- The Canadian Experience of the Great War: A Guide to Memoirs by Brian Douglas Tennyson
In The Canadian Experience of the Great War, Brian Douglas Tennyson has done an immeasurable service for historians of the First World War and, more importantly, for all those studying the war’s impact on Canadian society, culture, and individual remembrance. Refuting claims of a curious Canadian silence on the memories of returned ex-servicemen and women, Tennyson has compiled for the first time a comprehensive list of all published works by Canadian soldiers or those serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Across a wide range of sources, including published memoirs, magazine and journal articles, fictional accounts, and poetry collections, Tennyson has shattered the myth of a Canadian soldiery intellectually ill-equipped to remember the war in writing, identifying 968 authored accounts of the war.
Listed alphabetically by surname, entries are easy to navigate and provide a brief biographical portrait of the soldier-author. Unlike in most reference tools, Tennyson has incorporated the age, regimental affiliation, rank, pre-war and postwar vocation of soldiers into thought-provoking annotations, morphing what would otherwise be bland bibliographical entries into concise, humane narratives. Indeed, one of the joys of the work comes from the temptation to flip breezily through its pages, propping the book open at random intervals to discover unique stories from Canada’s military past, such as the retrospective account and biography of Harry A. Yates, a Canadian pilot who flew secret missions for T.E. Lawrence in Arabia. Ample endnotes supplement the bibliography, allowing the reader to engage more fully with extended biographies. [End Page 121]
While The Canadian Experience of the Great War is neatly presented, containing an astonishing amount of material, there are two problems. First, Tennyson’s historiographical breakdown of First World War literature studies, developed in an introductory chapter, relies upon badly outdated scholarship. For example, claims of high ideals and youthful enthusiasm as factors contributing to civilian enlistment have been revised by Adrian Gregory, at least for the British case. Canada was not, as is suggested, unique in finding cause for celebration in the war; Michael Paris has ably demonstrated an active and vibrant “pleasure culture of war” in interwar Britain. Furthermore, Tennyson references the early onset of soldier disillusionment, despite the recent work of Janet Watson, which has shown that interwar disillusionment was entirely a product of the late 1920s and was often at odds with the wartime writings of soldiers.
The second problem is Tennyson’s selection criteria. Rightly recognizing the difficulties associated with defining citizenship and membership in the Canadian armed forces, Tennyson includes American cross-border volunteers but, strangely, omits those who came only to join the Royal Flying Corps. Perhaps Tennyson sees such volunteers as opportunistic adventure-seekers, yet the war in the air was every bit a part of the wider war effort, as was the fighting in the trenches. Newspaper articles find themselves outside the book’s parameters – a curious omission, given the popularity of local newspapers in the early twentieth century, and the likelihood that some soldier-authors would have been inclined to share their account of the war with their local community. Digital reproductions, published by surviving family members, also fall into a categorical grey area, as posthumous publications are included at the expense of digital publishing.
As a compendium of Canadian retrospective soldier accounts, The Canadian Experience of the Great War will certainly become an indispensable research aid to both graduate students and professional historians alike. Answering critical questions about the extent and diversity of Canadian soldier publishing, Tennyson has successfully concluded a near-century-long debate. Despite some historiographical shortcomings and a selection policy that likely reduced the overall number of accounts included, Tennyson’s work is a monumental achievement that deserves high praise. It is also a testament to the value of institutional cooperation across provincial and national boundaries. Interlibrary loans and reciprocal exchange agreements between university and municipal libraries, supported by a legion of archivists, researchers, and librarians, deserve equal credit...