Harnessing First World War Mythology

Published on November 30, 2021

By Eric Story

Before teaching my first course in 2020, one of my senior colleagues told me he preferred lecturing and leading tutorials on topics that were outside of his area of expertise. I couldn’t understand why. Surely, I thought, lecturing and discussing a topic in which I was familiar would be far easier. The “easy lectures,” as I would call them, would simply fall into place when it came time to write them.

As many readers might’ve guessed, I was wrong. While writing the few lectures I eventually delivered on my area of expertise—the First World War—I felt immensely constrained because of all the material I had to leave out. It was actually quite a difficult exercise and oftentimes more difficult than those lectures that strayed far from topics familiar to myself. But I faced a far greater challenge in teaching the First World War to a group of second-year undergraduate students than fitting everything I wanted them to know into a pair of lectures and a tutorial discussion. That challenge was overcoming the “commemoration impulse” that Mark Humphries ascribes to much of the writing on Canada’s overseas experience during the First World War.

Humphries describes this “commemoration impulse” as the tendency amongst historians of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to inherently link the academic endeavor of writing about the war with commemoration and remembrance of Canadian soldiers’ sacrifices. He writes, “In assuming the deaths of soldiers were forms of noble ‘sacrifice’ worthy of ‘remembrance’ . . . we are unwittingly positioning ourselves on one side of an argument about the nature, meaning, and significance of conflict and military operations in Canadian history.”[1]

While this impulse characterizes much of the literature on the Canadians fighting overseas during the war, I too found it pervasive amongst students in my class. The students were of course able and willing to critically discuss soldiers’ experiences overseas. At the same time, however, it was difficult for them to detach notions of noble sacrifice and remembrance from those experiences. Some took it one step further and argued that the war represented the moment of Canada’s awakening to its national identity.

After fifty years of mythmaking that culminated in Vimy 100 in 2017, many Canadians associate the Battle of Vimy Ridge—and by extension, the First World War—with Canada’s “coming of age” or the “birth of a nation.” Even though many historians have found this view narrow and lacking much evidentiary support, it still weighs heavily in the minds of the general public. Perhaps I should have anticipated such a pedagogical challenge. But from this dilemma, I learned several lessons that I believe are pertinent to those teaching First World War history should they find themselves in a similar place in the classroom.

First of all, do not ignore the very real transformational effects of the First World War. As much as we can sometimes fall into the “Vimy Trap” and unintentionally parrot the uncritical aspects of militarism, nationalism and patriotism inherent in the myth of the war, we should not go too far in the other direction. For many, the First World War was indeed transformational. Take the example of the many thousands of soldiers returning home with a lifelong disability or the women whose husbands and sons died while fighting overseas: the war marked a fundamental rupture in their lives. And for a select few English Canadians, the war also stirred newfound feelings of national unity. Bryan Tennyson discovered a letter sent from a Cape Breton soldier to his sister in April 1917 shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge who wrote, “As the guns spoke, over the bags they went — men of CB [Cape Breton], sons of NS [Nova Scotia] & NB [New Brunswick] — FC’s [French Canadians] & westerners — all Canucks . . . So far it was the most decisive, the most spectacular and the most important victory on this front since the Marne and Canada may well be proud of the achievement.”[2]

This example of a Canadian soldier expressing feelings of national unity and pride on the battlefield leads to my second and more important lesson: Teach patriotism historically. On the heels of the 1776 Report, commissioned by President Donald Trump to promote a patriotic teaching of the United States’ founding and the hysteria surrounding the teaching of critical race theory, many historians might justifiably be weary of broaching patriotism in the classroom. But it must not be forgotten that the language of patriotism during and after the First World War was used to demand and then justify the early foundation of Canada’s social safety net.

When Canada went to war in 1914, its government asked Canadians to voluntarily serve for the greater ideals of democracy, Christianity and the British empire. As lists upon lists of casualties began to filter back to Canada after the particularly bloody Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, both Canadian soldiers and civilians alike began to ask the government for something in return. In exchange for embracing the spirit of volunteerism and the corporeal sacrifice soldiers provided in service of the state and empire (i.e. patriotism), they demanded compensation for veterans in the form of agricultural land, job training, hospital care, prosthetics and pensions. By the end of the war in 1918, they had received largely what they demanded, which would lay the groundwork for welfare and healthcare programming in the coming decades.

This discussion of historical patriotism must not stop here, however. Imperative is an acknowledgement that this patriotism also had a xenophobic element that demonised those deemed “enemy aliens” and that the resulting social safety net was limited largely to white settlers. Patriotism was certainly constructive, but it was also exclusive and created new systems in which to discriminate against central and eastern Europeans, Jews, as well as Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.

As I fully realize, this exercise is not an easy one. National mythologies capture the imagination and are difficult to dislodge. But instead of dismissing the myth of the First World War outright, it might be more instructive to historicize the various tenants of it in the classroom. Instead of teaching the students what the myth got wrong, we might teach them what it helped set in motion. Ultimately, by embracing the myth of the war, historians can make sense of the messiness of the past and impart that knowledge to their students.

[1] Mark Osborne Humphries, “Between Commemoration and History: The Historiography of the Canadian Corps and Military Overseas,” The Canadian Historical Review 95, no. 3 (2014): 387.
[2] Bryan Douglas Tennyson, “A Cape Bretoner at War: Letters from the Front, 1914–19,” Canadian Military History 11, no. 1 (2002): 44.

Eric Story is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Wilfrid Laurier History whose research focuses on memory, settler colonialism and infectious disease in Canada. His writing has been featured in blogs, magazines, news media and academic journals. Most recently, his article, “The Indigenous Casualties of War,” on the racist discrimination Indigenous veterans and their families faced in the aftermath of the First World War while fighting for compensation for their war-incurred injuries appeared in the Canadian Historical Review.  

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