Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Our Horses in Egypt and Bunny the Brave War Horse

Two books this week, looking at the work of horses in WW1 and after. Both a thoughtful commentary on the relationships between humans and other animals. Neither with a happy ending.

Our Horses in Egypt starts a few years after the war. Englishwoman and war widow Griselda Romney discovers that one of her horses, used by the army during the war, may still be alive. She had thought of Philomena fighting and dying on the Western front. Instead, she learns that the horse had been sent to Egypt. Off she goes to Egypt, daughter and nanny in tow, in search of Philomena.

Author Rosalind Belben alternates the adventures of Griselda and entourage with those of Philomena at war. It makes for an interesting perspective on the hierarchies of Empire. While Griselda certainly benefits from the privileges of her class and race, she can just as easily suffer when she steps out of the boundaries of “suitable” female behaviour. While the humans about her question Griselda’s impulse to find a horse (shouldn’t she be grieving her dead husband and caring for her children instead?), she feels a responsibility to a fellow creature – one of her own. And she may hold her own – the horse – in higher regard than “foreign” humans.  Continue reading


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Lt Col George Harold Baker, MP and Morning Glory

While at least 50 members of the Canadian House of Commons enlisted in WW1, few saw active duty at the front. Only one was killed in action.

George Harold Baker – Harry to his friends – was born into a prominent family of United Empire Loyalists. He followed his father into law and then into politics, elected Member of Parliament for the riding of Brome, Quebec in 1911. He was also active in the local militia, so he was quick to volunteer for active service in WW1. He was killed in action on June 2, 1916 at Sanctuary Wood during the Battle of Mount Sorrel. Continue reading


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Frontenac Club, Kingston, ON

The Frontenac Club, a private gentlemen’s club, opened in 1908 in a grand limestone building at the corner of King St W at William St in Kingston. In 1919, the club honoured 10 of its members killed in the Great War, posting a bronze plaque on the William St wall. All were officers.  Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – 21st Canadian Infantry Battalion Memorial, Kingston, ON

This monument to the 21st Battalion in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces stands in City Park, at the corner of Wellington and West Streets in Kingston. It is dedicated “to the memory of our valiant comrades of the Twenty-First Canadian Infantry Battalion CEF who in the Great War made the supreme sacrifice.” (The line “TO THE END, TO THE END, THEY REMAIN” is covered in snow.) Continue reading

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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

A surprize package arrived on my desk from Winnipeg this week. In it, an autographed copy of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Many people who read about Winnie the Pooh are unaware that he is based on a real-life Canadian black bear. Lindsay Mattick tells the tale.

In 1914, Mattick’s great-grandfather, Harry Colebourn, was a veterinarian heading to war. His troop train stopped in White River, ON, where he bought a bear cub from a trapper. He named the bear Winnipeg after his home town (Winnie for short), so his regiment would never feel far from home.

Winnie was a remarkable bear. As mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, she learned “to stand up straight and hold her head high and turn this way and that, just so!” But when the order came to leave the training grounds on Salisbury Plain and head to France, Harry knew he could not take Winnie.

The London Zoo became Winnie’s home. There she met Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his own teddy bear Winnie. A.A. Milne brought his son’s stuffed menagerie to life in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the story of the real Winnie to her own son, Cole. It’s a lovely read-to picture book for ages 3-7, with a family album of photos and ephemera at the end.

Statues of Harry Colebourn and Winnie can be found in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and at the London Zoo.

Winnie was not the only Canadian to land in the London Zoo during the war. About a dozen bears in all were brought to England and then left at the zoo when the troops were sent to the front.

A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977 tells of Teddy, a black bear cub presented to the 160th Bruce Battalion.

When the 160th Bruce Battalion left to go overseas they took with them a denizen of the woods of Bruce. In time, he grew to be a full-sized, well developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair.

One day in Bramshott, he got out, and being of a roving disposition, took a stroll around the camp. The first place he visited was the staff office, and the employees, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed. He found nothing to his liking there; he ambled out and strolled down the road. Seeing a hut door open, he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. Seeing that he was not a welcome visitor, he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb went up a telegraph pole, where he was captured a little later.

Teddy at the latest report was in the Zoo in London, England, with a number of other bears, having been turned down on account of flat feet. He lived for another three years at the London Zoo. Sgt. David William (Bull) Stephens of Wiarton was the soldier responsible for looking after Teddy.

Gordon Reid, editor, A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977. Published by the Elderslie Historical Society, Chesley, Ontario, 1977, p 213

Thanks to Nick for adding to my library of most important books about the world.

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canadian War Art, Senate Chamber, Ottawa

Eight large paintings from the Canadian War Memorials Fund were loaned to Parliament in 1921 for temporary display in the new Centre Block. Just as another temporary measure of WW1 – income taxes – is still with us, the paintings became a permanent part of the Senate Chamber.

The public tour admits groups only to the back of the chamber, so it is hard to get a good photo. The Senators get the best view.

 Opposition Senators get a good view of the west wall. From left to right:

  • Railway Construction in France, Leonard Richmond
  • A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, Algernon Talmage
  • Arras, the Dead City, James Kerr-Lawson
  • The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase), William Rothenstein

Government Senators get a good view of the east wall. From left to right:

  • On Leave, Claire Atwood
  • Returning to the Reconquered Land, George Clausen
  • The Cloth Hall, Ypres, James Kerr-Lawson
  • Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, Edgar Bundy

You can see more about each painting on the Senate website. Alas,, the new Parliamentary website, no longer describes each painting. 


Monday Monuments and Memorials – The Tunnellers’ Friends, Memorial Chamber, Ottawa

Over the doorway leading to the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower, this tympanum pays tribute to animals that served during the war – reindeer, pack mules, carrier pigeons, horses, dogs, canaries and mice. The inscription reads:

The tunnellers’ friends, the humble beasts that served and died.

Les amis des sapeurs ces humbles bêtes de somme qui moururent pour la cause.

The tympanum was designed by John A. Pearson and carved in 1927 by Cléophas Soucy in Indiana limestone.

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Three Day Road

Another novel in the trenches. Three Day Road offers a thought-provoking contrast to The Wars, chronicling similar themes through the distinctive experiences of Aboriginal Canadian soldiers and Scottish Canadian officers. Lots of fodder to fill essays about the CanLit canon.

Joseph Boyden’s first novel intertwines the stories of three Oji-Cree from Northern Ontario. Niska is one of the last of her community to live on the land, resisting the move to cities and reserves. Xavier Bird (her nephew) and Elijah Weesageechak (dubbed Whiskeyjack) are friends who enlist in 1915 and use their traditional hunting skills to become famed snipers on the Western Front. Continue reading


The Wars

Time to go back to the trenches.

The Wars explores the effort to remain human when faced with utter inhumanity.

The book opens on a scene near Bois de Madeleine (Magdalene Wood) with Robert Ross, 131 horses, a dog and many unanswered questions. Skip forward 60 years to an unnamed historian trying to learn how Ross came to his long-ago deeds in that place. Author Timothy Findley pieces the story together through a third person narrative that follows Robert before and during the war, the historian’s recount of facts and findings, and selective interviews with two women who cared for Robert later in his life: Lady Juliet d’Orsey and nurse Marian Turner. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Imperial Camel Corps, London

Memorial in Victoria Embankment Gardens

Memorial in Victoria Embankment Gardens

Imperial Camel Corps

Imperial Camel Corps

Keeping with the animal themed memorials of the past weeks. The Imperial Camel Corps was an infantry unit fighting in the Middle East and Africa. This memorial is in the Victoria Embankment Gardens, east of the Embankment tube station and Charing Cross station. It was dedicated in 1921.

To the glorious and immortal memory of the officers, NCO’s and men of the Imperial Camel Corps – British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian – who fell in action or died of wounds and disease in Egypt, Sinai and Palestine 1916, 1917, 1918.

We saw this memorial on a WW1 walking tour last year … more like a marching tour, really, so I didn’t have a chance to snap a photo. Thanks to Gavin for taking these and giving permission to post them.