Remembrance Day: the Great War and Canadian Mythology

Tim Cook's The Madman and the Butcher

The Great War ended 92 years ago today. I reflect on Canada’s experience in the war in a review I did for The Walrus of Tim Cook’s new book The Madman and the Butcher. The review can be read here.

My Walrus review was tightly constricted by space to 600 words, so I’ll take the opportunity to add a few extra thoughts.

Cook’s book (and his earlier works) represents both the strengths and weaknesses of English Canadian historiography about the Great War. The strength of this literature is that the way it has exhaustively combed through the archives to recreate the experiences of Canadians who fought in the war. Given the nature of the evidence available, there is a slight imbalance towards the experience of officers but in recent decades historians like Cook have also been paying more attention the experiences of enlisted men. What these books give us, at their best, is a deeply textured and specific phenomenology of the war as it was lived through day by day.

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Epitaph for a War

Rudyard Kipling was a great fool and a great poet. He was a blustery war-booster who stupidly pushed his sight-impared son off to join the Irish Guards during World War I, a move that insured the young boy’s death. Yet Kipling also wrote the best short poems about that War, his “Epitaphs of the War”. One epitaph brought together Kipling’s folly with his talent: 

‘If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.’

There Died A Myriad

trench-warfare

In the trenches.

 

Ninety years ago, the stupidest and wickedest war in human history came to a formal end. I say formal end because even as the surrender was signed, millions continued to go hungry and intermittent conflicts plagued Europe and Asia. And in fact, the botched peace would lead to a larger and more murderous war.

 

While it’s fit and proper to remember those killed and maimed during the war, soldiers and civilians alike, we shouldn’t forget the criminal policies that led to the bloodshed.

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