Overlooked no longer
In Untold, historians Dieter Buse and Graeme Mount shed light on northeastern Ontario’s military history
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.