This week’s CBC Web column…
Most flowers are dead this time of year, but there’s one that only blooms in November: the poppy of Remembrance Day.
King George V created Remembrance Day in 1919 in memory of members of the armed forces who were killed during war. But it’s hard to remember a war and the soldiers who fought in it if you weren’t alive then…unless you make the effort to educate yourself about it.
I’ve recently become particularly interested in the First World War, through marriage. On my side of the family, I had some uncles who fought in the Second World War, but I rarely saw them and never talked to them about it. My father was too young to be involved.
However, my wife’s grandfather, Samson J. Goodfellow, served in the First World War, finishing it in a prisoner of war camp after the bomber he was navigating was shot down over enemy lines…and just recently, I read his memoirs. He lived in the house we’re now living in for 40 years, and it’s full of old photographs from the period. We even have his notebook that he took notes in while training to be a navigator. We have a couple of his wartime diaries. It’s made the First World War seem much closer than it ever did before.
The best First World War site I came across is First World War.Com. This is an amazing site, especially considering it’s run by a volunteer in his spare time. It includes information about the major battles and weapons, the war in the air, copies of primary historical documents, photographs, a timeline, a Who’s Who…and maybe most interestingly of all, a collection of vintage media, both sound recordings and some video.
The sound recordings include both spoken-word—German descriptions of life in the trenches, for example, and sound clips from the arrival of British troops in France—and lots of period music. Here’s Murray Johnson’s 1916 recording of one of the iconic songs of the First World War, “Pack Up Your Troubles.”
Another excellent site is For King and Empire, which is focused more specifically on Canadians in the Great War. It’s the official site for a six-part documentary by Breakthrough Films. This site also contains songs from the First World War, along with information about the battles, and perhaps most interestingly of all, a large archive of information about individual soldiers, with biographies and in many cases letters and diaries…like the one Sam Goodfellow kept.
More official sites are also excellent, as you’d expect. The Veteran Affairs Canada site called Canada Remembers is the portal for all kinds of information about Canada’s involvement in wars over the decades. Here, for example, you can find a link to the official site marking the 90th anniversary of the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele. You’ll also find a link to the area of the site set up especially for Veteran’s Week 2007, with extensive resources for students and anyone else.
One of the most moving resources available at the Veteran Affairs Canada site is a virtual version of the Books of Remembrance, which contain the names of Canadians who fought in wars and died either during or after them and are kept in the Memorial Chamber located in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. Every page has been digitized, and can be viewed or printed: or you can use an online form to order a copy of a particular page.
Another official site is that of the Canadian War Museum, which offers a Remembrance Kit to promote public understanding of Canada’s military history. It include scans of original postcards, letters, journals, telegrams, photographs, war art, and archival documents.
Library and Archives Canada also has an extensive list of exhibits and collections it has assembled over the years that focus on war and the military, with topics like “The Battle of Passchendaele,” “The Call to Duty: Canada’s Nursing Sisters,” “Canadian War Artists,” “
The Diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King,” “Through a Lens: Dieppe in Photography and Film,” “Victory Bonding: Wartime Messages from Canada’s Government, 1939-1945,” and many more.
The Government of Canada also operates a Canadian Military History Gateway, which in many cases leads you to some of the same sites I’ve already mentioned, but pulls all the links together into one place. There’s a timeline of Canada’s military history, a glossary, links to an online version of the three-volume Canadian Military Heritage series, and a lot more.
There are two other sites I’d particularly like to mention. One is The Memory Project Digital Archive. Initiated by the Dominion Institute, with funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage, it offers hundreds of personal artifacts of more than 1,000 Canadian servicemen and women from across the country, from the First World War through the present. The core of all this are the veteran profiles, each of which includes a number of artifacts provided by the participant, an audio clip of the veteran sharing their story, and a print version of the interview. For example, here’s Margaret Brownlee of Saskatchewan talking about her service in the Motor Transport Division of the Air Force during the Second World War.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention CBC’s own Conflict and War archives, featuring radio and TV clips going back decades, along with links to still more information available online.
More and more Canadians are too young to remember first-hand, or even second-hand through relatives who served, the sacrifices our military have made through the years. But thanks to the World Wide Web, all of us can educate ourselves better about those sacrifices.
On this and every Remembrance Day, it seems to me that’s the least we can do.