Tonight in the UK, the lights will be turned off between 10:00 and 11:00 pm to mark the anniversary of Great Britain entering World War One. This is one of many memorial events that have taken place and are taking place across the UK. Some weeks ago I went to the Chelsea Society’s exhibition on that borough’s participation in the war, where I found some Canadian references: “Brothers in Paint for Canada” on war painters such as Augustus John, and text about the poet John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”.
And the media! Special issues on the war by the likes of BBC History and the New Statesman. Last January historian Margaret MacMillan spoke in Canada House about the start of the war, and in this weekend’s Guardian the headline for the Books Interview is: Margaret MacMillan “Don’t ask me who started the war or I’ll burst into tears.” So she’s been making the rounds, or as the interviewer says, “is everywhere right now.”
I want to mention a book that came my way not because it is new or part of the anniversary memorials but because it offers a fresh perspective: The Unwanted: Great War Letters from the Field, by John McKendrick Hughes, edited by his grandson, John R. Hughes. As Craig Gibson’s introductory essay explains, Canadians at the Western Front were not only in the trenches or on the battlefield. Thousands were part of the army’s support services behind the lines. Hughes became an Agricultural Officer, in charge of planting a “kitchen garden” that would feed a million. When Major General Holman sees that Hughes can plan for this, making use of abandoned farms, he says, “Hughes, what I like about you Canadians is that nothing stumps you. You have a job, and a damn big one.” (p. 4)
This is the tone of the book. Friendly, well-written, confiding. I got used to the way Hughes used “we,” as if his role and experience spoke for all, a military rather than royal “we.”
“We had left the farm in Western Canada to be a soldier. Now, within reach of shells and bombs and the steady roar of artillery, we were asked to leave off being a soldier and be a farmer.” (p. 52) And off he goes, with a driver and interpreter, all over France, one of about 20 Agricultural Officers, negotiating, organizing, and feeding an army. Letters to his sweetheart, and others, are interspersed with the “we” narrative, which ends by encouraging others to set down their story. It is well that he did.