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 – Canadian Battlefield Memorial, Dury, France

Last Wednesday, 8 August, marked the centenary of the first day of the Battle of Amiens, and what would become the 100 Days Offensive that lead to the Armistice. Some refer to this period as Canada’s 100 Days, because of the role of the Canadian Corps during the offensive.

One measure of success is the ground gained by the Canadians. Another is the number of Victoria Crosses awarded for valour: four Canadian VCs on day one of the Battle of Amiens; four more on day two; a total of 29 for Canadians in the last 100 days.* Success came with a heavy cost, however: the Canadian Corps suffered 45,835 casualties.

Of the nine battlefield memorials commemorating the WW1 service of Canadian and Newfoundland troops in France, three mark key milestones in Canada’s 100 Days: Continue reading


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An Interview with P.S. Duffy, author of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land

In The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, P.S. Duffy’s first novel, WW1 is a map to explore ruin, redemption, and the strength of human connections. I am pleased to welcome her to Great War 100 Reads today, to share some thoughts about her work.    

Why did you write The Cartographer of No Man’s Land?

P.S. Duffy: For me, the creative process isn’t really a calculus. It’s an act of faith. What happens is that scenes, bits of dialogue, a shape of a character begin to form, unannounced. The origin of The Cartographer of No Man’s Land was an image of a boy standing on a rocky beach. I could see the grains of wet sand on his high black fishing boots, the dried seaweed above the tide line, the blond lashes on his squinting eyes. In the shallows, drifting like a log, he sees what appears to be his father. He’s torn apart, fears the worst, but before racing from rock to rock to save him, he hesitates. Why? I had a sense that the father had changed, had perhaps experienced a great loss. Maybe at sea, with downstream ripple effects on all his relationships. I didn’t use that scene, and nothing of the kind happens in the novel. But it propelled the idea of how a deep and tender relationship can be broken by the response to external forces and had me ask the question that forms the basis of the novel—can we come back from such wounds, and if so, how?     Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Poppies Redux

Mass-produced poppies are major fundraisers for the British and Canadian Legions, who fervently guard registered trademarks. I much prefer hand-made commemorative poppies – knitted, crocheted, beaded or felted. These seem to be more popular in Australia and New Zealand, where online patterns abound. Look, for example, at the 5000 Poppies campaign in Australia. Amazing! 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 – Cambrai Monument to the Missing, Louverval, France

On 20 November 1917, the British Army launched an attack toward Cambrai, an important German supply point, using about 400 tanks to great success … initially. Then the German army regrouped. By the end of the battle on 3 December, they had reclaimed almost all of the territory. The back-and-forth took a high toll, with over 40,000 casualties on each side.   Continue reading


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The War Diary of Clare Gass

A fine day in spots only. My ward is filled & I am very busy but enjoy my work if it were only possible to forget its cause. (March 2, 1916, p 106)

The dominant memory of WW1 is that of men. Soldiers were, after all, the vast majority on the front lines. But as Susan Mann points out in her introduction to The War Diary of Clare Gass, 1915-1918, wounded soldiers were accompanied and cared for by nurses at every stage of their journey through the military medical system except at the very first points closest to the front lines. 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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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