Commemorating Canada's First World War Transcript

...engaging in the process in memorialization in the 1920s it was about local members. It's our loss. It's our young men and women that we're commemorating, not the nation as a whole.

So the best place to decide what a community was likely to forget and when it should remember was in the community itself. And that's where all of the important decisions about the commemoration were made at this time.

Would the memorial be aesthetic or utilitarian? Would it do something? Would it be a memorial hall like this one in Silverton, British Columbia? Or would it just be a memorial and nothing else, like this one down the road a bit in Brockville?

Immediately after the First World War, the preference was for the aesthetic. Probably 75% of memorials in this country were aesthetic rather than utilitarian.

But some did attempt to bridge the gap. Like the Canadian Memorial Chapel in British Columbia which was a work of art, obviously, but also a functional building. Now, Barry knows it well (audience laughter).

Barry: I was married there!

Jonathan: Ah, but contrary to popular belief, this was not the day of Barry's wedding (audience laughter).

This was, at the time, a relatively unconventional memorial but there were more that were even more unconventional and we shouldn't think of war memorials as just stone and metal. They could be books published by grieving family members immediately after the war. They could be scrolls which you could buy or obtain from printers, companies, whatever. This one's from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company intended for a survival, but there were similar scrolls for the dead.

They could be films "Lest We Forget" Canada's official war film on the bill with "Murder on a Honeymoon," a show you're not wanting to miss.

Even the structural memorials, the old-fashioned stone and metal ones, ran the gamut from the bizarre, like this one in Alderville, Ontario which I've no idea what the symbolism means, but it's a tribute to the skill of the stonemason who put it together.

They run the gamut from bizarre to the deeply touching. Like this little one in Chesley, Ontario. "To the boys at Geneva Church School who fought under Great War, 1914-1918." So looking at these memorials that were erected across the country in the 1920s and 30s, one could let me be struck by their variety.

Now if there was no agreement on what a memorial should be, there was a unanimity on its purpose; to create a memorial, no matter what it looked like, was an act of devotion, love, and gratitude. It was a test for the living.

From 1914-1918 the community had to pass the test of war. Did it equip itself well? Did it rise to the challenge?

After 1918, the community as a whole phases a challenge. It has to past the test of commemoration. Did it create a memorial that did justice to the sacrifice? Did this memorial show the appropriate devotion and gratitude? This is very much how communities construct the act of memorialization in the 20s and 30s.

Now after the Second World War, there was a move away from aesthetic memorials. People didn't want another Cenotaph. Now the general feeling was that commemoration of the First World War had been done and had been done well and there was no point in trying to replicate the First World War memorial. Quite often additions were made to all the memorials: new plaques, hymn stones, and descriptions.

But for a new memorial, most communities wanted something useful and so the swing goes back very clearly to utilitarian memorials. So for the First World War, Brockville has this striking statue of a soldier. For the Second World War, it has the Brockville Civic Memorial Centre.

Now starting in the 1970s and 80s, the direction changed again. The aesthetic movement came back in vogue. But it wasn't the old style of aesthetic memorial. The old style as in something that you stood and looked at, something that was higher than you, something they can weren't expected to contact individually but was respectively above you.

Now memorials stress the interactive. They have to be large enough and specifically designed so that you can enter the memorial space, so to speak, to use good post-modern language. You're expected to be able to come part of the memorial.

There's noting really that corresponds to this in the First World War more recently, but one of the best examples is the, is this memorial, the Irish Famine Memorial at Battery Park in New York City, which is a reproduction, full-scale reproduction of a ruined Irish village and throughout there are inscriptions and poems and bits of verse and literature. You walk through and read the little pieces. So very much each individual viewer becomes part of the memorial for however long they spend there.

This is the essence of interactive commemoration nowadays. And I think the interactive element opens up real possibilities for commemoration in 2014-2018.

Now there will always be conventional memorials, there will always be plaques and statutes and buildings. But for something truly engaging, I think we have to think in different terms, and not only with respect to the interactive element.

Unlike the generation of 1914, we don't have to wonder what people are likely to forget. We know what's being forgotten, and we also know what we think should be remembered. It's not to say that previous generations would've agree with us or future generations will, but we think we know what should be remembered.

And I think it's come out in the tenor of the discussion today. It's not the big ideas for which the war was ostensibly fought, the big ideas that found a home on virtually every war memorial in the 20s and 30s, this one from Chatham, Ontario, "The gallant men who took up arms, or died for God, for King and Country, for loved ones, home and empire, for the sacred cause of justice and the freedom of the world."

Now in the 20s and 30s this was the gospel truth. Since then historians are a little bit more divided, it's a little more contentious. You probably wouldn't see a memorial nowadays with this sort of text because all of these rang words are up for debate still.

Instead our interest has turned to remembering people. Like this family. And I love this picture. One of the reasons I love it is because, although it's a soldier's family, the eye is immediately drawn, not to the soldier, but to his daughter, who is an astonishing looking woman, a young girl at this time. And I think, judging by her expression and pose, is going to be a force to be reckoned with (audience laughter).

And images like this demonstrate that the war, or memory of the war, is not just about the guy standing in the back. It's about all of them. It's about how it affected them individually, how it affected their relationships as a family, as Kristine was saying earlier.

So I think this sort of scene is the focus of commemorative interest now. Now the key is what do we do to generate interest in terms of commemoration in that direction. How can we take advantage of interest in individual stories and make it accessible generally?

Well imagine this: you're interested in the impact of the First World War on your community, so you can go to a website and download a smartphone app that gives you a walking tour. Gives you a little map on your screen, every once in a while your map will beep and you can pull up a photograph for the soldier who lived at that house or worked in that office and you'll get a little story, maybe a letter, maybe some information on what that individual did during the war, so that way you can sort of vicariously  live in that community in wartime.

This is very easy to do as other speakers have said, the documents are there, the technology is there, it's not a difficult thing to achieve now. Now because I don't have a smartphone nor do I know how to use one or have I ever used an app, and you want something more tangible you can do the same sort of thing but with street signs, house signs. Go to these same houses and ask if on each of these houses that would be on your virtual walking tour, you could mount a plaque, identical, with the name of the soldier, the nursing sister who had lived there.

This is done with occupations in other various historic neighborhoods across country. Wonderful way to develop and encourage the sense of historical continuity. And so really commemoration now is about establishing that connection with the history, establishing the sense of continuity.

We've heard about all sorts of good ideas for putting students into individual contacts with soldiers, sailors, nurses, airmen, whatever, as a way to give them an investment in this kind of history. With younger kids you can sort of take them into a day in the life of someone during the First World War and have them reenact a pageant or a play or a concert from the First World War. Something like this. Edith Lelean Groves "Rule Brittania: Fancy Flag Driller." I don't know how many elementary schools have lots of flags hanging around, but this is the sort of thing that was enormously common in the First World War era.

And I think the message it will give to kids is that this is your past. A century ago, the people whose names are on that plaque, they were you and you were them. It establishes that connection.

Another really important thing you can do in commemoration is to preserve the past and this was actually a really, perceived to be a really big part of commemoration needed after the war. A lot of communities decided that they would erect memorial museums or archives or collections so that they could gather all of the documents that the war generated and keep them in one place.

Almost nowhere did this actually occur, which means it's more important for us to do this. So a really effective way of commemorating, in a slightly different sense, is to search out some of this stuff as a historical detective might. Any organization that was around during the First World War will have generated records. You can see if they're still there. Check your business, your church, your school, your family, your neighbours, ask if they're home first. But beyond that, see what they've got.

A tip to teachers, don't go to the school board, go to the principal. I had some dealings with a school in London that will remain nameless in case any laws were broken. Having found one hundred and forty years of school records in the basement behind the musical instrument storage area, and rather than approach the school board and have it tied up in committee for months and months and months, we simply lifted it and sent it to the public library. Probably, possibly illegal, but historians do desperate things at times. (Audience laughter).

And that's what you could do. This could be a very personal commemorative act but if the elders don't want to part with their materials than scan them. If they do want to part with them, help them get to a local museum. Or you can send them to me and I will put them on Wartime Canada, an educational website that houses most of the images that I've used in this talk today.

Now if the history of commemoration in Canada tells us anything, it's that the most effective memorials were those that took in every member of the community and that everyone thought they could play a direct role. This is from London in the late 1930s, I can't resist this.

The First World War is too long ago now for us to be able to construct it as a test for the living. But it can still interactive. It can still involve the whole community, still involve many different groups of people. And, ironically, now that we are essentially "on" it's easier than it ever has been for people with no personal connection to the First World War to get in touch with it.

As people talked about the internet resources are vast, you can get astonishing amounts of material out there, a huge variety of government resources from around the world, there are a growing number of private sites, individual reflections, diaries, letters, photographs, Italian fan sites, all of this stuff is being generated in incredible amounts online. So, and this is the point that I want to end with, even though the last Canadian veteran died a few years ago, and even though the First World War is now almost a century in the past, it's still very accessible.

I'm often asked what will happen when there are no longer people around with a living memory of the First World War, how will this affect the place of the war in our national fabric? And as I tell there's no doubt that at that point the responsibility on all of us becomes that much greater, but ironically as the last of these living participants pass away, there's more information out there about the First World War than there ever has been, it's more accessible than it ever has been, it's more easy to find, it's more easy to use.

So rather than thinking about the challenge of commemoration, in my view we should be thinking about the opportunity of commemoration.

Thank you.

(Audience applause)