Kellen Kurschinski, Steve Marti, Alicia Robinet, Matt Symes, and Jonathan F. Vance, editors. The Great War: From Memory to History. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2015. Pp. 427.
Reviewed by Richard Roy
This book is a collection of scholarly essays from The Great War: From Memory to History Conference held in 2011. The conference concentrated on the theme that with the passing of the last veterans of the conflict that the Great War had passed from memory to history. These essays span a variety of disciplines, and, as the editors note, “demonstrate how authors and artists have engaged with historical events to produce works of art, literature, and visual media that have combined with the works of historians to shape and reshape the war memory.” While acknowledging that the public plays a critical role in shaping memory, the editors also found that the production and consumption of cultural memories follow parallel patterns across different national traditions.
The scope of the book and the variety of the essays is impressive, and most readers will find something here to spark their interest. From a Canadian perspective, there is much of value. William Stewart’s efforts to retrieve the reputation of Sir Richard Turner is a fine example of considering relevant sources contemporary to the period to evaluate a senior officer’s performance. Brian MacDowall’s essay on the war service of aboriginals reflects the ability of the Department of Indian Affairs to produce an overpowering, centralized narrative of aboriginal participation. This internal propaganda, a construct of colonial praise, drowned out the actual voices of aboriginal veterans. George Keelan’s comments on the memory of the war in Quebec demonstrates how disjointed it was and remains in contast to perceptions of the conflict elsewhere in Canada. There is also an engaging discussion by Thomas Hodd on the differences between reporting events and the writing of history in his examination of the Canada in Flanders series.
How a war is remembered or memorialized by a nation involves conscious and deliberate choices. Often the state intervenes directly to insure conformity to its aims. MacDowall observes the very visible involvement of the Department of Indian Affairs in shaping narratives, and Zachary Abram describes how the development and use of the Canadian canon of literature represented a deliberate intervention by a state worried about being overwhelmed by American culture. Veysel Șimșek similarly outlines the the Turkish state’s heavy handed approach to focusing the collective narrative on the sacrifices of the Turkish people versus other nationalities within the Ottoman Empire. Despite the best intentions, the public may chose indifference, as Kimberly Licursi shows in describing American apathy towards the Great War. Deliberate choices are also made in the selection of sites of remembrance. While we are all familiar with Vimy, Jane McGaughey highlights how choices regarding commemoration have left a weak legacy accorded to Gallipoli in both Ireland and Newfoundland.
While the memory of war may revolve around physical battles, there are many far more subtle battles in the construction of memory. They are fought to establish the predominant national narrative, to take ownership of specific battles and campaigns, and to win space for the inclusion of minority accounts. Abrams, MacDowell, and Simsek all report the filtering and construction of primary narratives. The British Instructional Films production, The Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, documented by Mark Connelly, is a good example of the British struggle for ownership of these events. Elsewhere, some military services actively assisted in promoting stereotypical views of their fighting men. Robert Morley’s discussion of Hollywood’s cinematic flying heroes is an excellent example. Meanwhile, modern scholarship leans heavily towards recovering the voices of the excluded, ignored, or silenced. Some of this adds new texture into national narratives, and some distorts them. The effect of the war on the excluded – aboriginal, African or other – fills out national narratives. Equally important are the voices of those that are often ignored in military accounts. Both Alice Kelly and Carol Acton help expose the experiences of nurses in wartime to greater light and recover overlooked stories. The most silenced minority were those “shot at dawn” for disciplinary reasons. The politics of remembrance and public mis-interpretation, as Bette London writes, has distorted this practice to where it is often unnecessarily given a pride of place in fiction and historiography.
A war influences literature and the visual arts, and they in turn affect how its memory is first constructed and then maintained. Authors explore the influence of literature in this volume through a look at both detective novels and the Canadian canon of literature. There are two types of reference to the visual arts. First, there is the fulsome discussion of how Otto Dix developed his works and their influence. The second, a subtler reference, involves the selection of the cover art, Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent. Though perhaps an overused cover, this visual record of a traumatic event late in the war is enduring.
This volume is a fine contribution to the continuing efforts to explore how wars are remembered. It rightly points to the breadth of areas that require further study and attention. It makes a fine read.
*Background image courtesy of Wikipedia