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  • Living with the First World War, 1914-1919:History as Personal Experience
  • Desmond Morton (bio)

AS AN ACADEMIC historian, I could have pursued a variety of possibly fascinating topics. How about municipal sewers across the world and their impact on human longevity? Or domestic pets and the changing patterns of species acceptance since the 1800s? Instead, to the astonishment of some and through encouragement from others, I was attracted by what contemporaries described, with some justice, as “The Great War.” In my own life, its impact was easily surpassed by the Second World War. Canada entered that war precisely on my fourth birthday. My father, one of Canada’s few professional soldiers, promptly left Calgary for Edmonton to open recruiting. He told us much later that most of the early volunteers had been strongly advised by their parents to join the Medical Corps. In 1941, my dad went overseas with his regiment, leaving his wife and children to live with her parents in the affluent little village of Rothesay. My grandfather, Harry Frink, was a prosperous insurance agent in Saint John, New Brunswick, where his Loyalist New York ancestors had made their home. He celebrated their Loyalist roots. Shortly before D-Day, my dad wrote me what he imagined could be his last contact with his only son. Eventually he did return, though many in his armoured regiment did not. That letter helped me understand what war really means to its survivors and its victims. Seldom does it include grandeur or glory.

The First World War happened long before I was born, though its images, recorded in the wartime version of the Illustrated London News, filled a bookshelf that took up half the length of the hallway of our converted H-Hut home in postwar Regina. The volumes, wider than they were long, fed my mind with the patriotic poop needed to keep our King’s loyal subjects in a sacrificial mood.

The story I remember best about the war and my family belongs to my mother, a precocious preschooler in the summer of 1914. Her chores included fetching the family’s newspaper from the Kennedy House, Rothesay’s main boarding [End Page 497] establishment. On August 4, 1914, she raced home to report the headlines: “War declared,” she announced, and then marvelled at how pleased the adults of her family seemed to be on learning what she thought was terrible news.

Most English-speaking Canadians seem to have shared that delight. Their French-speaking fellow-citizens tended to have a more negative response, though there were parades and crowds in the streets in Montreal and Quebec as well as, weather permitting, in Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver, and anywhere else where Canadians believed themselves to be British. War, after all, was a test of character, patriotism, and personal courage. If it cost money, it would certainly create jobs. A country with 15 per cent unemployment could not scorn a Canadian Contingent that offered 30,000 would-be soldiers at least $1.10 a day in pay, not to mention the jobs created to provide them with British-style uniforms with a few Canadian modifications.

Canadians (according to my chief mentor, George Francis Gilman Stanley) are an unmilitary people. In 1939, Stanley himself was hard at work on a book about Canada’s soldiers when the Second World War interfered. He would eventually finish the book after a war he spent overseas as deputy head under Colonel Charles Perry Stacey of the Canadian Army’s Historical Section. His work, Canada’s Soldiers, remains a core text for anyone interested in our wars, though it was probably not the book that pulled me into the surprisingly rich groves of military memories I found in my father’s library.

None was more influential than Charles Arkell Boulton’s Reminiscences of the North-West Rebellions. Boulton was a Torontonian, one of the family that created the Victorian mansion that now serves as a museum at the heart of the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1858, the British decided to add a new 100th Regiment to their army and chose to recruit it in pre-Confederation Canada with Canada’s first Victoria Cross winner, Frederick...


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pp. 497-514
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