Katherine Gilks, Education Coordinator
Last week, on Sunday, November 11, people across the world marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. It was very moving to see the special tributes to that conflict that took place during the Remembrance Day ceremonies, including specific commemorative wreathes, vintage poppy and wreath designs, and reenactors in uniform attending, standing silently like young ghosts.
They seem ghostly because there are no longer any veterans of the First World War left. No matter if they survived the war or not, they are gone. Very few people currently living have any memories of the war and those memories are those of small children. Like the Boer War, the Northwest Resistance, and the American Civil War (and countless previous conflicts), the First World War is one for the history books. Students today may be fascinated by this important war, but it is one of many.
That is not to say that it is unimportant! Globally, the First World War spawned just about every conflict over the course of the next century. For Canadians, the war marked a turning point in our identity. More locally, while it is cliché to say it, there is truth to the fact that we went into the war in 1914 as loyal colonial subjects and returned home in 1919 with a sense of local nationhood. We felt that we had outgrown the kids’ table, as it were. Canadian exploits have become legend: Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, etc.
Back in August of 2014, there was a commemorative ceremony at the Saskatchewan Legislative Building to mark the beginning of the war. Some of the students who had created First World War-related Heritage Fairs projects were invited to attend and showcase their displays. The displays served as reminders for what would happen over the course of the war, even as the ceremony itself maintained a lot of the atmosphere of fanfare that had been present in 1914.
Much more recently, at the end of September of 2018, I took part in the Société historique de la Saskatchewan’s Heritage Days, which took place this year at 15 Wing Moose Jaw and had the First World War as its central theme. (There is a different theme and location each year.) I attended the three days of school visits and over 800 students from grades 3-11 participated in various activities. Some activities were commemorative, while others were much more active and entertaining. Nonetheless, the intended purpose was to humanise the people of 1914-18 and bring the era alive. I ended up spending the most time watching the students’ (and teachers’) reactions to a historical one-act play. The play covered the initial enthusiasm of the war, the social changes that took place over the course of the four years (such as women’s suffrage), and the disillusionment that many of the soldiers faced. It even made mention of the influenza epidemic that arose toward the war’s end. It was a captivating story and the students mostly enjoyed it, particularly the older ones.
On average, students in elementary school in 2018 are five generations removed from the First World War. Even if they have the chance to interact with supercentenarians, those elders are often still recalling being children in the postwar era (or interwar era, as they would later find out). Even the parents of today’s school-aged children might have little recollection of talking to their great-grandparents about the war. The First World War is old photographs, newsreels, books, and songs. It is something to be studied. Unlike for the Second World War, we do not have a large wealth of films and fictional stories to fill in the gaps. And of course, due to how horrific the Second World War was, the earlier conflict can pale in comparison.
There have been many efforts to visually humanise the people of the First World War, some merely in powerfully visceral advertising campaigns. One that particularly stuck with me was the effort to change how we see old newsreel footage: colourising and slowing down the frame-rate to render it as it transpired. Suddenly, those soldiers seemed much more relatable. Thought the film was silent, you could almost hear their conversations as they shared a respite from the trenches.
The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan created one such initiative that I have had the privilege of watching unfold over the past four years: From the Prairies to the Trenches: Saskatchewan & the FIrst World War 1914-1919. Using a mix of photographs, written records, audio recordings, and video footage, they created a five-part video series discussing the various aspects of the war from a Saskatchewan perspective. It was refreshing to see stories that were often buried in the past, such as the contributions of indigenous soldiers and the experience of Canadian internees, as well as hear new voices to old words.
One might say I am a bit late to the party on this topic, with many having turned their thoughts toward Christmas. Others might say that we have commemorated the First World War to death and they are sick of hearing about it. However, these past four years of commemorations have been important reminders of how the First World War and associated events around it shaped the past century and how much has changed since then. It is vital to remember, even if our memories are second-hand.