Quill and Canon: Writing the Great War in Canada

Article excerpt

"History never repeats itself, but historians always repeat each other." (1) That uncharitable view of profession may be true in cases, but scholarship by a new generation of historians is searching deep into the archives of the nation to find meaning in the past, asking new questions and employing new methodologies. Historians are no longer content to simply mimic previous interpretations. Despite this new research, however, most historians are guided by their predecessors, and are certainly affected by past historical interpretations.

This article explores the first generation of Canadian historians to capture the Great War experience in print. The aim is not to compile an annotated bibliography, but instead to delve into the writing of these period histories, exploring the authors and their attempt to navigate the pressures and constituencies they faced in shaping the historical memory of that conflict. (2) This article, then, is less about the final historical products than the interplay of historians within the societies that spawned them and shaped their work.

The canon of first-generation history was written by veterans, journalists, and amateur historians trying to find meaning within Canada's Great War experience. The field was dominated by Colonel Archer Fortescue Duguid, the official historian of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Duguid's control of the archival war records also allowed him to exclude or marginalize other writers who hoped to construct the historical memory of the conflict. The interplay of Duguid with other war writers supported the burgeoning field of academic military history, but still had a prominent goal of protecting, buttressing, or shaping reputations, either for a small pantheon of heroes or the Canadian Corps as a whole.

The Great War was a watershed in Canada's development as a nation. One need not fully embrace the belief that Canadians gained their identity on the slopes of Vimy Ridge and still acknowledge that Canada as a country was never the same after partaking in that four-year-long awful bloodletting. With a population of not yet eight million, over 60,000 Canadians were killed in service; to put this into perspective, Canada's proportional loses today would be a quarter million dead, and another 500,000 maimed. The Great War was Canada's coming-of-age event.

Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, was the first chronicler of Canada's Great War experience. "Beenacrook," the little Canadian adventurer on the make, as one British socialite called him, devoted his considerable energies during the Great War to publicize and propagate the deeds of his Canadian brethren. Beaverbrook had made his millions in Canada before the war by buying up companies, amalgamating them, and selling the over-issued stock at a higher price. Although he left Canada under a cloud of accusations that he had cheated a number of rich business partners out of their money, he remained close friends with the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sir Sam Hughes, and the prime minister, Sir Robert Borden. In England, Aitken began to buy up newspapers, mingled in the highest social circles, was elected to the House of Commons, and knighted.

As the guns of August unleashed in 1914, Aitken watched helplessly as friends like Winston Churchill found influential appointments. There would be nothing for him in the Asquith wartime government. After some soul-searching, and more than a little wrangling, he convinced Hughes to appoint him Canadian Eye Witness at the front. He sent reports back to Hughes and Borden in this capacity, often appraising them of political or military issues in London. Moreover, he supplied journalistic accounts that were published throughout Canada, further highlighting the role of the Canadian forces. But he wished to go further. Aitken described his vision to Borden: "to follow the fortunes of the First Division in France, to share its experiences, to give the public of Canada an account of the performances of its regiments, and finally to enshrine in a contemporary history those exploits which will make the First Division immortal. …