The Great War as it re­ally looked — in colour

National Post (Latest Edition) - - LETTERS - Ian McGIllIs They Fought in Colour / La Guerre en couleur is avail­able from­dun­durn.com and in stores. For more in­for­ma­tion on the Vimy Foun­da­tion, see vimy­foun­da­tion.ca.

Mem­o­riz­ing In Flan­ders Fields as a stu­dent, and keep­ing that mem­ory alive into adult­hood, is one thing. Know­ing that the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens’ un­of­fi­cial motto (“To you from fail­ing hands we throw the torch …”) is from John McCrae’s iconic poem will get you bonus points. Wear­ing a poppy pin for a cou­ple of weeks ev­ery No­vem­ber can only be good.

But at a time when tech­nol­ogy and so­cial me­dia have us all liv­ing in a per­pet­ual present tense, a lit­tle more is needed to keep the mem­ory of the First World War alive past the 100th an­niver­sary of its end.

“It’s not so much a lack of ap­pre­ci­a­tion,” says Jeremy Di­a­mond re­gard­ing the chal­lenge of en­gag­ing younger peo­ple with the story of the war that rep­re­sented Canada’s com­ing of age on the in­ter­na­tional stage. “I think it’s more a lack of imag­i­na­tion, in many cases, with how it has been pre­sented.”

Di­a­mond is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vimy Foun­da­tion, a non-profit named for the hard-fought vic­tory by Cana­dian troops at the piv­otal Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.“Vimy was the first time in the war that four (Cana­dian) di­vi­sions fought,” said Di­a­mond, whose in­ter­est in the sub­ject was first stoked by a high school his­tory teacher. “You had 100,000 Cana­di­ans from all over meet­ing each other. There was this un­der­stand­ing that we were all on the same play­ing field, the same bat­tle­field, whether we’re from Saskatchewan or Hal­i­fax or Toronto or Mon­treal.”

The foun­da­tion’s var­ied mul­ti­me­dia mis­sion now has its high­est-pro­file ar­ti­fact with a bilin­gual book, in­tended not to re­place ex­ist­ing ac­counts but to com­ple­ment them — in Di­a­mond’s words, “to tell a fuller story.”

In com­bi­na­tion with es­says from an ar­ray of Cana­dian sto­ry­tellers — Mar­garet At­wood, Char­lotte Gray, Stephen Brunt, Peter Mans­bridge and oth­ers — and with an il­lu­mi­nat­ing per­sonal fore­word by ac­tor­film­maker Paul Gross, whose grand­fa­ther served in the con­flict, that’s pre­cisely what this re­mark­able project does.

“To many young peo­ple, 1914 to 1918 may as well have been 1,000 years ago,” Di­a­mond said. “So if you’re tak­ing a grainy black-and-white photo and a sped-up ver­sion of old film footage and ask­ing them to res­onate with that a cen­tury later, it’s a tall, tall or­der.”

The so­lu­tion, ar­rived at af­ter an ex­per­i­men­tal treat­ment of a fa­mous photo of vic­to­ri­ous Cana­di­ans rid­ing a wagon post-Vimy Ridge, was colour. Bri­tish Columbia-based Mark Tru­elove got the as­sign­ment to colour­ize more than 150 pe­riod pho­to­graphs rep­re­sent­ing all as­pects of the war: the buildup, the bat­tles, life be­hind the lines, the home front, the af­ter­math.

Nar­ra­tives hitherto ne­glected, like the roles played by mi­nor­ity-com­mu­nity per­son­nel, are given their due. And while mo­ments of joy amid the hor­rors of war are in­cluded — this was a time when your nat­u­ral re­sponse was to smile if you saw a cam­era — this is not a sug­ar­coated treat­ment, as a strik­ing pho­to­graph of wounded vet­er­ans protest­ing a lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties shows.

The im­me­di­acy wrought by colour is rev­e­la­tory through­out: images we might have skipped over through habit now jump off the page at us. A ra­zor-cut­sport­ing sol­dier writ­ing a let­ter home looks for all the world like a 2018 hip­ster.

“I saw that photo and thought, ‘I’ve seen that guy! In down­town Toronto!’ ” said Di­a­mond.

Any no­tion that what the Vimy Foun­da­tion has done with the source ma­te­rial might be a gim­mick dis­solves on first con­tact. They Fought in Colour is a rare feat of his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship: not just a re­vival, but a trans­for­ma­tion.

CANA­DIAN WAR MU­SEUM / GE­ORGE MET­CALF ARCHIVAL COL­LEC­TION. PRO­VIDED BY THE VIMY FOUN­DA­TION

From the Vimy Foun­da­tion book They Fought in Colour, Cana­dian sol­diers are shown re­turn­ing from Vimy Ridge.

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