Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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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


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, France

This past Saturday, July 1, marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, a day for the country to rejoice, reflect and reconcile. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was also Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. Continue reading


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Firing Lines

Beatrice Nasmyth. Mary MacLeod Moore. Elizabeth Montizambert. Three names we likely don’t recognize today. But during WW1, countless Canadian, British and French readers read their war dispatches from London, Paris and points closer to the front. Debbie Marshall brings them back to life in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.

We met the three journalists briefly in Marshall’s last book (Give Your Other Vote to the Sister), when they joined Roberta MacAdams on a media tour of the military hospitals at Étaples and the lines of communication behind the front. In Firing Lines, we dig deeper into their backgrounds and how they came to report on the conflict. Continue reading


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Fear – La peur

We are pinned down under a systematic bombardment. Once again our lives are at stake and we are powerless to protect ourselves. We are lying in the ditch, flat as corpses, squeezed together to make ourselves smaller, welded into a single strange reptile of three hundred shuddering bodies and pounding chests. The experience of shelling is always the same: a crushing, relentless savagery, hunting us down. You feel individually targeted, singled out from those around you. You are alone, eyes shut, struggling in your own darkness in a coma of fear. You feel exposed, feel that the shells are looking for you, and you hide among the jumble of legs and stomachs, try to cover yourself and also to protect yourself from the other bodies that are writhing like tortured animals. All we can see are hallucinations of the horrible images that we have come to know through years of war. (p 288)

Jean Dartemont. Alter ego of author Gabriel Chevallier. Poilu in the French army. Signed up for adventure early in the war. Lived to tell the tale. Not a tale of bravery or heroism. The prime feeling is fear. Continue reading