Canada at War

Writing the microhistory of the communities that form our cities is akin to using a microscope to provide new insight into the condition of a large eco-system.  The presence or absence of a single plant or soil sample cannot replace broader studies but it can challenge our assumptions and point out new areas for inquiry.  In the same way, microhistory can challenge or reinforce the hypotheses of the more general histories of the Great War to shed light on previously unexplored ideas. While microhistory offers us the opportunity to develop a more fulsome grasp of our subject, it also runs the risk of being reduced to meaningless trivia.  In seeking to strike a balance, our efforts must be firmly positioned within the broader context of the time and place under consideration.

The Historical Context

For the Great War, the basic “facts” are well established.  We can say with some certainty when and where a battle took place, the nature and number of troops involved and in many cases trace the fate of individual soldiers in battle.  Where history begins to take over is in how these facts are used.  Historians in some sense are like lawyers who marshal a set of facts, argue for their relevance and weave them together to present a hypothesis.  As is the case in an adversarial trial, protagonists in the debate using the same set of facts may arrive at markedly different conclusions.

In viewing competing interpretations of the Great War there is a temptation to construct grand patterns out of their ebb and flow.  The heroic, nation building representations of early histories are eaten away by a picture of futility, incompetence and tragic irony by the nineteen thirties.  Disinterest in the period following the Second World War is in turn swept away by a balanced interpretation in more recent times.  While the balance may have shifted over time, the competing themes of tragic futility or heroic nation building are evident from the earliest accounts to the present day.  That contrast is captured at least in part by the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and John McCrae.  In Canada, McCrae’s poem is recited faithfully each year on Remembrance Day in front of hushed crowds with the challenge to “take up our quarrel with the foe”.[1]  The disillusionment of Sassoon in the “incompetent swine” still echoes through the influential work of writers like Paul Fussell.[2] These competing views of the Great War also mark a divergence in writing about the Canadian and British experience, shaped at least in part by national perceptions of two battles, the Somme in 1916 and Vimy Ridge in 1917.   But Fussell’s hypothesis has a second strain that is independent of the issue of the futility of war.  He proposed that the ruling elites through a deliberate program of deception, censorship and active propaganda shaped the public discourse in a war.  This manipulation by the elites ensured continued support for the war and established an on-going heroic myth. In Canada, it is this second theme that continues to fuel different interpretations by historians.


Canadian treatment of the war initially followed the British pattern of heroic employment in a series of unofficial histories. Even depictions of the bloody Battle of the Somme echoed the British official line of turning the tide and fracturing the morale of the enemy.[3]  Much of the language in these early accounts now appears extreme in its glorification of Canadian troops and vilification of the enemy.  Today, we can see these works as the beginning of a more lengthy process depicting the Canadian Corps as the embodiment of the nation.[4]

Vimy Ridge – the Development of the Myth

It is with the treatment of Vimy Ridge, that the divide between Canadian and British historians and others becomes evident. For British historians Vimy Ridge is a minor event, simply part of the larger Battle of Arras.  In Haig’s despatches Vimy merits a mere two paragraphs.  Liddell positions it as a well -planned supporting action in what was a larger strategic failure.[5]  In contrast, Canadian writing has elevated Vimy Ridge to iconic status.

Nicholson’s much delayed official history published in 1964 generally avoids the heroic language of earlier accounts.  Nevertheless, the presentation clearly reinforces the nation-building theme.  Vimy Ridge is initially described as a diversion deprived of any great strategic significance by the failure of the main offensive by the French under Nivelle.  Despite this realistic assessment, Nicholson acknowledges that in the years between the battle and the publication of the official history Vimy Ridge had taken on the status of a national icon.  He writes:

“For Canada the battle had great national significance. It demonstrated how powerful and efficient a weapon the Canadian Corps had become. For the first time the four Canadian divisions had attacked together. Their battalions were manned by soldiers from every part of Canada fighting shoulder to shoulder. No other operation of the First World War was to be remembered by Canadians with such pride-the pride of achievement through united and dedicated effort.”[6]

The Canadian Corps emerged from the battle as the “shock troops” of the Empire leading the Allied armies in the final hundred days to ultimate victory.  In a CBC documentary Brian McKenna described it this way: “At Vimy and elsewhere, Canadian troops achieved great, necessary victories at an appalling cost. What they did is a part of who we are. It’s burnt into our DNA.”[7]  In his monumental two volume series on the Great War, Tim Cook devotes four chapters to the Vimy battle.  Although he depicts the bloody cost in meticulous detail, in the end he concludes “But nations, and especially young ones, need symbols. … Vimy…remains an important symbolic signpost in Canadian history – and it should be.”   Cook and most other Canadian historians remain firmly under the nation building banner of John McCrae albeit with a recognition that in uniting most of the country the war drove a deep and lasting fissure between the francophone minority and the rest of the country.  

Disillusionment and the Role of Propaganda and Censorship

With historians writing from the British perspective we see a markedly different story with a focus on the Somme.  Early newspaper headlines on the bloodiest day in the history of British arms declared “So far the day goes well for England and France.  – As far as can be ascertained, our casualties have not been heavy”[8]  More detailed accounts appearing latter 1916 began to justify the enormous losses as “The Opening of the Wearing-out Battle”.  This was presented as the great turning point of the war where the allied forces moved to the offensive.  The language of these reports is clearly heroic, replete with words like gallantry and valour.  The infantry were “worthy of the highest traditions of our race”[9].  The propaganda campaign to shape public perceptions was immediate and intensive.  John Buchan’s popular account sharply contrasted the heroic British soldiers with the fierce but barbaric opponent that had among them “baby-killers, frightened of their own shadows, and anxious only to be taken prisoner”. [10] This effort at manipulation of public opinion as much as the horrific casualties lies at the heart of the stream of historical writing under the banner of Sassoon.  The second element, the image of the futility of war was soon to emerge.

The attack on the heroic official history did not begin in earnest until 1930 after the death of Sir Douglas Haig with the publication of The Real War by Sir Basil Liddell Hart (later re-published in a revised edition as History of the First World War).  Commenting on the opening days of the Somme battle, he writes:

“One can hardly believe that anyone with a grain of common-sense or any grasp of past experience would have launched troops to attack by such a method unless intoxicated with confidence in the effect of the bombardment.”

This theme of incompetent generals leading brave but disillusioned soldiers to their doom was echoed in popular writing by books like Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms both published in 1929.  The idea of deception however was largely absent from Liddell Hart’s history.

Deception is picked up later by social and cultural historians who looked at the role of propaganda in war. Phillip Knightley, in his chapters on the Great War, laid bare the massive program of propaganda behind the British war effort, often including deliberate falsification.  Although Knightley’s research on propaganda and war correspondence is compelling, it is important to remember that his conclusions are coloured by the anti-war sentiment of the 1970’s, causing him to over-reach in a number of areas.  Although he acknowledges the impact of events like the sinking of the Lusitania, submarine warfare, and the Zimmermann telegram, Knightly attributes the effectiveness of British propaganda with the sudden turn from American neutrality in 1916 to a “hatred of everything German” by 1917.  Regrettably he does little to demonstrate this cause and effect relationship or give credence to the countervailing program of German propaganda efforts.[11]  Nevertheless, Knightley’s work provides a cautionary note for anyone using newspaper sources and will serve as a useful reference point for our consideration of press coverage in Canadian cities.

We see a similar pattern in the more influential work of Paul Fussell writing about the same time.  In The Great War and Modern Memory, he presents a literary and cultural examination of the war that moved well beyond the realm of the war correspondent to lay out a more expansive thesis. Tellingly, he too quotes Sassoon – presenting The Hero in full.   He places the intellectual elite in a battle with those lesser souls who command armies and lead nations.  Repeating the errors of Knightley he boldly concludes that

“Indeed, one powerful legacy of Haig’s performance is the conviction among the imaginative and intelligent today of the unredeemable defectiveness of all civil and military leaders. Haig could be said to have established the paradigm. His want of imagination and innocence of artistic culture have seemed to provide a model for Great Men ever since.”[12]

Fussell has been roundly criticized for his simplistic and often error-ridden representation of the war.[13]  Typical of his gross generalizations is this comment on the cause and futility of war:

“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends. In the Great War eight million people were destroyed because two persons, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his Consort, had been shot.”[14]

Despite these serious lapses, if we accept Fussell on his own terms as an analyst of cultural and literary representation, he has much to offer.  We are alerted to how the use of words shapes our perceptions and how the use of language altered its nature over the course of the war.  He argues persuasively that the war not only disrupted the economies and political arrangements of much of the world but also fractured what had been a stable social and cultural world.

The first biting rebuttal of Fussell and other Great War mythologists came in John Terraine’s 1980 book The Smoke and the Fire. He commences with an exposure of some of the early myths of the war from the Angels of Mons to rape of Belgium before laying out an impressive array of comparative statistics to shred to image of British casualties presented by Fussell.  He ends by attacking what he describes as “the deep-seated perhaps ineradicable, instinct of self-denigration among the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ peoples”[15] and the construct of a purposeless conflict.  As we continue, it will be apparent that the historical dragon of the futile war engaged by Terraine never really gained a foothold in Canada.

Recent histories of the Great War have taken a more balanced approach while incorporating some of the tools of cultural and social historians.   John Keegan’s account of the war follows the pattern of his landmark contribution The Face of Battle but focussing narrowly on life at the front.[16]  More useful for our purposes is Ian Beckett’s The Great War 1914-1918. In rejecting the more typical narrative approach in favour of a thematic analysis he covers a wide range of topics from war and society to the economy, politics, conscription and even memory and commemoration.  Because he incorporates material from Canadian and Australian sources as well as the British experience his work provides a useful touch point.  Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory goes some way in counteracting the Lions led by Donkeys mode of earlier British accounts.  It also presents a more generous interpretation of the contributions of the Canadian Corps acknowledging for example that “the triumph of the Canadians at Vimy has tended to overshadow the achievements of the Third Army to the south.” He also gives credence to the strategic importance of Vimy as important in blocking the German offensive in 1918.[17]

Contemporary Canadian Interpretations

Canadian historians Jack Granatstein and Desmond Morton have laid a solid foundation in their accounts of Canada in the war.  But their efforts have now been largely supplanted by others.  For an understanding of Canadians fighting on the western front, Tim Cook’s two volume series Canadians Fighting the Great War stands as the best current account although it remains firmly in the tradition of the dominant nation building discourse.  Marc Milner does yeoman service with his account of the early days of the RCN including details of the base at Esquimalt before and during the war.  More useful for our purposes however are more thematic works that focus on life on the home front in Canada

The first, Militia Myths by James Wood paints a compelling image of the militia as the social centre of many Canadian communities.  He presents a reserve force of varied ability much dependent on the degree of support from wealth sponsors and social elites.  Where community leadership and wealth was engaged units prospered.  He argues that in many cases ceremonial and social interests manifested in regimental bands, colourful uniforms and social events took precedence over effective military training while at least in some urban centres militia units were reasonably proficient.  On the other hand the relatively large numbers in the force and the pre-war expansion of ranges and training areas combined with the prestige of commanding officers were at the core of Canada’s rapid response to mobilization for war.  Our study of Victoria provides a somewhat unique opportunity.  Here we will be able to consider the interplay between recruiting for the Navy and the Army and the role of the naval reserve.

In Jonathan Vance’s Death So Noble, we shift to a post-war perspective.  Vance presents a sharp contrast to Fussell’s picture of shattered pre-war idealism descending into national despair and disillusionment.  In Canada, he argues, the heroic and generally romantic language of the pre-war period is sustained not simply in written material but also in monuments, stained glass and public ceremonial. He rejects Fussell’s argument about social elites shaping these myths arguing that:

“To dismiss the dominant memory as elite manipulation is to do a disservice to the uneducated veteran from northern Alberta who wistfully recalled the estaminets of France, the penurious spinster in Vancouver who sent a dollar to the war memorial fund, or the school girl who marched proudly in a Nova Scotia Armistice day parade.  People like this embraced the myth, not because their social betters drilled it into their minds by sheer repetition but because it answered a need, explained the past, or offered a promise of a better future.  They did more than simply embrace the myth: they helped to create it.”[18]

The next two works parallel at least in some sense the broader debates that I have positioned under the poetic banners of McRae and Sassoon.  The first work by Jeffery Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship in Canada’s Great War published in 1996 present a picture of government control of public discourse that is both more pervasive and more effective than similar campaigns in Britain and the United States.  The two principal characters we meet are Lt Col Ernest Chambers, the chief censor in Canada and Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook): Canada’s eye witness in Europe. Keshen provides a thorough review of the various regulations and directives that gave these men unprecedented ability to control and shape information about the war. They were not simply preventing the flow of military information to the enemy but more importantly sustaining civilian morale and support for the war in the face of mounting casualties.   He describes it as “among the most brazen affronts to democracy in the country’s history”.[19]  Keshen does not go as far as Fussell in condemning the morality of the war but supports the general hypothesis that public support was based on a fabric of lies.  Rather than establishing the nation building myth, post war histories simply built on the myth already established by the wartime propagandists.

As a counterpoint, Ian Miller argues for a literate and well-informed public fully aware of the horrible reality of the western front.  His study of Toronto in the Great War is the best available examination of the home front focussed on a single community and provides a useful model for our research.  In Our Glory and Our Grief¸ Ian Miller weaves together both a thematic and narrative approach that results in some repetition but allows the reader to examine issues like recruiting, the role of women and conscription that stand on their own.  We also find some excellent material in the appendices that provide a breakdown of ethnic and religious composition of the community.  He directly challenges the arguments of Fussell arguing that, at least in Toronto, those who enlisted and the vast majority who supported the war were neither mislead nor deceived by wartime propaganda.  More specifically he confronts the argument put forward by Jeffrey Keshen that propaganda and censorship were so pervasive that Canadians were duped into supporting a bloody conflict that they might have otherwise opposed.  Miller’s counter argument is based on a detailed review not only of Toronto newspapers but also of a wide selection of personal papers, pamphlets, records and archives of both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.  Miller argues that pervasive propaganda was offset by access to other sources ranging from personal letters to exchanges with returned soldiers, US and even German reports.  Hiding the inescapable reality of a largely static front and mounting casualties was simply beyond the capacity of any propagandist.  Torontonians, he argues were not blind to the reality of war but instead were literate intelligent observers who with few exceptions continued to support the war from beginning to end.  Strikingly, he paints a picture of numerous returned soldiers, with direct experience at the front as among the most ardent supporters of the war effort.  As the war progressed and people became more aware of the awful reality, the discourse shifted from a great adventure to uphold the honour of the Empire against the evil Kaiser and German militarists to a holy crusade against a depraved enemy.  One can almost hear McCrae’s call to “take up our quarrel with the foe”.  Regrettably, Miller truncates his study narrowly within the bounds of the declaration of war and the armistice.  We have little sense of pre-war Toronto or the impact of post war resettlement.  In one respect at least, he agrees with Keshen that the national myth in Canada was well established by the end of the war. In doing so he rejects Vance’s hypothesis that “Canadians created a ‘myth’ which gave them a ‘legacy not of despair, aimlessness, and futility, but promise, certainty and goodness”.  Miller argues that

“Toronto’s experience demonstrates that there was no need for Canadians to create such a myth.  They were simply remembering their experience, memorializing glory and grief. They already believed, based on their experience, that the war had been purposeful and necessary.”[20]

Keshen’s rebuttal of Miller’s argument for an informed public emerges in the excellent collection of essays, War and Society in Post –Confederation Canada compiled with Serge Marc Durflinger.  The presentation style adopted is compelling. The layout of each section juxtaposes historic documents like the 1911 address to the Empire Club in Toronto on the value of Cadet Training with contemporary commentary on manliness and militarism.[21] We find a similar approach taken with the topic of censorship where Keshen’s own essay examining Ottawa newspapers is preceded with extracts from wartime regulations[22].  Here Keshen responds directly to Miller’s critique. He argues that Ottawa is more representative of the nation as a whole.  In Ottawa at least the newspapers followed the official line almost without deviation.  More than that, they appear as willing accomplices in the program of deceit.  Regrettably, Keshen continues his narrow focus on newspaper sources alone.  In essence, the conflict between Miller and Keshen comes down to whether one believes that propaganda and newspapers really were the prime determinants of public belief.  It remains to be seen whether our research will support the conclusions of Miller or Keshen.  What is a certainty however is that the more focused examination of Canadian cities at war will reveal a diverse range of lived experience in Canadian communities that has been largely obscured by the dominance of the national narrative.

[1] Ian F. W. Beckett. The Great War 1914-1918. Chapter 12 “Wastelands” contrasts memory, commemoration and cultural impacts in Britain with Canada and other commonwealth countries.

[2] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory.

[3] P. A. Errett, “The Somme Offensive.” In Canada in the Great War, Vol. VI the Turn of the Tide. Memorial Edition ed. Vol. IV, 15.

[4] See Jonathan F. Vance. Death So Noble – Memory, Meaning and the First World War.

[5] B.H. Liddell Hart. History of the World War 1914-1918, 314.

[6] Colonel G. W. L. Nicholson. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914 – 1918., 267.

[7] Stephen Cole , quoting Brian McKenna in “Birth of a Nation: Brian McKenna revisits Vimy and Passchendaele in The Great War” at

[8] Lloyds Weekly News, 2 July 1916, front page, viewed on

[9] Boraston, Lieut-Colonel J.H. ed. Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (December 1915 – April 1919), 59.

[10]John Buchan, The Battle of the Somme, First Phase. 69.

[11] Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty, 121.

[12] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 12

[13]  See Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, “Paul Fussell at War” in War in History” 1994 1, 63-80

[14] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 7

[15] John Terraine. The Smoke and the Fire. 220.

[16] John Keegan. The First World War, New York: 1999

[17] Gary Sheffield. Forgotten Victory. 195

[18] Jonathan Vance. Death so Noble,  267

[19] Jeffery Keshen. Propaganda and Censorship in Canada’s Great War, 109.

[20] Miller, Our Grief and our Glory, 198.

[21] Mark Moss. “Manliness and Militarism: Educating Young Boys in Ontario for War” in J. Keshen and M Durflinger eds. War and Society in Post-Confederation Canada.

[22] Jeffrey Keshen. “Ottawa Newspapers fight the First World War” in J. Keshen and M Durflinger eds. War and Society in Post-Confederation Canada.