Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them: Cana­dian Epi­taphs of the Great War

Canada's History - - BOOKS - by Eric McGeer Wilfrid Lau­rier Univer­sity Press, 223 pages, $49.99 Re­viewed by Tim Cook, the au­thor of ten books, in­clud­ing Vimy: The Bat­tle and the Leg­end (Allen Lane, 2017).

“Our dear daddy and our war hero. We miss you.” “J’ai fait mon de­voir.” (I did my duty.) “Four years have passed and still I miss him. How I miss him none can tell. Mother.” “Killed in ac­tion. Beloved daugh­ter of An­gus & Mary Maud Macdon­ald, Brant­ford, Canada.” Th­ese mov­ing epi­taphs are but four of the thou­sands in­scribed on head­stones for Cana­dian sol­diers and nurses who died in the First World War.

To visit the First World War ceme­ter­ies along the Western Front, or in hun­dreds of other lo­ca­tions around the world, is to feel the grief of si­lenced and shat­tered dreams. The Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion ( CWGC) ceme­ter­ies, with their Crosses of Sac­ri­fice set in tran­quil land­scapes, are the fi­nal rest­ing place of Canada’s (and of what was once the Bri­tish Em­pire’s) fallen. They num­ber 1.7 mil­lion men and women of the Com­mon­wealth forces for the two world wars, in­clud­ing some 66,000 Cana­di­ans.

The white Port­land head­stones mark the young and the mid­dle-aged who never re­turned to their homes by pro­vid­ing, when pos­si­ble, their name, rank, age, date of death, and unit. Canada’s silent army rests there for eter­nity.

Along the bot­tom of many of the head­stones run epi­taphs from griev­ing fam­i­lies. The next of kin were given sixty-six char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing spa­ces, to find words to cap­ture the haunt­ing loss of a son, brother, fa­ther, un­cle, or daugh­ter. How does one sum up a life in a space that is less than half the length of a typ­i­cal Twit­ter mes­sage?

In the beau­ti­fully pro­duced Can

ada’s Dream Shall Be of Them, Eric McGeer’s story of Canada’s First World War epi­taphs is ac­com­pa­nied by haunt­ing pho­to­graphs by Steve Dou­glas and colour re­pro­duc­tions of war art from the Cana­dian War Museum col­lec­tion. McGeer of­fers a brief his­tory of the war, its bat­tles, and the CWGC, but it is the epi­taphs them­selves that con­vey the power of mourn­ing wid­ows, par­ents, and or­phans who strug­gled to make sense of a life taken too soon.

Many of the next of kin drew so­lace in scrip­ture. Oth­ers found the words of po­ets Rud­yard Ki­pling or John McCrae more apt for giv­ing ex­pres­sion to grief. Epi­taphs ap­pear in English, French, Latin, Dan­ish, Welsh, Ukrainian, and other lan­guages, too, re­flect­ing the di­ver­sity of the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force that was 620,000 mem­bers strong.

Many epi­taphs seem to ac­cept the loss, as the sur­vivors found strength in words of sac­ri­fice re­gard­ing what many be­lieved was a just war. But one won­ders about the par­ents of nine­teen-yearold Pri­vate Ernest Ins­ley, killed on April 9, 1917, the first day of the Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge: “Gone. One of the best. No words can bring him back.”

The CWGC was ac­com­mo­dat­ing of the grief but re­fused overly an­gry or bit­ter word­ing. None­the­less, it rarely cen­sored cho­sen word­ings. There is a mov­ing epi­taph for one Bri­tish sol­dier who had been ex­e­cuted for de­ser­tion: “Shot at dawn. One of the first to en­list. A wor­thy son of his fa­ther.”

The epi­taphs are agony ren­dered in stone. The fam­ily of seventeen-yearold Pri­vate Bruce Nick­er­son, of Clark’s Har­bour, Nova Sco­tia, left this mes­sage: “We loved him well. Mem­ory gives pride and sor­row.” One hun­dred years on, that pride and that sor­row con­tinue to em­anate from the grave­stones.

Next of kin were given sixty-six char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing spa­ces, to find words to cap­ture the haunt­ing loss of a son, brother, fa­ther, un­cle, or daugh­ter — less than half the length of a Twit­ter mes­sage.

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