- War on the Home Front: The Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan, 1914–1927
This book offers a view of the First World War from a rural New Brunswick perspective, as revealed in the diaries of Daniel MacMillan. MacMillan appears as an average farmer who worked hard and fulfilled his social responsibilities, and he is representative of the sturdy, God-fearing folk of rural Maritime Canada. Through a series of brief diary entries the reader is exposed to the daily hardships, sacrifices, occasional joys, and constant tragedies that framed Maritime life in the war years. MacMillan had no special attributes, was blessed with no apparent genius, and had neither powerful friends nor a unique vantage point from which to view the unfolding of important regional or national events. The diary, then, serves as a 'portal into the mind of one man as he experienced a tragic four-year event that changed the lives of all Canadians. The fear, anxiety and uncertainty as well as the sense of duty and fortitude that characterized the war experience on an [End Page 347] individual level come through more clearly in the diaries than they ever could in second-hand accounts.'
MacMillan was in his early fifties during the war and did not serve in uniform, but wrote, 'I really think I can do my bit better here on the farm than any other place.' The arc of his war experience, however, would have been familiar to thousands of other Canadians, and his perspective on the world beyond his local community is expressed not in regional or Maritime terms but through national – Canadian – ones. In the early years he did his patriotic duty by attending speeches and rallies, following foreign events in the newspapers, and contributing seventeen bushels of potatoes to the Belgian relief effort. But by 1917 the war had dragged on much longer than he anticipated and the number of local men killed and wounded rose dramatically, and his early interest, if not enthusiasm, turned to war-weariness. The end of the war brought more tragedy, thanks to the flu epidemic that seemed to devastate his community, and his early postwar thoughts turned not to the joys of victory but to the rising radicalism and the spectre of bolshevism that seemed intent on sweeping the country.
The entries are short and MacMillan appears to have been a man of few words. Conscription, for example, is dealt with succinctly: the French-speaking population was against it, but 'it is what should have been done from the start of the war.' This is not to suggest that he wrote without intelligence or wit. 'This time last fall,' he wrote in the dark days of 1917, 'we were saying the Allies will have them on the run before another year. They are certainly on the run, but not in the direction we wish.'
The diaries continue into the postwar era and reveal how MacMillan, his family, and community fared in the recession of the 1920s. It was tough times and MacMillan sold his farm and found himself approaching old age with little security and fewer prospects. The wounds and scars of the war lingered as well, and continued to affect his family's ability to succeed. The diary ends in 1927, and by then MacMillan had no farm, his friends and family were slipping away, and there is pervading sense of gloom about his future. Still, he lived until 1960, dying at the age of ninety-seven.
In 1923 MacMillan turned sixty and began to reflect on his life. In one of the longest and most moving passages in the diary he wrote, '[Y]et there is a vast contrast between the daydreams of forty years ago and the reality of today. Then, when walking behind my plow or walking to and from work, what pictures I used to fancy of orchards I would plant, of the barns and stables I would build, of cows, horses, sheep, pigs and poultry I would have some day; of the new...