I’m currently working on an exhibition called From Family to Factory: London on the Home Front, which is not surprisingly about London, ON, during the First and Second World Wars. Politics, economy and geography aside, it was Canada’s involvement in these wars that really gave her visibility on the international stage. Through these conflicts, Canada stepped out of Britain’s shadow and became an entity in her own right. I particularly like the idea of Canada as a ferocious beaver.
I have spent a great many hours over the last three months reading a blog that follows the lives of two brothers and their family during The Great War. The Land of Good Neighbours is comprised of the many hundreds of letters sent home to friends and family in Aylmer, ON and to each other in distant locales as well as when appropriate, contemporary newspaper articles, mainly from the Aylmer Express. It is written, or rather, transcribed and edited, by the granddaughter of one of the brothers and although she began posting in 2008, the correspondence and newspaper articles fall mainly on the corresponding dates (so, November 16, 1916 posted on November 16, 2010). It’s an incredible labour of love and a profoundly moving, deeply engaging historical portrait of the times.
To put it in simplistic terms, World War One was a brutal, gory and utterly mishandled affair that was the result of a series of complex and interconnected European treaties and agreements that collapsed upon each other following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Throw in copious amounts of nationalism, posturing, arrogance and incompetence and suddenly the Western world (and many other parts of the globe) was thrown headlong into a vicious, violent war. Like many historians, I look at World War One as the real beginning of the 20th century as Victorian ideals and military strategy succumbed (albeit grudgingly and with a maximum of thrashing about) to modern industry and mechanised warfare. It changed ideas of Empire and Colony, set the stage for many of the progressive social movements of the next seventy years and laid the groundwork for many of the century’s future conflicts.
With the exception of a few scattered poems and letters that provide a first-person account, history books routinely fail at providing the personal and the private recollections and experiences of its millions of participants. The Land of Good Neighbours uses history texts the way most texts use first person accounts, scattered throughout as context, but in this case, context to the views and experiences of the individuals of the Aylmer Benner family and the people near and dear to them.
After I am dead,And have become part of the soil of France,
This much remember of me:
I was a great sinner, a great lover, and life puzzled me very much.
Ah love! I would have died for love!
Love can do so much, both rightly and wrongly.
It remembers mothers, and little children,
And lots of other things.
O men unborn, I go now, my work unfinished!
I pass on the problem to you: the world will hate you: be brave!
Second Lieutenant Hugh Freston, 24 years of age, buried in Becourt Military Cemetery on the outskirts of Albert. More here.