The Canadian military experience in the First World War is remembered as largely an experience of trenches, mud, and shells. Seriously neglected is the array of support that putting that army into the field required, and the experiences of those providing it. This may be in part because the actual fighting seems so much more heroic and interesting, and because it works so well with our narrative of Canadian nationalism discovered in the trenches of Flanders. John McKendrick Hughes's The Unwanted: Great War Letters from the Field provides a corrective by looking beyond the battlefield and giving voice to one of the myriad other military experiences of Canada's participation in the First World War.
The title refers to Hughes's position as one of many surplus Canadian officers in England, the result of high fatalities and the decision to send full battalions rather than focusing on keeping those existing up to strength. When his battalion was broken up upon arrival in England, Hughes joined other officers given the choice of returning ignobly to Canada or taking a drop in rank and whatever other, generally non-combatant, position they could get. The substance of this memoir describes Hughes's experience as [End Page 526] a corps agricultural officer with the British Second army, charged with growing vegetables and other foodstuffs to feed the troops.
Hughes's perspective is valuable not only in that it gives a glimpse into the breadth of Canadian military experiences in France, but also in that his position required him to look at the battlefields of France in terms of their suitability for farming. This unusual point of view helps him put forward several insights and memorable images about the battlefields in their most basic sense, as fields. The devastation of the war is described memorably in its effects upon the land itself.
It is also a fiercely patriotic account. Hughes makes frequent reference to the superiority of Canadian soldiers both in terms of their courage and of their ability to get things done efficiently, relying on the image of colonial ignorance to bypass army red tape. Hughes is opinionated, sometimes bitter, and also often funny, especially in his anecdotes about his interactions with leading social and political figures of the day.
The subtitle, 'Great War Letters from the Field,' is somewhat misleading. This is not a selection of letters, although a few are included. It is a memoir written by J.M. Hughes years later, after finding the letters that he had written his wife during the Great War. This memoir was in turn discovered and edited by Hughes's grandson. The layers of mediation involved in this can be problematic. The distancing is exacerbated by Hughes's decision to write in first person plural. He explains this as necessary because 'first person singular sounds like patting ourselves on the back.' Admirable as this perspective may be, its awkwardness, seen in phrases such as 'later we were to become a censor ourself,' gives a sense of royal remove rather than of shared experience.
The distance, however, also brings an interesting perspective. After presenting the image of a building improbably left standing after being at the centre of much fighting, for example, Hughes adds that one of his sons would help finally bring it down a generation later. In this memoir the First and Second World Wars bleed together, especially in terms of their effects on the land upon which they were fought.
The distance also means that the book is more of a biography – a glimpse at a larger period of the author's life – than a collection of letters would be. The editor has added to this by his inclusion of appendices about his grandfather's family history and life before and after the war. We see how unexpected lessons from his war experience developed through his later life, such as his lesson in socialism from a conservative aristocrat, and his later passion for the co-operative movement. Hughes was a man with a...