World War 1 and how Canadian novelists told It
Harrison's novel swept away sentimentality

By Crawford Kilian

November 11, 2008

The first Canadian war novels began to appear in 1915 and 1916, and for a decade they appeared in great numbers. Those novels (and their authors) are mostly long forgotten. But they conveyed, intentionally or not, a vivid image of a Canada now lost to us.

Thirty-five years ago I gained access to that Canada by writing a master's thesis on those early war novels. And recently, re-reading my thesis, I stepped back into a lost world.

In some ways, 1914 Canada was like our own: English and French already lived in separate solitudes. Immigration was a thorny issue. Race and gender issues stirred intense debate, as did radical politics.

Harrison's novel swept away sentimentality
Harrison's novel swept away sentimentality

But that lost Canada knew almost nothing of war except what it had read in 19th-century romances of brave British soldiers defeating the lesser breeds. No one, not even the European adversaries, had ever fought a war like the one they had brought upon themselves.

Novel after novel describes the start of war after an idyllic summer: crowds gather around newspaper offices, where the latest dispatches are taped to the windows. Sometimes the men sing patriotic songs as they read, and then hurry off to enlist.

Escape into war

Idyllic or not, the summer of 1914 was also one of high unemployment. A serious recession had started in 1913 and was still crippling the economy. The novelists don't talk about that, but their heroes (and heroines) are clearly bored and frustrated by a stagnant Canadian society. War offers an escape into something better than mere prosperity.

Sir Gilbert Parker, the Canadian who masterminded Britain's war propaganda, asserted that "This world-war is a purgatorial passage through which mankind is moving into a new existence."

Novelist Basil King puts a similar view in the mouth of a young Canadian woman. Returning from nursing duties at the front, young Regina Barry explains why she wants to propagandize the Americans into joining a war she knows is a catastrophe:

"Because it's sublime. Because I've seen for myself that the people who take part in it are raised to levels they never knew it was possible to reach."

Bright, educated young women like Regina had been chafing under peacetime limitations. Many of them, in the early novels, take part in the war because they think they'll win equality and the vote in the post-war world. Their suitors are taken aback by such feminine aggressiveness, but are at least willing to consider this radical change in the status quo.

The women are aggressive on behalf of their men as well. In Robert J.C. Stead's The Cow Puncher, a poor, illiterate cowboy can shatter six bottles with six shots from his revolver. Now his wife urges him to use that skill to avenge German atrocities: "...what a man you are in uniform! I think I see you smashing heads instead of bottles! Six out of six, Dave! It's awful, but you must do it. Already we knew what has happened in Belgium."

In another novel, The Parts Men Play, by Beverley Baxter, young Elise Durwent is even more bloodthirsty:

"Do you think war appalls us? Rubbish! ...Men are going to die -- horribly, cruelly -- but they're going to play the parts of men.... We're part of it all. It was the women who gave them birth. It was the women who reared them, then lost them in ordinary life -- and now it's all justified. They can't go to war without us. We're partners at last. Do you think women are afraid of war? Why, the glory of it is in our very blood."

The evil Hun... and other aliens

German immigrants in pre-war Canada had been welcome friends and neighbours. Now they're treacherous foes: some go home to serve the Kaiser, while others stir up trouble on the home front by pursuing Anglo-Saxon girls. Ralph Connor, the pen name of a chaplain who served in the Canadian Army, pushes racism to a proto-Nazi extreme when the hero of his novel The Major talks to his sister about the war:

"This is a damnable business.... But the sooner that cursed race is wiped off the face of the earth the better.... I have come to see that there is no possibility of peace or sanity for the world till that race of mad militarists is destroyed. I am still a pacifist, but, thank God, no fool."

Connor's books sold over five million copies.

Wartime Canada was hostile to more than Germans. In Basil King's The City of Comrades, a Canadian back from the trenches walks the streets of New York before the U.S. has entered the war:

"On the pavements a strange, strange motley of men and women -- Hebrew, Slavic, mongolian, negro, negroid -- carried on trades as outlandish as themselves. Here and there an outlandish child shivered its way to an outlandish school. Only now and then one saw a Caucasian face, either clean, alert, superior, or brutalized and repulsive beyond anything to be seen among the yearning, industrious aliens."

The veteran realizes that Canada's commitment to war has spared it this "strange, strange motley."

Salvation in Quebec's conservatism

French-speaking Canadians are notable for their absence from these early novels, but in Beckles Willson's Redemption, an Anglo-Saxon professor sees Quebec conservatism as the country's salvation:

"I claim for French Canada in this year of grace 1913 that she had first of all a more widespread moral and spiritual decency than English Canada; that above that stratum you have an aristocracy which in essence... is superior to our own imitative, pretentious, moneyed classes.... I honestly believe they are on the eve of greatness, if they can only resist -- contagion."

That contagion, in Willson's view, is the invasion of "mongrel hordes, alien in thought and speech... Slavs and Celts, Babus and Egyptians."

Such early war novels enjoyed international audiences, including the U.S. and Britain, and many sold very well. (One, Lucy Maud Montgomery's Rilla of Ingleside, is still in print as part of the Anne of Green Gables series.)

The real war

Not until 1930 did a Canadian novel describe the real war in the trenches. Charles Yale Harrison's Generals Die in Bed is a hard-bitten present-tense narrative by a man who actually experienced combat.

Harrison got angry and hostile reviews in Canada, though the book sold well internationally. Even a decade after the Armistice, Canadians still believed that their 60,000 sons and brothers and fathers had died nobly for a purpose. That attitude had carried them through four awful years. It was why every Canadian community, including Vancouver, has at least one cenotaph honouring its dead.

Today's Canada would reject many of the values for which yesterday's Canadians fought and died. Our ancestors were racist, sexist and parochial. They also drove their British allies crazy with their brawling, hard-drinking, insubordinate attitude. Their readiness for violence would have broken all our modern rules of engagement.

But they nearly made the propaganda true. Most came home mute about their experiences. They got on with their lives.

And slowly, almost unwittingly, they transcended the complacent imperialist bigotry that had dragged them into one war and then into an even worse one. Whether they meant to or not, they gave us "mongrels" a Canada worth loving and defending.

We may have forgotten their prejudices, but we should always remember and thank them for their valour. Without it, we would not be here.

Related Tyee stories:

        Lest We (the Young) Forget
A child of the '80s reflects on Remembrance Day.

        Magnets for Memory
Our shrines to lives sacrificed are too important to be left to politicians.

        Why I Don't Wear a Poppy
I support freedom, but not war.

        The Poem and the Poppy
Reading 'In Flanders Fields.' And choosing to wear the flower.

Crawford Kilian's thesis The Great War and the Canadian Novel is available online as a PDF.