Volume 93, Issue 41

Thursday, November 11, 1999


A Canadian soldier's story

Death So Noble searches for the real WW1

Merchants still left out in the cold

Death So Noble searches for the real WW1

By Clare Elias
Gazette Staff

Typically, historians attempt to remain objective and detached from their subject, as any emotional involvement with their work could make the task more difficult. This was not to be the case for Jonathan F. Vance, a history professor at Western.

His latest effort, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning And The First World War, strips away the layers of historical distortion of the First World War. The purpose of his writings was to truly understand the events and history behind Canada's first international involvement in the war.

Vance could not remain indifferent or unattached from his work, as the inspiration for the piece was his grandfather's service in the war. "He never wanted to talk about it and I didn't know if it was because of some trauma or if it was simply some part of his life which was finished."

Vance, after finishing his book, learned his grandfather's behaviour was not uncommon among veterans. Most did not dwell on the horrors, but instead tried to focus on fonder memories and better aspects of war.

In a way, this is what the historians did with their account of the First World War, Vance argues. But their purpose was political – it was not an attempt to seek solace. "During the First World War, it was promising to fight. We were working towards a better world and for Canadians they were working for a nicer society." However, Vance added the 1920s was a very cold and nasty place and the result was different than the goal they had sought. "There were no tangible goals such as welfare and social help."

The historians therefore focused on the grand ideals of liberty to compensate for the high unemployment rate. The result was a society which began to agree collectively on the events in the past and this, in turn, created a collective memory. "The historians decided how we're going to remember people and they didn't include the mud, the dead in the trenches and the blood. What we think about instead is our defence of Christianity and support for Canadian nationalism."

However, this pride in our nation has been distorted by historians. Most of the Canadians who served in the First World War were British and had lived in Canada for only three or four years. "People like to believe when Canadians went over in 1914, we were sending the life and soul of the nation. But here, again, reality took a back seat to the actual event," Vance said.

However, it was not the First World War which put Canadians on the international stage. Instead, it was the Second World War. "We have been a little misled by historians who want us to see [the Second World War] as a fight against evil, but the moral issues were just as clear in the first war. For people at the time, it was all black and white. The struggle against evil was still there."

Vance's historical account deals strictly with the First World War reinforcing the importance of the historical event, as it is often difficult to appreciate the soldiers' dedication. "It's not that Canadians are unfeeling or uncaring, but we don't have the tangibles of war France and Belgium [do]. The kids grow up in Europe surrounded by battlefields, but here it's hard to remember that over 100,000 Canadians served in the wars."

Vance remarked on the increased interest in Remembrance Day, compared to the last 20 years. "In the last five years there's been a resurgence of interest in veterans and perhaps it's because we're seeing the consequences of war with our peacekeepers. But also, as we reach the end of the century, there's more interest in our formative events."

Vance's Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning And The First World War, was written to remove the shackles of historians and to get to the essentials of the First World War.

To Contact The Campus and Culture Department:

Copyright The Gazette 1999