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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Remembrance Whensoever

A comment on last Monday’s memorial to the Broad brothers at Calgary’s Central United Church got me thinking about how communities came together to show respect to those who had served in the war.

It seems that it was many years after the war before plaques were erected. In this case, 1923. Is there any explanation of the delay between the end of the war in 1918 and these expressions of remembrance? Did people, at first, feel their grief so profoundly that they could not think of things like plaques and statues? Was commemoration encouraged by the government or Church in the 1920s and we are seeing the results of that?

Good question. Several reasons, I suspect. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Hamilton Cemetery, Hamilton, ON

Hamilton Cemetery is a lovely park cemetery, the first owned and operated by a municipality in Canada. Its meandering paths are a great place for a stroll amongst the city’s history. Of its 21500 monuments, about 130 are from the Commonwealth (formerly Imperial) War Graves Commission to mark the graves of those who served in WW1. Most died of illnesses during or right after the war … listed as influenza, phthisis, diphtheria, pneumonia or just sickness.

About 2000 Hamiltonians died in service in WW1, about 2% of the population at the time.

The Cross of Sacrifice was unveiled at a Decoration Day service on 23 August 1923. Twenty thousand Hamiltonians, including 8000 war veterans, attended the ceremony.

Thanks to Robin McKee of Historical Perceptions, who shared some useful information about the cemetery. I wish my visit to Hamilton had coincided with one of his weekly Stories in the Stones tours. Thanks as well to the friendly staff in the cemetery gatehouse.


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Thomas Langton, Canadian Forestry Corps, Ottawa

Each soldier tells a story.

Some stories are more elusive than others.

Thomas Langton was born on June 23, 1869 in Yorkshire, England. At some point, he came to Canada. Although he lived in Montreal, he joined the CEF in Ottawa on January 29, 1917. He was 47. His attestation papers list his trade as a labourer and teamster.

The Canadian Forestry Corps was formed in 1916 to provide lumber for the war effort. Recruiting posters soon called for “Bushmen and sawmill hands wanted for the Canadian Forestry Units overseas.”

Lumber was needed for such diverse uses as trench construction, railway ties, tent poles, buildings, axe handles and fuel. At first, the thought was that trees would be cut in Canada and shipped overseas. But space on ships was limited, so the Corps went to the wood in the UK and France. The Corps produced about 70% of the lumber used on the Western front. They were occupied in all aspects of the trade – from felling trees and dressing lumber to actual construction. They cleared sites for aerodromes. Some of the wood was fashioned into wooden crosses for graves.

From his attestation papers in 1917, we go to Langton’s grave in Beechwood Cemetery in Ottawa. He died in June 1971 at age 102. What brought him from England to Canada? What did he do after the war?


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Wreaths Across Canada, National Military Cemetery, Ottawa

Wreaths Across Canada has the ambitious goal of placing a wreath on the graves of veterans in every military cemetery in Canada on the first Sunday of December each year. The program started modestly at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa. The dates of death and the fact that the graves are in Canada show that these veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force survived and returned home after serving in WW1.

Wreaths Across Canada is based on Wreaths Across America, in operation since 1992. National Wreaths Across America Day is next Saturday, 13 December.