Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


Tapestry of War

Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War: A Private View of Canadians in the Great War is a gossipy, luscious social history, seen through the eyes of several Canadians who had ringside seats or a view further back from the action.

Our guides were chosen from a variety of vantage points on the basis of their diaries and letters, not necessarily because their importance in the war effort. Gwyn jumps from one person to another, from Ottawa to London to the Western Front, intricately weaving the tales. Some are more interesting than others, but all have a purpose. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Monday Monuments and Memorials – Memorial Windows, City Hall, Kingston, ON … Part 2

A formal assembly room in Kingston City Hall was renamed Memorial Hall in 1921 by Governor General Lord Byng “in everlasting remembrance of those from this city who fought in defence of justice and liberty” and “in honour of Kingston’s sailors, soldiers, airmen and nursing sisters who served overseas.”

This is the second post about the memorial windows … these six windows are on the west wall, to the left as you enter Memorial Hall. Quotations are from the program for the 1921 event. Continue reading

1 Comment

Monday Monuments and Memorials – Memorial Windows, City Hall, Kingston, ON … Part 1

Kingston’s City Hall is a grand 19th century building at 216 Ontario St. One of its formal assembly rooms was renamed Memorial Hall in 1921 by Governor General Lord Byng “in everlasting remembrance of those from this city who fought in defence of justice and liberty” and “in honour of Kingston’s sailors, soldiers, airmen and nursing sisters who served overseas.”

Twelve stained glass windows line the two long walls of the room. Each window marks a battle in which Canadians played a significant role and a group that contributed to the war effort. They were made by the Robert McCausland Ltd of Toronto (which now claims to be the oldest stained glass company in the Western Hemisphere and the longest continuously-owned family company in Canada).

Today’s post features the east windows, to the right as you enter the hall. Quotations are from the program for the 1921 event.  Continue reading


I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier

Hard to believe it has been two years since the start of Great War 100 Years. In 170 posts, I have documented 50 books read (just under the wire!), over 100 monuments on Mondays, and more interviews and musings.

I have the hindsight advantage of knowing I’m not quite half way through this project. In July 1916, the carnage of Verdun and the Somme – respectively the longest battle of the war and the battle starting with worst day of battle casualties in British Army history – was still going on. The war was uppermost in the public mind and its end was nowhere in sight. News of the war was full of propaganda and not entirely truthful. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Monday Monuments and Memorials – Mothers, Wives and Children, Hamilton, ON

They also serve who only stand and wait.

At Decoration Day services in August 1923, two memorial crosses were unveiled in Hamilton Cemetery. Twenty thousand Hamiltonians, including 8,000 war veterans, attended the ceremonies.

The Cross of Sacrifice erected by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission honours the war dead. The second cross was funded by the Canadian Patriotic Fund “in memory of mothers, wives and children of soldiers of the Great War,” 214 who died while their loved ones were fighting overseas. Continue reading

Leave a comment

An Interview with Helen Simonson, Author of The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was a New York Times and international bestseller. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is hot off the press and destined for comparable accolades. I am pleased to welcome Helen to Great War 100 Reads today, and honoured that she fit this interview into a busy book launch season.

Why did you write The Summer Before the War?

Helen Simonson: I love the Edwardian era which I think of in terms of advances in technology – the telephone, motor car, invention of electricity and flying machines – and of a loosening of Victorian strictures producing a blossoming of culture and progress. It’s a society rich in writers, poets and women’s movements for social justice and for suffrage. It’s a historical era in which I always thought I could live well. However, that assumes I would be wealthy. Life was hard for folks without money. There were still workhouses for the poor and diseases like rickets and TB were rife. So being not quite the garden party idyll of our imaginations but truly a time of so much potential makes the Edwardian era satisfyingly complicated. And this particular summer, 1914, is all about unfolding the deck chairs while a devastating war looms beyond the horizon. Continue reading

1 Comment

The Summer Before the War

If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you know that a comedy of manners can be coupled with serious matters of war. If you’re in Downton withdrawal, Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War might be just the cure. Simonson slices a knife through the class, race and gender prejudices in parochial small-town England with humour and gravity in turn.

Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye at the beginning of summer 1914. She is the new Latin teacher, well-qualified, travelled, young and single. Her father recently deceased and her inheritance in trust, she is determined to make her own way as an independent woman. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Monday Monuments and Memorials – Furnace Girl and The Rod Turner, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

Happy International Women’s Day, a day early. For the occasion, we feature two more sculptures by Frances Loring.

Loring and Florence Wyle were born in the US and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. They moved to Toronto in 1913, where they were collectively known as The Girls. In 1918, they were commissioned to do a series of sculptures of “girl war workers” as part of the project to document Canada’s participation in the war. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Aleta Dey

I am sorry that to-day our causes seem to stand in opposition; but perhaps it is only seeming. It may be that history with its wider perspective will discover them to be two branches of the same tree of freedom, yours contending with the winds of tyranny abroad and mine with the winds of tyranny at home. (Aleta Day, ch XXXIX)

Why isn’t Francis Marion Beynon’s semi-autobiographical novel Aleta Dey counted amongst the war classics? On every high school curriculum? Easy to find in print?

Beynon was a journalist and feminist. She grew up in a staunch Methodist family on a Manitoba farm. In 1912, at age 28, she became the first full-time women’s editor of the Grain Growers’ Guide, an influential newspaper circulated throughout the Canadian prairies. Her columns were a platform to argue for women’s issues like suffrage, education and property rights. She was a leader in the Manitoba suffrage movement. In 1917, she was forced to leave her job due to her pacifist views and opposition to the war. Aleta Dey, her only novel, was published in 1919.

Aleta Dey’s life parallels that of Beynon’s in many ways. The early chapters of the novel show family, church and school as institutions bent on silencing girls and women. Those who question authority are beaten or humiliated into submission. Aleta resents her ultimate state of weakness: “I am a coward. I think I was born to be free, but my parents, with God as one of their chief instruments of terror, frightened me into servility.” (ch I)

Aleta moves to Winnipeg and becomes a journalist. She rejects Ned, her childhood protector and kindred spirit. She falls in love with McNair, a man with – shall we say – more conventional views of women’s place in the world. (No, Aleta! Don’t do it! I want to talk some sense into her and lead her away. OK, I’m emotionally invested in this book.)

Our suffrage organisation had decided to have a parade to awaken a slothful public to the importance of our propaganda. …

“I should certainly not permit my wife, if I had one, to carry on that way,” he declared threateningly.

“I should certainly not permit my husband, if I had one, to substitute his conscience for mine,” I snapped back. (ch XVII)

Phew! Aleta will hold her own.

Beynon is at her best with snippets that reveal the tensions, condescensions and contradictions of war.

Germany had broken the peace of the world and plunged us into night. Very well, we would collect a few Canadians and send them over and they would settle the matter in a few months and come home, and we would give them a banquet, and allow them to die in the poor-house, as had been done to the heroes of other wars. (ch XXIV)

She pokes pins into the sentiments that only enemy messages are propaganda … that poor working men should be conscripted, but not the capital of wealthy men … that the spending of soldiers’ wives should be monitored, as if their earnings were public charity … that socialism might be any less of a tyranny than capitalism. She rallies for peace, and especially for freedom of speech to prevail in war.

Aleta Dey speaks of its time. It also holds timeless lessons for today.


Hard to find a copy of Aleta Dey in print. The text is now in the public domain, so it is easy to find a free copy online.


An Interview with Frances Itani, Author of Deafening and Tell

I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Frances Itani has published 16 books including, most notably for those interested in WW1, the bestsellers Deafening and Tell. Deafening won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2004, amongst many other accolades. Tell, her most recent novel, was shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. A member of the Order of Canada, she lives in Ottawa.

Frances has kindly agreed to share some reflections about her work.

What drew you to write Deafening and Tell, two books set around the time the First World War?

Frances Itani: I decided to include the war years in Deafening while doing research. I had been reading newspapers of the period from about 1900 and onward. My original plan had been to write a novel about the life of a young Deaf woman from about 1900 to 1914. However, when I began to read the issues of the day after Britain and then, Canada, went to war in August 1914, I decided to extend my story to include the years up to 1919. In particular, I was interested in details of how the war affected the family of almost every student and staff member at the very real Ontario School for the Deaf. All of this research added up to become a long journey for me, one that still hasn’t ended. I studied American Sign Language, worked with members of the Deaf Community in Ottawa, learned about the war, interviewed extensively, read the histories, visited battlefields of the Western Front, and spent weeks and months in the reading rooms of the Archives of the Canadian War Museum. This is a journey I’ve never regretted taking, and I now feel a responsibility to share, through my art and my stories, my knowledge of the Great War and the sacrifices that were made. Continue reading