- And We Go On: A Memoir of the Great War by Will R. Bird
And We Go On is the ‘lost classic’ First World War memoir of Nova Scotian Will R. Bird. Originally published in 1930, Bird later recycled much of it to form 60 per cent of his 1968 novel Ghosts Have Warm Hands. Yet Ghosts is well known today, while And We Go On has been out of print for 75 years. How did this happen? David Williams frames the text with an illuminating introduction and afterword which seek to answer this question, while demonstrating And We Go On’s impact upon subsequent Canadian literature and favourably contrasting it with other First World War memoirs. One of the most intriguing comparisons is that ‘unlike the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, who [End Page 115] never names a town or geographical site, [Bird] resisted the tendency to generalise, let alone universalise’ (p. xii).
The most compelling characteristic of the book is that it is not just Bird’s story. It recounts Bird’s interactions with a dizzyingly revolving cast of soldiers, and he affords each of them the opportunity to air their philosophies and grievances concerning the war. Most of those perspectives were lost in the subsequent Ghosts, which offered a ‘narrow[er] range of voices’ (pp. xiii, 236–40), and And We Go On is the richer for it. Most of the characters flit into and out of Bird’s narrative tragically quickly. Besides Bird himself, another stable character is his friend Tommy, whose very name, as Williams aptly notes, imbues him with the voice of the everyman. Bird eloquently weaves all of these people’s voices together to build a harshly realistic and beautifully introspective commentary on the futility and personal consequences of war. Williams incisively comments upon the text’s universality: ‘the plural first person of And We Go On speaks the “we” of all sides of the conflict’ (p. xxvi). The book is also set apart by its mysticism: it is ‘a war story fused with a ghost story’ (p. viii). Bird’s dead brother Steve infuses the entire text: Bird enlists after seeing Steve’s apparition, and is subsequently guided by Steve’s ghost multiple times. Mysticism also surfaces in the premonitions of Bird’s comrades that they are about to die.
Williams argues that ‘Bird’s vision is essentially tragic’ (p. xxiii), and this is poignantly reinforced throughout the book in recurring uses of the phrase ‘and we go on’, spoken by different characters who each give it a different shade of meaning. Gripping and easily readable, this book is a welcome re-addition to the canon of Canadian war literature and would be a strong addition to university syllabi.