Historians of Canada's First World War: What do we know?

Recently, the Canadian Historical Review published a series of articles reviewing the state of First World War scholarship in Canadian history. This collection is great for scholars, but probably more difficult for the public to engage with it.  So, we’re going to talk about where Canadian historians stand on the First World War in 2014 – how does it compare to what you’ve read?

Generally, the public doesn’t encounter academic writing about the First World War. Most non-historians read or hear about the First World War in school, online, or on television. They might have read Tim Cook’s very popular books about the soldier experience, or maybe some older academic histories.  It’s increasingly unlikely they’ve read less well-known academic books, let alone articles that appear in history journals. 

There’s a natural flow of academic knowledge professional historians to general histories and to the general public, though some easily overlap.  Historians are (hopefully) involved in writing the textbooks you encounter in school, and draw from the academic work that most people never encounter.  Historians like Tim Cook venture into the less jargon-filled “popular histories,” but don’t take that as a dismissal.  Popular histories are how most interested people learn about history, so even if they’re not “up-to-date” in terms of what’s being discussed in academic circles, they serve a useful role.

This year the Canadian Historical Review (CHR) started a series on “Historical Perspectives.”  The first topic was published in their September issue and examined Canadians’ historical perspectives on the First World War.  So what are historians talking about in the centenary year of the Great War?

Five articles were produced for the series, three of which discussed recent historical trends. Mark Osborne Humphries explored the historiography of the Canadian Corps and the military overseas. Amy Shaw examined the expanding scope of historians who have looked at the First World War from a social or cultural perspective. Finally, Mourad Djebabla reviewed French-language scholarship. Then Tim Cook provided an overview of the first three scholars’ conclusions, while Christopher Moore presented how we remember the war in 2014. Each of these authors are established academic historians in the field, save for Moore, who is an established (and successful) historian to a general audience.

One of the main points from these contributors is the divided nature of First World War literature.  All of them reflect on how our study of the war is an incomplete picture, and historians have to complete it by expanding the topics they study.

There’s a clear difference between histories that focus on the battlefield and those which deal with the homfront.  Historians have written much about the soldiers and their famous trench battles at places like Second Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. The Official History from the Canadian Army was partially published in the late 1930s, but its writer couldn’t finish it, so Colonel GWL Nicholson completed in 1963.  The Official History inspired historians to add to it, or to take issue with its interpretation of a battle or operation.

Due to the dominance of the Official History and works derived from it, until recently a lot of history about the First World War had a military focus.  Fewer works looked at the homefront, and those that did looked at soldier-related issues. Thankfully, in the last two decades, historians have broadened their scope to include women during the war, cultural histories of grief and childhood, and other facets of society and culture which have gone unexamined for far too long. More work still has to be done about both homefront and battle front, such as ones that studies both and the interaction between them, or one that ask social/cultural questions of the Canadian battlefield experience, or a work examining the more than a million men who refused to join the Canadian army.

One result of the battlefield’s large shadow on Canadian history of the First World War is a tendency to portray the war as a nationalizing endeavour. For many years, history of the war tended to be more commemorative than historical.  That is, they emphasized soldier sacrifice, war service, and the success of the Canadian soldier on the battlefield. The primacy of Nicholson’s history created a familiar (and persistent) story, where Canada was a colony in 1914 that entered the war automatically, then emerged from the war a nation (of sorts) in 1918, with its own signature on the Treaty of Versailles, after a series of extraordinary battles like the victory at Vimy Ridge. In the larger picture, the war becomes a step from colony to nation, and the divisive history of the homefront is secondary to the history of the war in Europe.

This likely explains another divide in Canadian history between its French and English peoples. In some ways it is unavoidable, since many English speaking historians can’t read French, and a few (though far less) French speaking historians can’t read English. But, the two cultures have produced two very different pictures of the war.  English Canada, as noted above, focuses on battle performance and the nation that emerged from the conflict.  French Canada however, focuses on the homefront, and the experience of Quebecois during the war. Some might argue that the nation of Quebec was born in the war years, though in the streets of Quebec City rather than the slopes of Vimy Ridge.

Some French Canadians did join to fight in the French-Canadian battalion, the 22nd (who still exist as the Vandoos, or the 22nd Regiment), but most stayed home.  There, they gradually grew more and more opposed to the war, as continuing resentment about inequality, like the failure to protect French language rights in Ontario, highlighted how poorly English Canada had treated them since Confederation fifty years prior. By 1917 many were listening to the words of nationaliste Henri Bourassa who condemned the war as an imperialist endeavour with little value to “true” Canadians. Violence marred the streets of Quebec in the summer of 1917 and the spring of 1918 in reaction to conscription; many, including the government and Bourassa himself, feared a revolution.  Thankfully, appeals for calm were heeded.  Still, the Quebec experience led its people to turn towards an inward-looking nationalism that was the seeds of the separatist movement we know today.

Quebec history of the war thus focuses on conscription and the riots, often consciously rejecting the nationalizing narrative found in English Canadian work. Quebecois generally care little about Vimy Ridge, but write instead about the federal government’s oppression and persecution of French Canada.  Their history reflects their experience of war. As with English Canada, some works have focused on the battlefield, but the scholarship on the war in French is understandably limited. Quebec historians have less enthusiasm about the war compared to English speaking ones.  They just don’t see it as important.

Canadian history has traditionally presented French and English Canadian experiences of war as monolithic ones. All French Canadians are opposed to the war, and all English Canadians supported it. This portrayal has persisted since the field is still divided since its historians often don’t interact with each other’s work. Though, to be fair, it’s far more likely Quebec historians have read English Canadian work than vice versa. Historians have recently worked to undo this trend, but more work is necessary.  Historians must explore the stories of English Canadians opposed to the war (like the working class and farmers), Quebec’s experience needs to be fully integrated into Canada’s history (it’s just about Vimy), and more work has to be done on Quebec’s positive response to the war.  After all, in August 1914, the majority of Quebec newspapers supported the war and attacked Henri Bourassa for not offering total support alongside them.

Hopefully we will see these questions (which are drawn from the CHR articles) appear in popular histories in the years and decades to come. Especially between now and the centenary of the war’s end in 2018, Canadians deserve a more complete history of the war that accurately reflects the dilemmas and uncertainty of their war experience. When the war is presented as a neatly wrapped package with its purpose and value already known, we lose a vital aspect of its experience: nobody knew how it would end. Imagine that, the greatest, bloodiest industrial war ever known in human history – and your country might lose everything over it.  That doubt was pervasive, dominating and influential.  Let’s not lose it by writing the present into the past.