The First World War took place 100 years ago. Firsthand remembrances of it have faded. Most people today view it as a complete and utter waste of lives and resources – which is true enough, considering that the final outcomes included the fall of numerous European monarchies, the rise of the Soviet Union and, most ominously, the setting of the stage for the Second World War, which began just 20 years after the first war ended.
Yet, as is the case with all major historical events, we ignore or forget them at our peril. The First World War shaped Canada, and shaped its people and communities. It continues to shape us today, in very subtle ways.
“Many Canadians view the First World War as ancient history. Its relevance to the present is little understood. Yet, other than Confederation itself, the Great War of 1914-1918 was arguably the most important event in Canadian history. Without it, Canada and indeed the rest of the world have been far different places.”
That’s the view of historian Warren Sommer, whose book “Canucks in Khaki” examines the war from community perspective. The community he profiles is Langley, where he has lived and worked for almost 40 years.
The story of the young men and women of Langley and other nearby communities who went off to the First World War has been near and dear to Sommer’s heart for a long, long time.
He has expended enormous personal effort over the past 25 years in gathering details about those who were part of the war effort – primarily soldiers and women who volunteered in various capacities (women could not become soldiers at that time), but also the stories of people who were on the home front, but were deeply also affected by the war. Through stories, photos, firsthand observations, newspaper accounts and many other sources, he has crafted what is likely the most detailed account of the war and its impact on a specific community published in Canada.
In my capacity as editor of the Langley Times from 1999 to 2015, I had the privilege of publishing many of the individual stories he gathered, usually around Remembrance Day. The depth of Sommer’s research and the deep personal effect of what was known initially known as The Great War on people of the time shone through.
The book’s publication was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, Canada’s most famous contribution to the war. The book will be formally launched on Sunday, April 9, the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle, at St. George’s Anglican Church in Fort Langley, at 1:30 p.m. The church, incidentally, is one of many Langley places featured in the book.
After the launch, an exhibit at nearby Langley Centennial Museum entitled Sacrifice and Sorrow which runs until June 16 will be opened. Several other special events are planned at the museum during the spring months in conjunction with the exhibit.
The book covers every detail of the war, from conditions when it broke out in 1914, to sections on every battle Canadian troops took part in, to the bitter end. By that time, more than 60,000 Canadians had died and the war had taken a terrible toll on most families. The role played by the almost 400 soldiers and nursing sisters who enlisted from Langley is prominent in each chapter.
Of most value, to put their contributions into a local community context, is learning how the community reacted, both during and after the war. For example, many Langley roads were renamed for soldiers who died in the war. Also of significance is how the war affected those who survived their time overseas, only to come home fighting many health issues, both physical and mental. Their experiences are playing out again today as veterans deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, something unheard of in 1918.
Langley soldier Frank Turnbull, who served with the 46th Battalion at Vimy, had this to say in his diary about his part in the attack on Vimy Ridge on Apr. 9, 1917: “Went through to St. Vincent Subway and out of the trench. Hiney started to shoot rifle and machine (gun) bullets at us and a few shells. Then they got up and beat it. Dug ourselves in and stayed on post in a shell hole all night. It was a swell moonlight one too.
“No relief yet. Have to stay on duty here. Always have to be digging as the earth falls in. The day has passed slowly. Not such a nice night tonight. It snows now and then and is rather chilly. It’s too cold to sleep. Night passed very slowly but Fritz made no attempt to come over.”
The book also looks at significant incidents off the battlefield, including such events as the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the wartime federal election of 1917, which remains the most divisive campaign in Canadian history.
Here’s Florence Cassidy’s recollection of celebrating the end of the war in Murrayville. Her brother Harry was overseas with the Canadian troops, and this is from a letter she wrote him on Nov. 12, 1918: “In the afternoon, Mr. Gosling (returned soldier Quintin Adolphus Gosling) stuffed a “Kaiser” and dressed him all up and strung him on the telephone wires so everyone could have a look at him. That night at 7:30 we went down in the car and they made a bonfire and all the girls sang songs and blew our wistles (sic) and rang cow-bells and then they burned the Kaiser. Hip, hip hurrah!”
The book will be available at Langley Centennial Museum in Fort Langley, and directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 604-888-0017. The 384-page hardcover book sells for $39.95 plus GST.