Canadian Memories of the First World War

Book Review: Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War

Published in War in History, 6 (April 1999), 237-9.

Jonathan F. Vance, Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War (Vancouver: UBC Press. 1997)

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This is a study of Canadian cultural memory of the First World War. Jonathan Vance argues that a mythic version of Canada’s experience of the conflict of 1914-18 was constructed out of ‘a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half-truth, and outright invention’. His book analyses the ways in which this myth was expressed, in art, literature, sculpture, song, and even in advertisements. Vance is interested in the ways in which the war was imagined (to borrow Samuel Hynes’s suggestive term), both at the time and in the following decades. His focus is on the emergence of new ideas about redemption and sacrifice immediately after the war. Vance argues that such notions provided a ‘simple way’ to comprehend the war which might have given solace to severely disabled veterans, war widows and the relatives of war neurotics (p.36). Perhaps so, but we might want to be cautious about assuming that people are necessarily satisfied by the simplest explanation, and that solace was always to be preferred to the political rage which is found, for example, in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire or even Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

In another chapter, Vance suggests that those who were not persuaded by religious interpretations of the war made its memory bearable through humour, melodrama and caricature; others remembered the war through its comradeship and good times. Here Vance analyses some bizarre material, and while his discussion is always careful and intelligent, there is perhaps scope to ask whether the humour contains elements of aggression which are worthy of analysis. Some of the material seems too uncomfortable to be explained simply in terms of reassurance. There is a profound ambivalence at work in the writings, plays, advertisements, songs and other humorous works Vance analyses, and we might want to read these works alongside ideas from psychoanalysis which emerged during the same period. As a literary historian, I found Vance’s lack of interest in psychoanalysis rather refreshing. But psychoanalysis can suggest ways of reading the contradictions and nuances in the material which the utilitarian framework proposed in the introduction is perhaps unable to address.

Some of Vance’s examples seem specific to Canada, while others enrich our understanding of the international effects of the war. In chapter 5, Vance examines the ways in which Canadian soldiers were represented as the nation itself, ‘steaming across the ocean’, as one commentator remarked (p. 136). Some people hoped the war would cleanse the nation of decadent materialism; others represented Canada as an innocent wilderness peopled by honest farmers who became ‘citizen-soldiers’ (p. 141). This rugged myth intersects in interesting ways with representations of the war as a modern machine which Daniel Pick has found in the writings of other combatant nations.

Jonathan Vance writes with elegance and clarity, assembling complex and wide-ranging material into a fascinating narrative. The quality of production from UBC Press is excellent; the book is well designed and includes around 80 illustrations which enrich the discussion. Death So Noble is a valuable contribution to current thinking about the cultural effects of the First World War and should be of interest to social and cultural historians and literary critics, as well as military historians.

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