Jack Ford was a Canadian photographer during the Second World War for RCAF Squadron 414. While advancing across Western Europe, he took thousands of photographs, including Winston Churchill (with his proverbial cigar), King George VI, Nazi planes, and prisoners of war. He also captured glimmers of humanity: in one photo, a Canadian soldier dressed as Santa Claus helps a child drink from a teacup.
Mrs. Jones, of Littletown, Canada, thought her heart would stop when she answered the door and saw the telegram delivery boy. It was 1943 and Mrs. Jones’s son, Robert, was stationed overseas somewhere. She took the yellow envelope with a shaking hand. Fearing the worst, she blinked back tears and read: “Getting married. Need 60 pounds. Letter follows.” Mrs. Jones sank into a heap on the floor.
Music was an important feature on the battlefields and the home front during the First World War. Governments, composers and publishers embraced the war as a musical motif to inspire fervor, pride, and patriotism in the hearts of soldiers and citizens. Music was also used to comfort, thank, and express a range of complex emotions unrelated to propaganda. As a result, we’re left with a library of songs from which to understand the war. Many are optimistic rallying cries; some are full of longing for a sweetheart; others like “Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away” quietly protest the injustice of war. Here, we present a sample of songs from the First World War.
“When death reigned, and the agony of pain.” – Private William Perover
When I was a boy and my father’s trauma from his service in Holland was raw in his shattered leg, our family mythology was still dominated by his father’s warrior pride. An argumentative man, my grandfather Marsh ended every dispute with a display of his scarred leg and the expletive “Vimy Ridge!”
When he volunteered at age 41 for service in the First World War, John McCrae wrote to a friend that “I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience.” In April 1915, McCrae and a young friend, Alexis Helmer, joined the 18 000 soldiers of the First Canadian Division in their positions near Ypres, Belgium. The Battle of Ypres commenced on 22 April and lasted for six hellish weeks. It was during this battle that the Germans launched the first gas attacks of the war.
For a long time, I did not know how to sort out the memories on November 11. As a student I wore a poppy, held silent in a school assembly, and watched the widows lay wreathes beneath the cenotaphs. I was always impressed by the lofty sentiments about sacrifice expressed in the speeches that day, but my mind struggled to make a connection with my own family: my grandfather who bared his scars and bellowed the words “Vimy Ridge!” as a threat, and my father, whose injuries from the second war sped him into alcoholism and an early death.
How does memory speak to us? Each November, over 13 million poppies blossom on the jackets, dresses and hats of Canadians. Everywhere we are moved by the sad words penned by the Canadian medical officer from Guelph, Ontario, John McCrae: