, a deeper respect and appreciation for the Canadians of the first half of the 20th century who went through the Great War, the Depression, and the Second World War. Permit me to editorialize a little here, but as a former history teacher I was often dismayed at the pejorative view of Canada’s past given in the textbooks, as though the Canadians of another time were lesser people because they held different attitudes and subscribed to different values than we do today. We are not nearly grateful enough to them for the virtues they possessed and the courage they showed in adversity far surpassing anything we’ve had to deal with. They bequeathed to us one of the most favoured countries on earth, and I hope the book encourages readers to seek to understand Canadians of another time on their own terms, and not to judge them as unfairly as the present day and age tends to do.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
EM: I suppose it would be what place the epitaphs have in the national memory of the Great War. The answer can be both general and specific. In a larger sense, they preserve the voices of everyday Canadians a hundred years ago and bring us as close to the emotions and reactions of the populace as we could hope to come. In a more specific context, as I try to show in the chapter presenting epitaphs from Vimy Ridge, they help to explain why Vimy assumed such mythic status in Canadian eyes. Utterly overlooked or ignored during the recent commemoration of the Vimy centenary was the fact that the battle began on Easter Monday of 1917, a coincidence of enormous significance to a much more religious generation than our own. What we see as a nation-building event, they saw as a spiritual as well as a military triumph which became a source not just of pride but of consolation to next of kin likening their loved one’s sacrifice to the example of Christ’s death and resurrection. If Vimy or other Great War battles are to be properly understood and commemorated (and the Vimy ceremonies were very disappointing in this regard), we have a duty to recognize their significance to the people who did the fighting and the dying and the mourning, something that the epitaphs can help us to do.
Where will your next book take us?
EM: I have a book coming out later this year on the Canadian Officers Training Corps at the University of Toronto. It deals with the long history of military training in an academic environment, an important subject in the history of Canadian universities, not just Toronto, and looks at the contribution made by the country’s leading university to the war effort in 1914-1918 and again in 1939-1945, as well as to the Canadian militia in the years before the Great War, the interwar period, and the Cold War. So the book will take readers into the history of the University of Toronto and the experience of the thousands of students who by choice or circumstance did military training and applied what they had learned to the service of Canada in times of war and times of peace.
Thank you so much, Eric, for sharing your thoughts on the place of epitaphs in remembrance, and for inspiring us to take a closer look.
*With photos by Steve Douglas.