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

by Jonathan F. Vance

In April of 1926, during a debate in the House of Commons on that year’s budget, an MP named G.B. Nicholson remarked that Canada’s 60,000 First World War dead had been sacrificed for high, heroic motives.

It’s safe to say he wasn’t expecting the response he got, which was Agnes Macphail’s incredulity. “Does the honourable member really believe that?” she demanded. “If I did not believe it,” came the reply, “I should be the most desperate man in the world.”

Macphail’s subsequent assertions on the matter – that the war, for instance, was more a matter of economic interests than a just crusade – won her no friends on the floor of the House. “There may have been some truth to what she said,” Jonathan Vance writes, “but there was no room for her truth in Canada’s myth.”

In Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, Vance, a professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, makes a full and fascinating study of the national psychology that gave rise to that polished myth, the means by which, after 1918, Canada made sense of the so-called Great War.

How did Canadians come to remember a war that so many of them experienced first-hand “in terms,” as Vance writes, “that sometimes bore little resemblance to its actualities”? Not, in most cases, out of willful deceit or denial. The myth – by Vance’s recipe it was “a complex mixture of fact, wishful thinking, half-truth, and outright invention” – was natural-born.

Four years of war, all the slaughter and sacrifice – there was an urgency for reasonable interpretations of what was in so many ways unreasonable and inexplicable. “[The myth] answered a need,” Vance writes, “explained the past, offered the promise of a better future.” What, after all, was the alternative? “To suggest that the four years of upheaval had meant nothing was, as G.B. Nicholson said, to surrender oneself to desolation.”

In silhouette, the myth was more or less the one that Nicholson conjured in Parliament: that the war, as Vance writes elsewhere, was “a crusade that rallied the nation in defence of Western civilization and Christianity.”

Vance is exhaustive in his survey of how the myth manifested itself: he explores our social memory as expressed in novels and official histories, songs, and statues, even post-war battlefield tourism (6,000 Canadians travelled to Vimy Ridge in 1936 for the dedication of a monument to the fallen). He details the history of Lord Beaverbrook’s Canadian War Records Office, examines “the cult of service” (veterans good, “shirkers” bad), and why it was widely believed that “the trial of war” would invigorate Canadian culture.

Ultimately, the myth was a powerful force – it was able, after all, to rewrite history, and to disarm the likes of Agnes Macphail – but, as Vance clearly shows, it had its limits. For one thing, the making of the myth wasn’t exactly pan-Canadian: “few French-Canadians,” Vance writes, “were willing to forget conscription and the rancour that characterized the last years of the war.”

In his introduction Vance alludes to Paul Fussell’s influential exemplar The Great War and Modern Memory. Death So Noble may not be as accessible to non-specialist readers – the writing here is at times a little academically stolid – but, for its Canadian context, for its breadth of research, it is as fully absorbing.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: UBC Press


Price: $39.95

Page Count: 336 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-7748-0601-X

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 1997-4

Categories: Children and YA Non-fiction, History