Family Life During the Great War Transcript

Well thanks Deborah and thanks to all of you for coming to listen.

And I just want to start by saying how honoured I am to have been asked to be a part of the discussions today.

So I want to start today with a piece of material culture, a legless teddy bear that belonged to the girl in the photo on the right, 10-year-old Eileen Rogers of Cowansville, Quebec.

You might have seen this legless teddy bear if you visited the First World War galleries here at the War Museum. If you haven't, I hope that you will find the time today or tomorrow to do so.

So Eileen Rogers gave this teddy bear to her father Lawrence Rogers in 1915 when he enlisted in the Canadian, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Lawrence Rogers who wrote dozens of letters to Eileen, his wife, May, and his son, Howard, throughout the war, carried the stuffed toy with him at all times. During his army training, in Canada and England, and while tending to the wounded as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front. A tangible and poignant link to his family back in Canada, the bear was in Lieutenant Roger's pocket when he was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917.

This toy, like the dozens of letters Rogers sent home, between 1915 and his death in 1917, I think, really are proof that the Great War caused a profound shock to family life on the home front.

In Canada, that shock manifested itself primarily through absence - of fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and neighbours.

Now the effects of absence of course were felt unevenly across the country. And this relates to some of the points that Dean has just made.

It was felt differently in French Canada, for instance, with its lower rates of enlistment, and in some immigrant communities, where men were absent from their families, not through military service but because they had been interned by the Canadian state.

My research on Canadian families and kids during the Great War has shown that for a great many young people, the absence of male relatives in wartime can be productively understood as a moment of rupture, and by that I mean a point when a young person's chronology of development is broken and that is often remembered as the moment when childhood ends.

The new feelings and experiences that followed the departures of fathers and elder brothers for the front caused anxiety, changes to the rhythms of daily life, and the negotiation of new responsibilities.

The thousands of Canadian children, like Eileen Rogers and her brother Howard, whose family members were killed during the war, also experienced a second, and what I really think is a more traumatic moment of rupture, and as child psychiatrist Lynne Jones has written about in the recent conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the death of a father or other close relative is the greatest disaster that children can experience in wartime, and even greater trauma, she claims, than the experience of combat.

And so one of the main groups of primary sources that I am working with is letters. And here is a selection of letters from Lawrence Rogers. You can see also at the bottom "Dear Daddy," that's one that has survived from his son Howard. So in writing all of these letters to his family back in Canada, Lawrence Rogers was far from unique.

The majority of Canadian soldiers did exactly this, they wrote to their parents, wives, children, and extended families in a really, what to me, today, seems an unfathomable quantity.

In 1918, for example, nearly 660,000 bags of mail, so that's really dozens of millions of letters, were sent back to Canada from France and Belgium. Also in 1918, more than five million parcels, which generally took at least three weeks to arrive and often contained perishable goods like cake, (audience laughter) more than five million parcels were sent from Canada to the western front.

And I want to suggest today that letters, like the ones sent by Lawrence Rogers to his wife and children, can be valuable tools for teaching and remembering the Great War.

While young peoples wartime experiences of voluntary work, public education, and reading, have been the subjects of excellent recent Canadian research, the War's effects on private life and family relationships have attracted less attention.

So the question that I want to address with the rest of my time here today is "what do the Rogers' family letters, in particular, tell us about family life in wartime?"

And I'm going to leave these two images up for the rest of my talk. That's Lawrence on the right and May, Howard, and Eileen on the left.

So to begin with, Lawrence Rogers' letters home provide vivid evidence of the material hardships and anxieties that beset many soldiers' families during the conflict. Lawrence and May Rogers both worried about making ends meet, by combining his pay with money from the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

And May and the children moved house, from Cowansville to Montreal and back again, several times, during the war. A series of upheavals that, when combined with their father's absence and death, had some really clear effects on Rogers' children.

The Rogers' correspondence also demonstrates the practical and emotional value of extended kin, and especially grandparents, to families separated by war. Although Lawrence's letters also contain numerous references to what he called his "fussy" and "interfering" father-in-law.

Lawrence Rogers' letters to his wife further demonstrate that tensions at home could erupt between children and adults, and were not confined to simply between adults. For example, he discusses at various points in his correspondence, Eileen being a grouch, fighting with her mother like cats and dogs, and, perhaps worst of all, refusing to take baths. (Audience laughter)

So on the other hand then, Lawrence Rogers' letters also show that some aspects of his children's' lives remained relatively unchanged during the war. And here I'm thinking of things like pets, report cards, school holidays, the chicken pox, and sibling rivalries.

Like many other enlisted men, Lawrence Rogers worried, in particular, about how his son's masculinity would develop without his direct paternal influence. His letters praise Howard, who'd been born in 1908 and was six when the war began, for such gender-specific behaviours as acting like a real man, and refusing to cry in front of other people, and in January 1917, he objected especially strongly to his wife's decision, due to material considerations, to dress Howard in a hand-me-down girl's winter coat that had belonged to Eileen.

And finally, I have also found that the separations and anxieties of wartime also worked to intensify emotional relationships between home front children and their enlisted male relatives.

In Lawrence Rogers' letters to his son and daughter, this manifested itself primarily in repeated and explicit expressions of love and affection, and in his efforts to regularly send them gifts. And this was an activity that I think he was clearly unused to, as shown, for example, in his continual inability throughout the years that he was away from his family, his inability to remember his children's birthdays.

So on the one hand then, Lawrence Rogers' letters and his daughter's teddy bear tell us a very particular story about how the Great War affected the lives of a small handful of specific, early-twentieth century individuals.

But on the other hand, though, they are also the stories of the rhythms of childhood, about anxiety and grief, and about family separation, and resulting uncertainties about when, or if, parents and children would be reunited.

Canada, of course, was a country at war until very recently. And my research also resonates with a new study of the wellbeing and family functioning of adolescents in Canadian military families during the War in Afghanistan.

Like the young people I have been studying, these twenty-first century youths experienced the deployment of a parent, in this case of a mother or a father, as an event that negatively affected their quality of life and that burdened them with a series of new practical and emotional responsibilities, including, significantly, a feeling of self-imposed pressure to look after their at-home parent by masking their fears, not crying, and acting cheerful.

Using family history then, to teach and remember the Great War is an important endeavor, and yet, I'm aware as we approach the 100th anniversary of this conflict, that it also runs the risk of creating two distinct, and I would venture to say unequal, types of Canadians; those who have a blood link to these important events in our nations mythology and those who, for a variety of reasons, do not.

But instead of this potentially divisive vision, I'd like to conclude my remarks today by suggesting an alternative. That approaching this conflict and remembering this conflict through the stories of individual children and families can also point the way toward empathy by reminding us of the heavy human-costs of total war.

Thank you.

(Audience applause)