Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Testament of Youth

Those who know about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth only by reputation or the recent movie might think of it simply as a tale of love and loss in WW1 … the account of a spunky young woman whose brother, fiancé and other male friends are killed … a woman’s loss and a lost generation.

The book is so much more.

It has taken me several weeks to work through Testament of Youth – really three books captured in its 600 pages. Brittain documents the pre-war life of young middle-class women, the war years and the aftermath in the decade following. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Law Society of Newfoundland, Supreme Court, St John’s, NL

A plaque in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador at 309 Duckworth St in St. John’s is dedicated in grateful memory of three members of the Law Society of Newfoundland.

Lawyer M. Frank Summers and student-at-law Cecil Bayly Clift were amongst the First Five Hundred in the Newfoundland Regiment, sailing across the Atlantic in October 1914 on the SS Florizel. Both served in Gallipoli, then moved to the Western Front. Continue reading

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William – an Englishman

We all know people like that. They glom onto ideas without question or understanding. They spout out the dogma with conviction, as the one true path. They hang out only with those who share their outlooks. They read views that support their own and eschew any critique.

Meet William Tully. At 23 he lives with his mother and works as a nondescript clerk in a London insurance company. When his mother dies suddenly, she leaves him a sizable inheritance and the means to escape his existence as “the underling and creature of routine.” (ch I) Under the tutelage of a colleague, he becomes a Social Reformer.

William meets Griselda Watkins, “his exact counterpart in petticoats; a piece of blank-minded, suburban young womanhood caught into the militant suffrage movement and enjoying herself therein.” They share views on the Movement, the Voice of the People, the Woman Question, the Cause, Democracy Internationalism, Pacifism, the Folly of Militarism. (Yes, their beliefs are in Upper Case.) They marry (Griselda omitting the vow of obedience, of course) and honeymoon in an isolated cottage in the Belgian Ardennes. Continue reading


White Feathers


Is your “Best Boy” wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU THINK he should be?
If he does not think that you and your country are worth fighting for – do you think he is WORTHY of you?
Don’t pity the girl who is alone – her young man is probably a soldier – fighting for her and her country – and for YOU.
If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will NEGLECT YOU.
Think it over – then ask him to JOIN THE ARMY TO-DAY

British recruiting/propaganda poster, cited in White Feathers, p 175

1913. Eva Downey accepts a scholarship to a finishing school to escape an untenable family life and an unwanted marriage. At school, Eva and teacher Christopher Shandlin discover their mutual intelligence and fall in love. But Eva must cut her education short to care for her tubercular older sister.

Cue the war. Christopher has his reasons for not enlisting. Eva’s stepmother and stepsister force her to give him a white feather (for cowardice) or her sister will not get money for expensive medical treatment.

This will not end well.

Susan Lanigan packs a lot of elements into her novel:

  • Evil stepmother and stepsister
  • Consumptive sister
  • Feckless father
  • Suffragettes behaving admirably
  • Suffragettes behaving badly
  • Anti-suffragists behaving badly
  • Rich, upper class friend who is always there for you
  • Poor, smart friend who is always there for you
  • Coward shot at dawn
  • Manifestations of shell shock
  • Cruel, incompetent military leadership
  • Poet/soldier with a bad attitude
  • VADs
  • Lesbian awakening
  • Unwanted pregnancy and illegal abortion
  • Nod to racial discrimination (passing mention of Chinese Labour Corps and British West Indies Regiment)
  • Irish parochialism
  • Irish nationalism
  • etc etc etc

Mention of several historical figures who influence the characters is more evidence of the depth of Lanigan’s research:

  • Dorothie Feilding (and her fictional cousin Roma)
  • R.W. Nevinson (and other unnamed war artists)
  • Emily Hobhouse
  • Lord Kitchener
  • Rupert Brooke (in adoration and in derision)
  • Emmeline Pankhurst
  • Mrs Humphry Ward (and the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League)
  • etc etc etc

Lanigan’s novel explores a thought-provoking premise: what is the fallout of a moral predicament that inevitably leads to betrayal. It is well researched and well written. And sometimes infuriating.

Eva and Christopher make one bad decision after another. (Without which, in fairness, the story would not be as interesting.) It often seems that only those behaving badly have the courage of their convictions. (Eva’s friends, Sybil and Lucia, are the exception to this generalization.)

Which leads to the other big question in the novel: who is responsible for the results of those bad decisions? Do individuals take responsibility for their actions, or denounce the system that lead to them. Good arguments on both sides of that issue, in my view.

Whether you agree with the conclusions, White Feathers is a provocative read.


“I would have thought you’d be rebelling against the war, not joining in.”

Eva smiled bitterly. “I think … that for a man, if you renounce war you’re a rebel, but for a woman it’s the opposite. To rebel is to fight. We’re supposed to marry well, be nice girls and stay out of public affairs. … Anyway, they’ve pulled the rug out from under us. How can we marry when they’ve taken our men? We might as well be the rebels.” (p 244)

Read my interview with author Susan Lanigan.

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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.

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Agent of Peace: Emily Hobhouse and her Courageous Attempt to End the First World War

Agent of Peace is the second of three books about UK pacifist and social reformer Emily Hobhouse written by her grandniece Jennifer Hobhouse Balme. The starting point for Balme’s research was a trunk of papers inherited from her father, Emily’s nephew. These personal accounts along with official records help create the story.

Hobhouse is probably best known for her activism around the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). She traveled to South Africa and documented the appalling conditions for women and children in internment camps set up by the British Army. The British government tried to dismiss her. But her work eventually led to a commission of inquiry which collaborated her accounts. She was granted honorary citizenship of South Africa for her humanitarian work there. This was all the subject of Balme’s first book, To Love One’s Enemies.

By WW1, Hobhouse was an affirmed pacifist. She joined and worked with the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and other groups in Europe and the US. (IWLPF exists to this day. Indeed 29 November is International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day.)

In 1914, she wrote an open Christmas letter to “the Women of Germany and Austria” which was signed by 100 British women. An exchange of messages was published in Jus Suffragii, the newspaper of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

The Christmas message sounds as mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to those of you who feel as we do. Do not let is forget that our very anguish unites us, that we are passing together through the same experiences of pain and grief. Caught in the grip of terrible Circumstance what can we do? Tosses on this turbulent sea of human conflict, we can but moor ourselves to those calm shores whereon stand, like rocks those eternal verities – Love, Peace, Brotherhood …

We urge that peace be made with appeal to wisdom and reason. Since in the last resort it is these which must decide the issues, can they begin too soon? … Peace on earth has gone, may Christmas hasten that day … (p 23)

Hobhouse convinced German officials to permit her to visit Belgium to see the conditions of Belgian civilians, and to visit Berlin and civilian internment camps. These visits and her attempts to convince the British government to act on her findings are the focus of Agent of Peace. Most of the book covers her work from June to October 1916. She was of the firm view that the suffering of non-combatants was “far worse than that endured by soldiers.” (p 27)

She was under German escort throughout her travels. She saw what they wanted her to, could not go into the war zone and was not permitted to speak to the Belgians. But she was nonetheless astute in her observations. In Germany, she saw Ruhleben, a camp for civilian male detainees from Allied countries who had been in Germany at the outbreak of the war. She met with German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow and discussed possibilities for peace and for an exchange of civilian detainees.

The conditions of her travels in Belgium and Germany were such that her conclusions could be easily ignored by the British government. They dismissed her as a “peace crank” (p 44), a German sympathizer, a harmless busybody. To some, “She was a silly mischievous old woman but not disloyal to her country.” (p 136) In the end, Hobhouse’s courageous actions received no credit in any official action toward reconciliation and peace.

Hobhouse’s actions seem at once brave, impulsive, naïve, perceptive … and, regardless, impressive for a solo woman with health and physical incapacities. The book leaves me wanting to know more about the context of the larger international peace movement.

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Cenotaph, Memorial Park, Chatsworth, ON

The Chatsworth and Community cenotaph is in a small park in the village of Chatsworth, just north of the intersection of Highways 6 and 10, on the west side of the road at Sideroad 1.

The monument is coarsely chiselled granite. The front is flat to accommodate the names and adorned with symbols carved in finer detail. The draped Union Jack, a sword, maple leaves and poppies bring a flowing movement to the stone.

Robert Shipley notes, “Because (the British Isles and northern France) are the root soil for much of Canada’s cultural inheritance, it is not surprising that some of our memorials echo the form of the “menhirs,” or standing stones. … The similarity between memorial stones like this one in Chatsworth, Ontario and the old standing stones in Northern Europe is not accidental.” (To Mark Our Place, p 105)

The WW2 plaque is a recent addition. Shipley’s photo from the 1980s shows more harmonious carving of the dates and two or three names in the space now occupied by the deteriorating plaque.

One of Chatsworth’s claims to fame is as the birthplace of political activist Nellie McClung. She later moved west, where she was instrumental in winning the vote for women in Manitoba and Alberta in 1916.


An Interview with “Give Your Other Vote to the Sister” Author, Debbie Marshall

I am pleased to welcome Debbie Marshall to Great War 100 Reads. I first met Debbie last summer at the Canadian Literature of World War One Conference. (Truth be told, I introduced myself after eavesdropping on a conversation about her blog on WW1 nursing sisters and sensing a kindred spirit on women’s history.) Her book, Give Your Other Vote to the Sister, was quickly added to my reading list. Debbie has kindly agreed to share some reflections about her work.

What was the biggest challenge in researching Give Your Other Vote to the Sister?

Debbie Marshall: Finding original archival materials. I was writing about Roberta MacAdams, one of the first women elected to a legislature anywhere in what was then the British Empire, but there were almost no records in either of the two major Alberta archives—the Glenbow and Provincial Archives of Alberta. Her family also had very few archival materials (although they did have her first speech in the legislature—that was wonderful). That meant I had to create my own collection. I went to the Public School Archives in the City of Edmonton and found loads of correspondence penned by Roberta during her years as a domestic science teacher. I contacted the descendants of her brothers and discovered more materials. The descendants of her sister also had photographs that I could use. I contacted Collections Canada and ordered her military records. The best find was a large cache of Great War correspondence by Roberta’s campaign manager, Beatrice Nasmyth. I also uncovered a pile of newspaper articles in which Roberta was quoted verbatim. Continue reading

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Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War

… one of the interesting things I learnt in the war was that women who drive cars are much less easy to control than the other women. Whether this is because being able to manage a car gives them greater self-dependence, or whether only very independent women volunteered to drive cars, I don’t know … As the war went on, however, I learnt to respect them immensely because they were not only independent but also indefatigable. (Katharine Furse, Hearts and Pomegranates p 309, quoted in Female Tommies at p 65)

Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War is a good starting place to explore the five Ws of the indefatigable women on the Allied side of the war. They fought the enemy and the prejudices of the men and institutions on their own side.

Elisabeth Shipton begins with an overview of historical context. The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a movement for women’s equality through education, occupation and suffrage in Europe, North America and Australasia. The war brought an opportunity for women to realize their potential, use their skills and prove their abilities. By fighting for their country, they could demonstrate their citizenship and win the vote.

The men in power were on to them, though. By keeping women away from the front, employing them as civilians or on contract, or limiting the activities of their voluntary organizations, governments could say that women were not in military service. Women were not fulfilling the same responsibilities as men. But as the war went on, the need for more men at the front could not be met by enlistment or conscription. Women were needed in support roles behind the lines to free up more men.

Shipton compares how the UK and US set up women’s auxiliary units in 1917. She also contrasts the treatment of women in the medical units in several Allied countries. It took most countries until 1916 to admit that they could benefit from using women doctors.

Chapters are dedicated to nurses, doctors, medical aid workers, spies, journalists, warriors and so on. One chapter sorts out the differences between the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), the national Red Cross Societies, ambulance units, and the myriad of privately-funded aid organizations. (In some other books, the groups are not easily distinguished or the author assumes the reader knows the differences.)

Shipton also introduces many individual women who were leading the way. Edith Cavell, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, Maria Bochkareva, Elsie Inglis, Flora Sandes and others are worth more in depth reading. For those with limited reading time, Shipton’s highlights give a good flavour of their lives and personalities.

She has a keen sense of embellished autobiographies. More importantly, she shows how women’s war stories were fictionalized by others. Writing about resistance and espionage:

Whether these women were driven by a need for justice, a sense of patriotism, political activism or a desire for money or fame, the social and sexual mores of the time affected the way in which their contributions were recorded for posterity. Shaped by judgemental attitude towards female morality, many of the women were remembered either as innocent saints or untrustworthy whores. The very ability of women to blend into civilian life, to pass unnoticed as members of the resistance or as part of an espionage network while doing genuine humanitarian work as nurses, makes their contribution to the war incalculable. (p 135)

WW1 saw the militarization of women on an unparalleled scale, albeit in different modes depending on the country and the sector. Their gains were not always sustained after the war. Shipton concludes that the lasting effect was in evidence 20 years later … the women had laid the foundation for a greater role in WW2.

The book ties together many loose threads from others I’ve been reading. Shipton sets out her premises, delivers the information clearly and offers an interesting analysis based on thorough research. Perhaps I should have read Female Tommies earlier in this venture.


Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War

Meet Roberta MacAdams.

How does a woman raised in an affluent, urban, middle-class family in the late 1800s and early 1900s become a professional dietitian, travel alone to the other side of a vast country, and work to bring rural women together to improve their collective lives and the farm economy?

How does that woman, who sees no need for women to have the vote, become one of the first women elected to public office and an advocate for veterans and their families?

Roberta MacAdams was the second woman elected to a legislature in the (then) British Empire. Debbie Marshall recaptures MacAdams’ story for the record in Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War. Those who come first are well-documented and remembered … they go down in history. Those who come second are more often forgotten, even though their accomplishments may be just as worthy. 

MacAdams was born in 1880 and raised in Sarnia, Ontario. Her upbringing destined her to marry and manage her household. Instead, at age 28 she moved to Guelph to study home economics at the Macdonald Institute (now part of the University of Guelph). She moved to Edmonton and found a job teaching “domestic economy” to rural women. She realized that, more than knowledge, they needed the fellowship of other women to fight against an isolated existence. She worked to develop a network of Women’s Institutes across the province, with the backing of the Alberta government. Then she became Superintendent of Domestic Science for the Edmonton Public School Board.

In 1916, MacAdams joined the war effort. She was appointed as dietitian for the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington, Kent. She was the only dietitian ever accepted into the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Records list her as a nursing sister, the only military occupation open to women.

Also in 1916, women won the right to vote and to run for public office in Alberta. In an odd exercise of gerrymandering, Albertans serving overseas in the war formed their own constituency to elect two members to the Legislative Assembly. Beatrice Nasmyth, a Canadian journalist and suffragist working in London, convinced a reluctant MacAdams to run in the 1917 election and ran her campaign.

Soldiers and Nurses from Alberta!! You will have two votes at the forthcoming Election under the Alberta Military Representation Act. Give one vote to the man of your choice and the other to the sister. She will work not only for your best interests but for those of your wives, mothers, sweethearts, sisters and children after the war. Remember those who have helped you so nobly through the fight.

That message and a compelling photo on her campaign poster won MacAdams a seat.

MacAdams took her seat in the legislature in February 1918. A strong advocate for veterans’ rehabilitation and reintegration, she became the first woman to introduce a piece of legislation in the British Empire, a bill to incorporate the War Veterans’ Next-of-Kin Association.

It seemed to me that the lives of ordinary people who stepped out and did something extraordinary – often in times of national crisis – were much more interesting than the lives of people whose fame preceded them. (p 48)

Finding MacAdams was not an easy task. She did not keep a journal or scrapbook and tossed out letters as soon as she had responded. Marshall pieced together snippets of information from archives and tracked down friends and relatives. With this, she tried to follow MacAdams’ footsteps. She sometimes enters the realm of conjecture, but always on reasonable grounds.

By sharing her own journey to uncover the traces of MacAdams’ life, Marshall enriches the story. I can relate to her recollections of International Women’s Day marches past:

As we walked arm in arm, I wondered if the women who had fought for our rights at the turn of the century would have recognized themselves in our faces. … Decades after those protest marches … it struck me that maybe we were the ones who were failing to recognize the women of the past. Their faces were disappearing, and along with them, a vital piece of our own identity and history. (p xv-xvi)

Give Your Other Vote to the Sister makes the case for reclaiming our past.

Debbie Marshall traces the lives of Canadian nurses killed in WW1 in her blog, Finding the Forty-Seven: Canadian Nurses of the First World War. Well worth spending some time there.

Read my interview with author Debbie Marshall.