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Desperate Glory: The Story of WWI

by John Wilson

Not long ago, a teacher of 10- to 12-year-olds who was at her wits’ end asked me: “Do you know of any history books for kids that explain historical events in a continuous narrative, as opposed to those books with lots of photos and little bits and bytes?”

Well, here’s one. And it’s a good one too, as one might expect of John Wilson, whose two other non-fiction works for Napoleon, Righting Wrongs: The Story of Norman Bethune and Discovering the Arctic: The Story of John Rae, both offer a bracingly critical perspective that doesn’t succumb to some old party line.

In Desperate Glory, Wilson maps the issues and events of the Great War, from the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the 1918 influenza pandemic to the peace treaty in Paris. He concludes with a sober consideration of war memorials — not just the well-known one at Vimy Ridge, but also those at the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, and elsewhere. “It is a mind-numbing experience to go among them, but there is no better way to understand the magnitude and cost of the First World War,” Wilson writes. Thus his book brings readers into the present, leaving them to make what sad conclusions they can.

And in between: no man’s land and nine million dead. Wilson gives a very coherent narrative account of the war’s battles, with relevant material about the development of technology — air warfare, surveillance, and the tank — and significant political events, such as women’s suffrage, the Russian revolution, and conscription in Canada. (Of more than 400,000 men called up, 380,510 appealed their conscription — now that’s a revealing fact). Of course this short work can’t be comprehensive, but it offers a refreshingly complete picture. It’s the sort of work a child can digest.

Wilson covers Vimy Ridge, highlights Canadian airmen, comments on the “multicultural” units of black, aboriginal and Japanese Canadians who were finally allowed to enlist, and, of course, quotes the Canadian war poem “In Flanders Fields.” (He also quotes the much more openly antiwar British poet Wilfred Owen.) His favourite socialists also come into play: Norman Bethune is mentioned in the section on the Russian revolution, and “Ginger” Goodwin in the one on conscription.

But it isn’t so much the Canadian content that sticks in the mind. Rather, it’s the restrained voice Wilson brings to bear on so much that seems reprehensible. “The generals in the First World War seem stupid today because they fought huge battles that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and only advanced their army a kilometre or two. Serious mistakes were made, and generals learned painfully slowly from their mistakes, but they were often trapped by the technologies of their time,” he says with generosity.

At the same time, he tips his hand enough to allow readers to judge more severely. Why else point out that French soldiers were sent out in red trousers that made them perfect targets? Or that in 1917, 54 divisions of the French Army mutinied because of an incompetent general? Or that the commanders at the Somme sent tens of thousands of British soldiers marching in formation straight into German artillery? “The Germans …
couldn’t believe their eyes,” Wilson writes. “The machine guns began clacking like loud, old-fashioned sewing machines, and men dropped, one by one, all along the neat lines….”   

For a long time, the only Canadian children’s novel that focused on the horrors of the First World War was L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside. It offered a vision of passion and filth and heartbreak. I’ll never forget the stirring image of the lanky housekeeper with her skirts tucked in and her sleeves rolled up, stooking sheaves because there were no men to do it. Rilla of Ingleside makes one feel how awful it all was; it fans the fires of patriotism and it’s written by someone who lived through it. More recently, Iain Lawrence’s Lord of the Nutcracker Men gives a heart-wrenching portrait of a shell-shocked deserter; Michael Morpurgo’s novel Private Peaceful explores the outrageous injustice dealt to hundreds of British soldiers who were executed as traitors.

In Desperate Glory, Wilson stands back from that felt experience and gives but a quiet nod to hypocrisy, incompetence, and greed. With a few deft sentences, a quotation or a photo here and there – of rotting trench foot, of the skulls of German soldiers grinning from a mud-hole – he lays out the story in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the emotions of his young audience, but provides the context they’ll need to read and interpret more advanced works in the future.