Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Sun Quarry Cemetery, Chérisy, France

Every soldier tells a story. Some stories end the same way.

Sun Quarry Cemetery is 1.5 km SE of the village of Chérisy (near Arras) on the NE side of D38, the road to Hendecourt-lès-Cagnicourt. Of 191 WW1 burials, eight unidentified, 161 are Canadian. According to Commonwealth War Grave Commission records, the cemetery was made by the fighting units and most of those buried there were killed between 26 Aug and 28 Sep 1918. In other words, they are buried close to where they fell.

Five headstones in Row A mark the graves of five men from the 15th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry who died on 30 Aug 1918.  Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Lt Jean Brillant, VC, MC, Villers Bretoneux Military Cemetery, Fouilloy, France

Jean Baptiste Arthur Brillant was born on 15 March 1890 at Assametquaghan, Quebec, the son of Joseph Brillant and Rose-de-Lima Raiche. He died of wounds on 10 August 1918 in France. His tombstone at Villiers Bretoneux Cemetery reads:

Lieutenant Jean Brillant, VC, MC, 22ieme En. Canadien français, 10 aout 1918, age 28 ans.

Fils de Joseph Brillant. Enrole volontairement à Rimouski, Province de Quebec. Tombe glorieusement sur le sol de ses aieux. Bon sang ne peut mentir.

Translation: Son of Joseph Brillant. Enlisted voluntarily at Rimouski, Province of Quebec. Fell gloriously on the soil of his ancestors. Good blood cannot lie. Continue reading


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The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

I read the preface, then paused, then read it again. Such is the beauty and feeling in the picture that P. S. Duffy paints to start The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, engaging all the senses in a two-page vignette.

The Cartographer of No Man’s Land captures two stories, moving back and forth between the Western Front and the fictional Nova Scotia fishing village of Snag Harbour. Angus MacGrath is the bond between the two. He leaves behind his wife Hettie Ellen, his son Simon Peter, his father Duncan – enlisting in the hope of finding his brother-in-law and friend Ebbin Hant, who is missing in action. With skills as a painter and drafter, Angus believes he will be a cartographer in London, able to search from the relative safety of a desk job. But mapmakers are plentiful and cannon fodder is in constant need of replenishment. He finds himself instead in the front lines. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – General Sir Arthur Currie, GCMG, KCB, VD, Ottawa

A statue of Arthur Currie stands prominently amongst the Valiants, 14 figures from Canadian military history, near the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The commemorative plaque describes him:

A courageous and innovative officer, he helped plan the great victory at Vimy Ridge. Then, as the first Canadian commander of the Canadian Corps, his brilliant leadership produced the sweeping Canadian victories of the war’s Last Hundred Days. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Japanese Canadian War Memorial, Vancouver

The Japanese Canadian War Memorial stands in a quiet grove in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, “in lasting memory of the 190* who answered the call of duty for Canada and to the 54 who laid down their lives in defence of freedom in the Great War.” Visit in the spring, if you can, when the surrounding cherry trees are in bloom. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Hill 70 Monument, Loos-en-Gohelle, France

Between 15 and 25 August 1917, the divisions of the Canadian corps captured and held Hill 70, a defensive position near Lens that had been held by the German Army since October 1914. While the April 1917 offensive at Vimy Ridge was the first time the Canadians fought together, Hill 70 was the first time they did so under Canadian command. Lt-Gen Arthur Currie has just assumed command. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Honour Roll of Veterans, Portland, Rideau Lakes Township, ON

A war memorial in Portland-on-the-Rideau overlooks Hwy 15 at Colborne Street, in front of Emmanuel Anglican Church. The Honour Roll lists WW1 and WW2 veterans from the community. A cross marks those killed in action – 7 of 53 men in WW1. Continue reading


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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 – 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