Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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An Interview with Linda J. Quiney, author of This Small Army of Women

Linda J. Quiney’s This Small Army of Women, tracing the Canadian and Newfoundland volunteer nurses in WW1, is part of a growing scholarship on the role of medical women in the war. (Readers will know this is a particular interest of mine.) Linda is a historian and retired lecturer and serves as an affiliate with the Consortium for Nursing History Inquiry at the University of British Columbia. She has kindly agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

What first interested you in VADs from Canada and Newfoundland?

Linda J. Quiney: It was more of a happy accident than an intentional undertaking. I was considering a research topic on women in the Second World War when a colleague mentioned a photograph she had discovered while researching a First World War topic. The image depicted a woman wearing a St. John Ambulance VAD dress uniform, but offered no clue to her identity or what her uniform represented. I had read Testament of Youth years before, Vera Brittain’s romantic journal of her wartime experience as a British Red Cross VAD nurse, but I had no idea there had been a Canadian or Newfoundland equivalent under the auspices of St. John. The mystery led me to St. John Ambulance headquarters in Ottawa, but the preliminary research was limited. I was close to abandoning it until the “eureka” moment, when a box of random records unexpectedly revealed a list of more than 300 Canadian women who had been posted overseas as St. John Ambulance VAD nurses during the war.

It gradually became clear that the VAD program had been a unique undertaking, far different from any other form of Canadian women’s patriotic work. Most intriguing for me was that it was almost invisible within the larger historical record of the war, a history waiting to be written. Continue reading

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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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An Interview with Andrea McKenzie, editor of War-Torn Exchanges

Andrea McKenzie brings two WW1 nurses and friends back together in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes. Her deft editing and annotations make the book an insightful contribution to understanding the role of nurses in the war. I am so pleased that Andrea has joined me today, to share some thoughts about her work.

What first interested you in Mildred Forbes and Laura Holland?

Andrea McKenzie: I’d been working on Canadian nurses’ First World War diaries and letters for some years, but I’d never come across the letters of two best friends who’d sailed for the war on the same, stayed together throughout four long war years, then sailed home together. Separately, Laura’s and Mildred’s vivid accounts of their individual wars are compelling, but read together, they create a richly textured narrative told by two strong, mature women’s voices. What one omits, the other includes, so we gain a complete story of their time throughout the First World War. They served on almost all the war fronts, too, so their story, told in their own words, runs from the privations of Gallipoli to a casualty clearing station on the Western front during Passchendaele and the German advance of 1918. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Lennox and Addington County Cenotaph, Napanee, ON

A cenotaph “erected to perpetuate the memory of those from the County of Lennox and Addington who fell in the Great War” stands in front of the courthouse portico at 97 Thomas St E at Adelphi. It was unveiled on 1 Jul 1920. Continue reading


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War-Torn Exchanges and Your Daughter Fanny

Continuing my explorations of women in the medical services, in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes, and Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD. Both books bring to life women’s war service close to the front. 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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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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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


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An Interview with Alan Livingstone MacLeod, author of Remembered in Bronze and Stone

Alan Livingstone MacLeod has photographed countless WW1 monuments across Canada. Now his favourites are featured in Remembered in Bronze and Stone – Canada’s Great War Memorial Statuary. Alan has kindly agreed to share some thoughts about his work. I am pleased to welcome him to Great War 100 Reads today.

What first interested you in war memorials?

Alan Livingstone MacLeod: From my earliest years – spurred by soldier portraits on old relatives’ living-room walls, from memories of young men loved and lost, from relics of the trenches – I was aware of a shadow cast over my extended Nova Scotia family by the Great War. I had seven Cape Breton relatives killed between 1916 and 1918 in Flanders and France. One of the most influential people of my life was a great-uncle who survived the war but could never free himself from its emotional consequences. The accounts of the war experiences he shared with me were mesmerizing and unforgettable. I was exposed to war memorials from early childhood and have had a life-long interest in them. That interest took a leap forward in 2010 when I chanced upon the community war memorial at Westville, Nova Scotia, featuring the bronze figure of a soldier. I considered it far and away the finest, most evocative war memorial I had ever seen. This figure provoked a desire to see more of the artist’s work and a decision to travel the country to find that work and to see as many as possible of the whole: Canada’s two hundred soldier-figure monuments. Continue reading