Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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An Interview with Eric McGeer, author of Canada’s Dream Will Be of Them

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. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial, Calgary, AB

The Calgary Soldiers’ Memorial stands in the park that runs between Memorial Drive and the Bow River, east of Poppy Plaza between 10 St NW and 14 St NW. It forms part of the Landscape of Memory park project along Memorial Drive. Continue reading


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My Little Wet Home in the Trench

Yup, it’s three years into the WW1 centenary and three years since the start of Great War 100 Years. In 244 posts, I have documented 68 books read, over 150 monuments each Monday, and more interviews and musings.

My focus for much of this year has been eyewitness accounts of the war – a range of voices from the front lines, the home front and points in between. Male and female authors, they wrote about universal aspects of the soldiers’ experience, the readiness to serve where needed, and the price of acceptance and of dissent.

The books analysing the war from the rear view window show how perspectives can change over time. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, Orillia, ON

Orillia, Ontario was one of the towns that chose a practical tribute for WW1. Concerned with the number of soldiers returning from the war with severe health problems, the publisher of the local newspaper suggested building a hospital. Doctors in town agreed to provide free medical care to war veterans. About one-third of the $100,000 cost was borne by the town and surrounding township, with the rest raised by the citizens. The Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital opened in 1922 (and the original hospital became a maternity wing). It still serves the community today. Continue reading


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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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Monday Monuments and Memorials – War Memorial, Durham, ON

Veterans Memorial Park, corner of Mill and Albert Streets, Durham. A bronze statue of a soldier stands atop a red granite monument, “in memory of the men of Durham and vicinity who gave their lives for humanity in the Great War.” They are named on the front and right sides – 36 in all. Ranks other than private are indicated. Continue reading


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Lights Out!

Firsthand accounts of WW1 from the medical women who served are hard to come by, and in reverse proportion to their position in the hospital hierarchy: practically none from doctors; a few more from nurses; most from VADs.

Lights Out! The Memoir of Nursing Sister Kate Wilson, Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915-1917, based on Kate’s diaries, started as a souvenir for her family written shortly after the war. Later in life, a frustration with mostly male accounts of the war that “tended to romanticize events” led to “a tremendous desire to tell my story, in my own way.” After all, “I have been there too.” (Foreword) Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – War Memorial, Smiths Falls, ON

The war memorial in Smiths Falls War Memorial stands in Veterans Memorial Park on Beckwith St S at Confederation Dr (Canal St on some maps), next to the Rideau River lock station. The grey granite, rough-cut at the bottom, rises into a cross. Torches are carved into the foreshortened crossbar. On the front, a bronze rifle at reverse arms is draped with maple leaves. A peace dove with laurel swoops down above it. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, France

This past Saturday, July 1, marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, a day for the country to rejoice, reflect and reconcile. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was also Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Western Canada College Cenotaph, Calgary, AB

This monument commemorates those boys of Western Canada College who, at the dawn of their manhood, died for their country in the Great War.

Western Canada College (now Western Canada High School, and always a secondary school despite its original name) lives on 17th Ave SW at 6th St SW in Calgary. WCC was a founded in 1903 as a British-style private school for boys. After WW1, it was sold to the Calgary Board of Education. While the original WCC buildings were replaced in later decades, the cenotaph remains to commemorate students and graduates who were killed in WW1. Continue reading