Over­looked no longer

In Un­told, his­to­ri­ans Di­eter Buse and Graeme Mount shed light on north­east­ern On­tario’s mil­i­tary his­tory

The Sudbury Star - - NEWS - D. M. LEE­SON D. M. Lee­son is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor with the Depart­ment of His­tory at Lau­ren­tian Univer­sity.

One hun­dred years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918, af­ter more than four years of fight­ing and mil­lions of deaths, the First World War was con­cluded with an ar­mistice. To­day, if you visit the Cana­dian War Mu­seum, in Ot­tawa, you can see a tem­po­rary ex­hibit en­ti­tled Vic­tory 1918: The Last Hun­dred Days.

From this ex­hibit, you can learn about the fi­nal bat­tles on the West­ern Front, in which the Al­lied forces de­feated and drove back their Ger­man ad­ver­saries, un­til the Ger­man Empire col­lapsed in rev­o­lu­tion and sued for peace. And in par­tic­u­lar, you can learn about the im­por­tant part that the Cana­dian Corps played in the vic­to­ri­ous Al­lied ad­vance, from the Bat­tle of Amiens in Au­gust to the re­cap­ture of Mons in No­vem­ber.

What you won’t learn from this ex­hibit, how­ever, is much about the con­tri­bu­tions and sac­ri­fices made by sol­diers from north­east­ern On­tario. This is un­der­stand­able. More than 600,000 Cana­di­ans served in the armed forces from 1914 to 1918. What was then called New On­tario cov­ered a large area, but its pop­u­la­tion was com­par­a­tively small. And while a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of its peo­ple en­listed (or were con­scripted) for the war ef­fort, th­ese re­cruits were of­ten mixed in with sol­diers from other, more pop­u­lous parts of the prov­ince. As a re­sult, they have been easy for his­to­ri­ans to over­look.

In their new book Un­told, how­ever, Di­eter Buse and Graeme Mount have cor­rected this over­sight. Both Di­eter and Graeme were pro­fes­sors in the Depart­ment of His­tory at Lau­ren­tian Univer­sity for more than 35 years. Though they re­tired in 2005, they are still ac­tive re­searchers. In 2011, they co-au­thored a cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal guide to the North­east, Come On Over! North­east­ern On­tario, A to Z. And their lat­est col­lab­o­ra­tion, which has been com­pleted just in time for the hun­dredth an­niver­sary of the Ar­mistice, is a de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion of this re­gion’s mil­i­tary his­tory: Vol­ume I con­cen­trates on the First World War, while Vol­ume II will con­cen­trate on the Sec­ond.

Un­told is writ­ten with both skill and en­thu­si­asm: its au­thors are clearly pas­sion­ate about the his­tory of north­east­ern On­tario, and have re­searched their topic in depth. Part I, “The Wars,” be­gins with a scene-set­ting chap­ter about the mil­i­tary his­tory of the re­gion be­fore 1914. The next two chap­ters are de­voted to the story of the First World War, with a spe­cial em­pha­sis on those bat­tles in which Cana­di­ans fought.

When the Cana­dian Corps cap­tured Vimy Ridge and Pass­chen­daele in 1917, and when it broke through the Ger­man lines at Amiens in 1918, sol­diers from north­east­ern On­tario were there. They were also present at many en­gage­ments that have since been mostly for­got­ten. Dur­ing the Hun­dred Days, for ex­am­ple, Sgt. Wil­liam Mer­ri­field of Sault Ste. Marie and Sud­bury won the Vic­to­ria Cross, at the Bat­tle of the Canal du Nord in Oc­to­ber. A month later, by con­trast, Sap­per Wil­liam Dur­rell of Hai­ley­bury and North Bay was dan­ger­ously wounded by shrap­nel on Nov. 6, lin­gered in hos­pi­tal for a week, and passed away two days af­ter the Ar­mistice. Un­told is full of sto­ries like th­ese, which ful­fill the prom­ise that Cana­di­ans have re­peated ev­ery Re­mem­brance Day for al­most a hun­dred years: “we will re­mem­ber them.”

But Un­told is much more than just a chron­i­cle of bat­tles, or a roll of hon­our. In Part 2 of their book, en­ti­tled “Ex­pe­ri­ences,” Buse and Mount dig deeper into the so­cial his­tory of the war: and the story they have un­cov­ered is, if any­thing, even more in­ter­est­ing than the story in Part 1. In Chap­ter 5, for ex­am­ple, they dis­cuss the vi­tal but unglam­orous con­tri­bu­tions of sol­diers from the north­east in sup­port units — forestry bat­tal­ions, rail­way troops and tun­nelling com­pa­nies — and de­scribe the ex­pe­ri­ences of Indige­nous sol­diers and fran­co­phone re­cruits.

In Chap­ter 6 (fit­tingly en­ti­tled “Life When Not Be­ing Shot At”) they cover a whole va­ri­ety of top­ics, rang­ing from the ex­pe­ri­ences of women (both at home and over­seas), to the ex­pe­ri­ences of “en­emy aliens” who were in­terned at Ka­puskas­ing. They even de­vote a few pages to the topic of an­i­mals at war, in­clud­ing Bob­bie Burns, a reg­i­men­tal mas­cot of the Princess Pats, who may have been the only dog in his­tory to write a war mem­oir.

The fi­nal chap­ters of Un­told are de­voted to death and re­mem­brance: here, for ex­am­ple, we can read the names of ev­ery sol­dier from north­east­ern On­tario who died in the First World War, while also learn­ing about how the peo­ple of this re­gion cel­e­brated the re­turn of peace, and raised memo­ri­als to those who had fought and died. That is a fit­ting con­clu­sion, be­cause by pub­lish­ing this first vol­ume, its au­thors have cre­ated a mon­u­ment that is more last­ing than bronze. Hope­fully, we will not have to wait too long be­fore the sec­ond vol­ume ap­pears in print.


Mem­bers of 15th Bat­tal­ion train at Val Cartier, Que., be­fore head­ing over­seas to fight in the First World War.


In their new book Un­told, his­to­ri­ans Graeme Mount (left) Di­eter Buse and Graeme Mount ex­am­ine the mil­i­tary his­tory of north­east­ern On­tario up un­til the end of the First World War.

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