Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


This Small Army of Women

Shown into his luxurious office, I asked whether he could hurry my departure. I was terrified when this great fat man, who seemed as old as the hills to me, pulled me down on his knee and began kissing me! As I was struggling to get away his secretary came in and showed no surprise whatever at the scene. Apparently there was nothing unusual in this situation! But this was my first experience with a licentious old man, I was overwhelmed! However, he did promise me this: Not another girl will leave Canada before you! And they didn’t. (This Small Army of Women, p 67)

Latest #metoo revelation of sexual harassment? No, a 1916 account of Canadian VAD Violet Wilson. 1916.

Over the years, sensational allegations rise and fade, rise and fade. But until everyone – men as well as women – recognizes sexual harassment and sexual assault as systemic problems of entitlement and power, the culture of acquiescence continues. It’s about time to say #metoo for change.

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Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them

Is your creativity enriched or curtailed by Twitter’s 140-character limit? Imagine the challenge to families of those killed in WW1, asked to keep an epitaph for their loved one to 66 characters.

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission decided not to repatriate hundreds of thousands bodies. Rather, the dead were buried with their comrades close to where they fell. A standard stone marks each grave, regardless of rank. But next of kin were invited to add a personal inscription. About half took up the offer. Together, these epitaphs form a striking record of grief and memory. Continue reading

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The Vimy Trap

The mission of the Vimy Foundation is to preserve and promote Canada’s First World War legacy as symbolized with the victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a milestone where Canada came of age and was then recognized on the world stage. … Inspired by the heroic victory of the Canadian Forces at Vimy Ridge, the Vimy Foundation believes that the key to a successful future lies in knowing one’s past, and that the remarkable story of Vimy should be shared with young people from across the country. (Vimy Foundation website)

Ball cap fronts feature an image of the Vimy Memorial and ‘VIMY’ ‘1917’, while the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy silhouette is embroidered onto the brim. ‘BIRTH OF A NATION’ has been incorporated onto the right side while the Royal Canadian Legion logo and the colours representing the four Canadian Divisions who fought together for the first time complete the design. (Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Store)

Two odd motifs to mark the centenary of Vimy Ridge. Can a country be born or come of age by its men being slaughtered in a faraway land? Can swag keep that country alive?

In The Vimy Trap or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift ask some bold and uncomfortable questions about WW1 and Canada’s role in it. Continue reading



With the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge fast approaching, it seemed to be a good time to delve into Vimy, Pierre Berton’s popular account of the Canadian exploits to capture a strategic spot on the Western Front.

Berton set out “to tell not just what happened but also what it was like.” (Author’s note, p 313) He interviewed survivors and combed through old diaries, memoirs, letters, newspaper accounts and oral histories. The result is a lively account of Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 – when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first (and only) time – the events leading to it and the mopping up afterwards. Continue reading


Tapestry of War

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. Continue reading

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Remembered in Bronze and Stone – Canada’s Great War Memorial Statuary

Early in my days of researching monuments for Great War 100 Reads, I discovered Alan Livingstone MacLeod’s albums on Flickr. Beautiful photos documenting WW1 monuments across Canada, and a good source in trying to sort out Emanuel Hahn’s work from the imitations. So I am delighted to find that he has written a book featuring his photos, Remembered in Bronze and Stone, published in November 2016. Continue reading

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The Englishman’s Daughter … A Foreign Field

Continuing the exploration of civilians in or near the war zone, and their interactions with military personnel.

Author Ben Macintyre’s interest is piqued when he is invited to Le Câtelet, a small Picardy town near the Western Front, to report on the unveiling of a plaque to honour four British soldiers executed there in 1916. An elderly French woman from the nearby village of Villeret introduces herself as the daughter of one of the executed soldiers.

The story starts in the first days of WW1. Allied attacks against the initial German offensives were quickly turned around. The Allies in retreat, some soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines. Seven British soldiers found themselves in Villeret, a village under occupation. Several villagers rallied to conceal the soldiers. Eventually, the best strategy was to hide them in plain sight by integrating them into the village. In this way, they protected the soldiers for almost two years.

One of the soldiers, Robert Digby, fit in better than the others. Having lived in Paris for a brief stint, he already spoke French. He and Claire Dessenne, the most beautiful woman in Villeret, fell in love. In November 1915, she gave birth to their daughter. Six months later, he was executed by the German occupiers.

Claire and Robert’s relationship forms the core of the “true story of love and betrayal.” But that alone would not carry the length of a book. Interviewing people who lived through the events and their descendants, and combing through official and unofficial documents from the time, Macintyre pieces together a broader tale. A wealth of source material came from “the admirable and peculiarly French habit of bureaucratic history-hoarding, which prompted local officials to amass quantities of first-hand evidence from ordinary people, describing their experiences in the region behind the lines between 1914 and 1918.” (Note on Sources)  

Macintyre documents the horrors of war, and how the lives of the villagers under occupation and of the occupiers evolve in an area that saw some of the worst devastation of the time. He teases out the histories of the villagers and of the British soldiers.

The villagers tried to retain some semblance of a normal life. They had little news from outside. They could not know that the occupation would last so long. The occupiers’ demands were many and often arbitrary. Soon, every provision was diverted to the German war effort.

In early days, many villagers were defiantly willing to protect the lost foreigners. Others were fearful of the consequences. There was a daily risk in harbouring fugitive soldiers. Over time, some collaborated with the enemy. (Indeed, the hook could have been ‘The German’s Daughter.’) Some resented the relatively easy lives of the British soldiers, compared to the men of the village who were off fighting. Others remained … or claimed to remain … loyal throughout. “Just as the invisible barrier separating German from French began to crumble, so did the unspoken alliance that, in the first days of occupation, had united all French citizens against the German invader. … Every enemy invasion, every revolution provides an opportunity for old grievances to bubble to the surface …” (p 120)

The final chapter puzzles out several theories about the identities of betrayers. Why did the Villeret soldiers not try to escape when opportunities arose? Were they part of the spy network now known to have operated in the area? Were the soldiers traded for some favour to grasp at survival? Or is the common belief of the area true, that a spurned lover turned them in … cherchez la femme?

Full-length exposés by journalists are not my favourite genre of books. I find that material best suited to a feature story or series is often over-stretched and padded to fit the longer format. Lots of blah-blah-blah in place of in-depth analysis. Macintyre doesn’t fall into that trap. He frames interesting personal stories into the larger context of the war.

The Englishman’s Daughter, the title in North America, is published in the UK under the title A Foreign Field.

Thanks to Laurie for suggesting this book.

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Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War

… one of the interesting things I learnt in the war was that women who drive cars are much less easy to control than the other women. Whether this is because being able to manage a car gives them greater self-dependence, or whether only very independent women volunteered to drive cars, I don’t know … As the war went on, however, I learnt to respect them immensely because they were not only independent but also indefatigable. (Katharine Furse, Hearts and Pomegranates p 309, quoted in Female Tommies at p 65)

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War is a good starting place to explore the five Ws of the indefatigable women on the Allied side of the war. They fought the enemy and the prejudices of the men and institutions on their own side.

Elisabeth Shipton begins with an overview of historical context. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a movement for women’s equality through education, occupation and suffrage in Europe, North America and Australasia. The war brought an opportunity for women to realize their potential, use their skills and prove their abilities. By fighting for their country, they could demonstrate their citizenship and win the vote.

The men in power were on to them, though. By keeping women away from the front, employing them as civilians or on contract, or limiting the activities of their voluntary organizations, governments could say that women were not in military service. Women were not fulfilling the same responsibilities as men. But as the war went on, the need for more men at the front could not be met by enlistment or conscription. Women were needed in support roles behind the lines to free up more men.

Shipton compares how the UK and US set up women’s auxiliary units in 1917. She also contrasts the treatment of women in the medical units in several Allied countries. It took most countries until 1916 to admit that they could benefit from using women doctors.

Chapters are dedicated to nurses, doctors, medical aid workers, spies, journalists, warriors and so on. One chapter sorts out the differences between the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the national Red Cross Societies, ambulance units, and the myriad of privately-funded aid organizations. (In some other books, the groups are not easily distinguished or the author assumes the reader knows the differences.)

Shipton also introduces many individual women who were leading the way. Edith Cavell, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, Maria Bochkareva, Elsie Inglis, Flora Sandes and others are worth more in depth reading. For those with limited reading time, Shipton’s highlights give a good flavour of their lives and personalities.

She has a keen sense of embellished autobiographies. More importantly, she shows how women’s war stories were fictionalized by others. Writing about resistance and espionage:

Whether these women were driven by a need for justice, a sense of patriotism, political activism or a desire for money or fame, the social and sexual mores of the time affected the way in which their contributions were recorded for posterity. Shaped by judgemental attitude towards female morality, many of the women were remembered either as innocent saints or untrustworthy whores. The very ability of women to blend into civilian life, to pass unnoticed as members of the resistance or as part of an espionage network while doing genuine humanitarian work as nurses, makes their contribution to the war incalculable. (p 135)

WW1 saw the militarization of women on an unparalleled scale, albeit in different modes depending on the country and the sector. Their gains were not always sustained after the war. Shipton concludes that the lasting effect was in evidence 20 years later … the women had laid the foundation for a greater role in WW2.

The book ties together many loose threads from others I’ve been reading. Shipton sets out her premises, delivers the information clearly and offers an interesting analysis based on thorough research. Perhaps I should have read Female Tommies earlier in this venture.

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Art or Memorial? and Beyond the Battlefield

My quest to learn about war memorials and war art has taken me down a longer trail than expected – eight books in all – with some interesting twists along the way. I take an expansive view of what belongs in my Monday Monuments and Memorials feature – statues, cenotaphs, plaques, grave markers, sculptures, ephemera and many other remembrances of the war. My aim is to put them in better context. (Always with the caveat that my summary review cannot do justice to the full analysis in these books.) 

Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art

The crux of the issue is in the title of this book by Laura Brandon. She was in a good place see the role of the individuals, communities and government agencies – and the context of culture and politics – in the social construction of the memory of war. Until recently she was curator of the large collection of war art at the Canadian War Museum.

Beaverbrook started a war art program as propaganda and to commemorate the war. His vision of a memorial gallery to house the art didn’t come to fruition. Instead, local communities built statues and other memorials. They needed to forget the images of war.

Still, public opinions of the works evolve over time. Exhibits like A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War, in the context of new-found patriotism in commemorating the 50th anniversary of WW2, helped to make the art a locus of memory.

Brandon concludes that the official war art collection “has functioned as an under-recognized war memorial or ‘site of memory’ but that concern with the works as art has obscured their deeper, collective significance.” (p xiii)


Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars

Catherine Speck’s Beyond the Battlefield looks beyond official war art schemes to find “a womanly perspective on war and wartime.” (p 7) She introduces 62 women artists from Allied countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the prejudices that curtailed their working conditions and their oeuvres. Some have international reputations, others are more obscure. (I was introduced to many for the first time.) Together, they give visibility to women’s experience of the war.

Most of the women were not part of the official war art programs … they were subjected to the masculine idea that war artists needed personal experience of conditions at the front. And women would not be sent to the front. In Canada, some women artists were engaged to depict life on the home front. In Britain, the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum was tasked with documenting what women did during the war. So at least some of the official programs moved away from the battlefields. But the “home front” programs were not as well funded and the women were generally paid less than the men. Many artists (women and men) were expected to donate their work or accept meagre payment.

Speck’s chapters on WW1 look at women on the home front, behind the front and after the war. The home front art shows that “the stereotype that it was a place of inaction and ‘waiting’ is wholly inaccurate.” (p13) Behind the front, she challenges the perspective of a dichotomy of spaces, male-only front and female dominated home front. Women nurses and voluntary aides moved in an in-between space behind the front. Some of them were artists. Immediately after the war, some women artists ventured into the former war zones to paint the repairing landscape. Mary Riter Hamilton wrote of her time in France:

I feel it is very fortunate that I arrived before it is too late to get a real impression. The changes are taking place rapidly and even in the short time I have been here I can see a great change. In another few months there will be very little trace of the war. (p 97)

Speck provides brief biographies of the artists. The book is illustrated with colour reproductions of the art, but lacks information on where to find each piece. (The only clues are in the photo credits.) That will make it more challenging for me to seek out the works of the women artists of WW1 … Anna Airy, Claire Atwood, Martha Moffatt Bache, Cecilia Beaux, Anna Richards Brewster, Florence Carlyle, Evelyn Chapman, Edith Collier, Joyce Dennys, Olive Edis, Mary Riter Hamilton, Helen Hyde, Nellie Isaac, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Phyllis Keyes, Flora Lion, Beatrice Lithby, Frances Loring, Henrietta Mabel May, Dora Meeson Coates, Victoria Monkhouse, Olive Mudie-Cooke, Norah Neilson Gray, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Elizabeth Nourse, Jane Peterson, Margaret Preston, Isobel (Iso) Rae, Grace Ravlin, Helen Saunders, Grace Cossington Smith, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Olive Wood, Ursula Wood and Florence Wyle.


Mary Riter Hamilton’s post-war paintings are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. LAC features many of them online in Mary Riter Hamilton: Traces of War.

According to LAC, “Hamilton refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, choosing instead to donate the canvases to the National Archives (now part of Library and Archives Canada). She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.”

Maria Tippett tells a different story: “Unable to find a purchaser for her collection, she presented it to the National Archives of Canada in 1926.” (By a Lady, p 58)

Wouldn’t sell or couldn’t sell … which account rings true to you?

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A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War

It is logical that artists should be part of the organization of total war, whether to provide inspiration, information, or comment on the glory or the stupidity of war. (A.Y. Jackson, in Canvas of War, p 19)

War broke down old preconceptions, old inhibitions; it offered subject matter – death, mutilation, destruction – they had never dealt with before. They had to render the obscene tolerable, the ugly beautiful, create life out of death. Under the stress of this dance macabre, some painters created extraordinary and unforgettable works of art.  (A Terrible Beauty, p 15)

The Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) was established with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Now the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art of the Canadian War Museum, the ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.

Exhibits immediately following the war were popular, but interest quickly waned. Most of the works remain in storage, although more are on view in the new museum building that opened in 2005. Interest seems to increase on milestone anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war.

From time to time the paintings and sculpture form the core of special exhibits. A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War are catalogues from two major exhibits that dusted off some of the paintings and found different ways to make them relevant for new audiences. Both examined the war art programs from WW1 and WW2. I read the WW1 parts.

Temporary exhibits live on through catalogues. They are the next best thing for those who missed the main event, also engendering a hint of regret at not seeing the art in real life. 

A Terrible Beauty: The Art of Canada at War

A Terrible Beauty toured regional galleries across Canada from late 1977 to early 1980. Heather Robertson’s catalogue juxtaposes colour reproductions of the paintings (and a few sculptures) with an anthology of texts. The excerpts from letters, journals, memoirs, poems and the like are firsthand accounts by those who lived through the war, mostly on the front lines. (Not clear if the texts were part of the exhibit.) The selection of paintings shows CWMF work from the Western front and the home front.

Great concept, executed with varying success. At times, texts and paintings complement each other, giving greater context. At times, they are an odd and uncomfortable match – for example the account of a deserter shot at dawn opposite sculptures of munitions workers. Texts by the same author are scattered throughout the book, leaving readers to discover connections by chance.

Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945

Canvas of War, Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum was a blockbuster exhibit, on display at the Museum of Civilization in 2000 then touring to eight other Canadian cities from 2001 to 2004. It was billed as the biggest touring show of war art ever mounted in Canada.

The accompanying catalogue is by Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon. In addition to the colour reproductions, it includes two essays about WW1. Born in Battle gives a brief history of the Canadians in the war zone and on the home front, as the foundation of the nation-building mythology. The Face of Armageddon looks at the role of the artists and the CWMF in that mythology. The authors also say that the artists’ war experience was a “major building block” in the evolution of Canadian art, most notably the formation of the Group of Seven.

Short of a visit to the National Gallery, the Canadian War Museum or a special exhibit where the war art is on view, these books are worth a look. A bonus is seeing colour reproductions that were only in black and white in Art at the Service of War.