Print on canvas 'In Flanders' by Brian Lorimer. Photograph by CJ Harvie

Memory and the Education of Memory : Canada and the First World War Symposium

Posted on on 12 October 2014
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Memory, Education and the Education of Memory

The 'Canada and the First World War' Symposium was held in Toronto on the 28th September 2014 - and was an opportunity for some of Canada's leading experts on military history to share their views on the war’s centenary.

Christopher Harvie attended the symposium, and has sent in this personal account of the event.

Moss Park Armoury is an unimpressive plainly rectangular building squatting in deep downtown Toronto. Its drab style reflects the period of its build, the late 1960’s when it was constructed to house four Canadian Army Reserve units, two of infantry and one each of artillery and medical services.

On a quiet Sunday morning I had made my way from the subway station at Queen St, a familiar walk through a gritty, dusty little nook of the city and found myself alone, contemplative, in the Officer’s Mess of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, standing in the exact spot where I had been sworn into the Regiment a little over twenty years ago. It was fitting my day began with personal reflection as I had come to attend a symposium dedicated to commemoration.

Supporting Memory Projects

The Symposium of “Canada and the First World War” was an all day event featuring book and art sales, displays of military antiques and a selection of speakers, some of whom are the giants of Canadian military history. Organised with the cooperation between the Queen’s Own Rifles Regimental Museum and the 15th Bn (48 Highrs) CEF Memorial Project the event was of a limited attendance which allowed for a much more intimate feel between speakers and audience; with plenty of time between lectures to mingle and chat candidly with them.

The QOR Museum, located at the Toronto landmark Casa Loma displays the history of one of Canada’s oldest still standing regiments. Operated by retired members of the 48th Highlanders, the 15th Bn Memorial Project has sought to install informative plaques at actual battle sites where the battalion saw action in France and Flanders; including most notable at 2nd Ypres where it experienced the highest one day loss of a single Canadian battalion in the entire war.

Identifying the Missing

Television presenter, historian and author Andrew Robertshaw led off the morning. Perhaps best known for his work with the BBC on “Finding the Fallen”, Mr Robertshaw related the importance of identifying human remains from Europe’s battlefields. “Keen,” as he says, “to make people think about he past” in an address passionately delivered with a lot of jovial asides, Mr Robertshaw insists that painstaking efforts to prove identity “all matters tremendously.” In light of the news of four Canadians recently named from discovered remains, his message was timely. But with no dedicated teams actively seeking to recover such a terrible number of missing Mr Robertshaw insists that there are “huge gaps in the process.” Modern development threatening the destruction and loss of remains is akin to “killing a man twice.”

Monumental History

He was followed by Robert Konduros and Richard Parrish, amateur photographers who spoke at length of the process that went into their book “WWI, a Monumental History.” Travelling throughout Europe and Canada the pair had taken pictures of various monuments to Canada in the war. Highlights included the only monument to Canadian nursing sisters, of whom 46 died in WWI and that of foreign internments. Messrs Konduros and Parrish were pleased to announce that statues of John McCrae, author of ‘In Flanders’ Fields” would be unveiled next year.

Purpose Behind the Event

During lunch, which was catered using recipes from Mr Robertshaw’s book “Feeding Tommy, Recipes from the First World War”, I spoke with Lt Colonel (ret.) John Fotheringham one of the symposium’s organisers. He had wanted to put together an event to two purposes, to raise funds for the memorial projects and to commemorate the centenary of the war. When asked if disappointed that the event had been undersubscribed, Col Fotheringham disagreed. “Commemoration was the primary goal; fundraising a secondary concern.” Above all, the idea was “to put on a good event.” It was projected that the attendance would be sufficient to cover expenses.

A long break for lunch allowed me ample time to seek out the various exhibits and sales which had been set up in the Senior NCO’s Messes of MPA’s various regiments. Above all, I was particularly taken with artwork presented by painter Brian Lorimer. On display were framed paper and canvas prints, books and art cards. These prints offered for sale were stirring, revealing in the artist’s words a “fresh approach, explosive in colour and energy” as juxtaposition to traditional monochrome photographs and muted post war paintings. Lorimer’s oils are stark and incompletely rendered visions as of a dreamscape.

Missing Men, Missing Graves

Norm Christie, author, TV presenter and battlefield tour operator continued the theme of commemoration and the human cost of the war. Mr Christie relied on his prior experience as Records Officer with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to impart the difficulty and desire to create a suitable memorial for each person as his view of history is that he’s “interested in individuals.” It is no easy feat as he illustrates. “Of 700 000 Commonwealth deaths half have no known grave, and a quarter of that number have not been found.” In his three years as R.O. with the CWGC, Mr Christie was instrumental in the identification of fifty men; a matter of pride but a long way to go involving some 16 000 sites around the world, thousands of cemeteries as well as isolated graves.

Mr Christie, whose television series “For King and Empire” is a touchstone for modern Canadian interpretation of WWI, believes that each of the CWGC sites is a “time capsule of history.” The study and understanding of the lives of those kept therein helps to “find answers to questions never asked.”

His latest project is the investigation of and search for a burial plot, designated as CA40. It is known to be the last resting place of 44 individuals of the 16th Bn (Canadian Scottish). The exact location having been lost over time, it is believed to be a mass grave made from a mine crater in no man’s land somewhere in the Vimy area of operations. With adequate funding the possibility of surveying with ground penetrating radar might provide the exact location, probably at a depth of 7-10 metres.

Inspiring to Educate

The day was capped off by a resounding lecture given by Professor Jack Granatstein, perhaps the dominant name in Canadian military history. His numerous books and his tenure (from which he is retired) at York University have been a dedication to the education of Canada’s martial heritage. It was to this theme that he spoke, elevating the messages of commemoration of the previous guests to move with his notion that understanding the context of a historical event is critical, and sadly that it is lacking in school curriculum at present. Prof Granatstein gave as evidence that shortly after he became Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum, a survey of the collections revealed a 35 page report on factual errors. For him, the understanding of history and its lack has been a top down problem.

The system of educating history, he says, is “out of whack.” In true form of a university lecturer, Prof Granatstein further illustrated this notion with a point by point reasoning of why the actions of the Canadian Corps in the “100 Days” at the close of the war was “without question the greatest success of Canadians in battle.” Without dedicated programs of study this and other messages of Canada’s war are being lost. For example, there has not been a military history program at York University in the years since his retirement, and only a small number of universities have any such program. This in turn is reflected in the level of education received by those training to be teachers which in turn affects the understanding of our past by students at all levels. The talk given by Prof Granatstein was met with resounding applause and spontaneous shouts of “hear, hear”, though it must be said, he was preaching to the choir.

Insisting that the teaching of Canadian history needs to change, it was to this audience that the Professor made the challenge to “resurrect and honour (our history) at a grassroots level,” that we be instrumental in inspiring others to “go, listen, read and reflect.”