5 Public History Projects with a Canadian Military Connection

I’ve been interested in the military history of Canada for most of my life. Even through the years when classical reception was my primary research focus, I followed the field with interest. And obviously, given the subject matter of this site, I turned to military history – with a Canadian connection – once my classical reception work came to an end. Now that I’m moving away from the academy, I find myself drawn to what might be called public history projects in the field. Here are a handful I think are worth pursuing.

Canadians in Vietnam. Aspects of this story featured in a ‘Peace’ exhibit at the Canadian War Museum from 2013-4 and the CBC did an episode of Rewind on the subject, but surely it could warrant a stand-alone exhibit at the CWM or perhaps a multi-episode History Channel-style TV treatment. It would provide a perfect way to interrogate the contemporary issue of Canada’s military engagement with in the world, and in particular its ambiguous and multifaceted response to the foreign policies of the superpower to the South.

Special Operations. This too isn’t entirely virgin territory. There are monographs and the CWM has touched on the topic. But given the changing nature of warfare and in particular Canada’s military role in Afghanistan and now the conflict with ISIS, it seems a good time to explore the long history of ‘unconventional’ warfare in Canadian history and the moral issues it raises. Security might be an obstacle in terms of recent and contemporary events but it’s probably not insurmountable, particularly if the project focuses on the strategic, moral, and policy dimensions of special operations rather than their technical or tactical intricacies.

PTSD.  PTSD occupies a prominent place in both popular and scholarly engagement with Canadian Military History. It was part of the 2011 exhibition at the CWM entitled War + Medicine. It’s featured prominently in media coverage of the Great War Centenary But again, given the importance of PTSD in the present moment and its long history in Canada, it warrants more attention. In particular, I’d like to see some real attention paid to pre and post First World War manifestations of PTSD.  I think that longer perspective might help to illuminate the interaction effect that has made PTSD such a huge problem more recently. And wouldn’t it be great if the project  tackled the social and cultural impacts of PTSD, particularly with respect to substance abuse, self-harm, and domestic violence?

The Environment. This one’s close to my own heart as even a quick look at this website will reveal. It’s also more or less an open field in terms of Canadian Military history. I see two ways to approach the issue within the Canadian context. First, there’s the colonial perspective, in which Canada supported the war-making capacity of the British Empire with bases, manpower and strategic resources. Second, the impact of war on perceptions of nature, particularly surrounding the Great War is an area ripe for deeper exploration.

War and the imagined community. This one is a bit more challenging. I think it’s time some institution offered the public a critical exploration of the narratives of national awakening and heroic self-sacrifice that characterize popular understandings of Canadian Military history. Such narratives – though not without some foundation – inhibit deeper understandings both of our national history and soldiers’ experience of war. Addressing the whys, hows and wherefores of the stories we love to tell (and believe) about our military history could offer profound insights on questions of collective memory and national identity.

Two common themes link these projects (beyond Canadian Military History). The first is cultural relevance. Each project addresses an issue of contemporary importance where a historical perspective can provide important insight. Secondly, each offers an opportunity to challenge the public in ways that might help us develop a deeper, more critical perspective on not just our history but also our present and future.

Of course, brainstorming ideas is the easy part. The real trick is to come up with creative and engaging ways to disseminate the research at the core of these projects. But that’s a post for another day.

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Digital Desideratum

‘Digital humanities’ is a bit of a buzzword these days – at least among humanists in the academy. And well it should be. The constellation of information technologies linked by the ‘interwebs’ constitutes nothing short of a revolution for research in the traditional humanities – not to mention the dissemination of that research. We ignore it at our peril and not just because it can enhance our personal research agendas. Humanistic studies have been the surest path to mastery of traditional literacy since Plato hung his shingle in the Groves of Academus. If humanists embrace digital humanities we can ensure our disciplines a new stream of relevance in this new world where digital literacies have become so important.

But that’s a rant for another time. For now, I want to lay out my biggest digital desideratum: an on-line research hub dedicated to the First World War. Museums, Archives, National Libraries, Universities, regimental associations, and private researchers around the world have digitized a remarkable variety of material of use to students, genealogists, interested amateurs and professional researchers. Oxford’s Great War Poetry site is justly well known. The Australian War Memorial has the complete series of War Diaries for Australian units active during the Great War. The Imperial War Museum has made a remarkable collection of photographs available on-line. Closer to home the Canadian National Library and Archives have a growing collection of online materials relating to the Great War. Then there’s McMaster’ University’s collection of Aerial Photographs. Toronto’s Great War Attic project is an interesting community based approach to digital Great War research. And that hardly scratches the surface of English language resources. Including French or German resources for example, or those curated by private organizations and individuals would turn this little post into an epic.

From a serious researcher’s point of view the quality of these sites varies, with some being tailored to genealogists and others suffering from confusing page layouts or clunky search functions. But those issues are relatively minor when set beside the matter of finding the sites themselves. Google and the other leading search engines aren’t a great deal of help. Or rather, they aren’t a terribly efficient way of finding these resources given all the commercial and other dross that accompanies the honest ore researchers seek.

A few sites make game attempts. BYU’s Library has a page of links relating to its own collection of Great War documents. 1914-1918 On-line likewise has a page of links to Websites. There are others. They all struggle with a trio of problems: comprehensiveness, organization, and curation. This can only be an issue of resources.   Individuals and small non-governmental organizations/non-profits can’t possibly muster the time or IT resources required to build and maintain a comprehensive and well-curated research portal rather than just a list of links. Our best hope is for a major institution (I’m looking at you national war museums and research centres) to undertake the task.  They have the expertise and the mandate to do so.

It would be an expensive proposition, but it would drive a lot of web-traffic to the host-institution, increasing its international profile among peer institutions, reseachers (both professional and casual), and students.

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Thiepval Memorial


Thiepval Memorial is a large monument built in honor of the missing. I believe that it was originally built to give the families of the missing somewhere to go  to mourn and to see their loved one’s name recognized. I have no way to know for sure if that goal was actually realized for the families of the missing.

Walking up to Thiepval I wasn’t expecting it to be any different than any of the other cemeteries or memorials we had yet to visit. Keep in mind that we visited Thiepval on our second day of the trip and hadn’t experienced much in comparison to the rest of the trip. To give some perspective, Thiepval was the second stop on our second day after Newfoundland Memorial Park and the day before we had visited the Historial de le grand guerre, a cemetery, and the Welsh Mametz Wood Memorial. Looking back it really was not much at all that we had experienced but it had seemed like so much already at the time.

Back to Thiepval, walking up to it I honestly was not expecting it to affect me more than surface level sadness, as the places we visited before that had not. I walked up to it with the prescribed bit of moroseness thinking that I realized the death that it represented while thinking that wouldn’t affect me as no one I am related to fought in World War One and all of the people that the monument was built in honor of have been dead for almost one hundred years now. My basically nonchalant attitude lasted me to about the top step of the monument. Where my thoughts went from, “Wow that’s cool, they put the names of the missing on the outside of the columns around the monument. That’s a lot of names” to “Holy moly, the names surround every single large column supporting this monument.I cannot comprehend the number of names that is.” Here is an example of one of the first columns in the monument:Image

As I started walking through the 16 columns I found my last name posted on the wall. This was the first time I had seen my last name on anything we had seen so far. That impacted me a lot, especially when the men on the wall shared the same first initial as my dad or Grandfather: J. Burns, T. Burns.  Between the first impact of the sheer number of names on the walls and the second when the names became more personal the true feeling of Thiepval fell upon me. I became very somber and reverential of the names while in complete wonder and amazement at the magnitude of them. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the number of names and the idea that these just represented the missing of the British and French troops. There are less missing than found men as far as I know, and that suddenly felt impossible.

This somber attitude was added upon as I happened upon what I think was a British tour group circled around a specific column sharing a moment of silence. I stood and watched for a second, and the leader of the group end the moment with what sounded like a word of prayer for the men on that wall. I don’t know who those tourists were, or where they were from, or if they had any connection to the people on that wall, but that was the most respectful and understanding thing I had seen from a tour bus group the entire trip. With that final impact to my realization of the importance of Thiepval swirling around in my mind, it all came together with the simple question asked by Dr. Hagerman, “How are you doing?” To which I instinctively replied with a thumbs up and then realized my error. I was not two thumbs up, I couldn’t be, not with the thousands of names of the missing dead surrounding me. I amended my answer, to something like this, “I am doing alright considering how sad of a place this is.”


Within our following conversation I realized the true personality of Thiepval. What was first thought to be this glorious monument to the missing stretching in the sky no longer felt like such. Thiepval became heavy and oppressive, with the mass of names surrounding me, the true number of them overwhelming. The columns looked like massive feet stomped into the ground. The entire building seemed to loom above me in its boxy unforgiving way. So much different to the memorial we had seen that morning, Newfoundland, or the memorials we visited later in the trip such as Vimy Ridge. Thiepval was heavier, darker, and more obtrusive to what surrounded it than the others.


That was only enforced as I began noticing Thiepval in the distance almost everywhere else we visited in the Somme. The monument towering over the surrounding trees and being on top of one of the higher hills in the area. Thiepval seemed to loom over the Somme like it watches over it. Like it is watching over the lost bodies that are named on its walls. In a way, I guess that could be comforting, that Thiepval is watching over those that are lost, but it gives me the creeps. While writing this I can’t get the image of Thiepval walking around on it’s many columns through the fields finding the lost dead. I don’t know if that is due to Thiepval itself or my overactive imagination, but either way, it is creepy.

IMG_7802 IMG_8139


Can you spot Thiepval? The first is from Mill Road Cemetery, the second from Hawthorne Ridge.

Over the next couple of days I started to doubt the comfort Thiepval was supposed to provide for the families of the missing. Yes, they may have a spot to see their son’s, husband’s, brother’s name on the wall, a spot to go to mourn them. In reality, though, their loved one’s name is just one of thousands, all of which do not have a known grave. Their loved one is just one of the thousands piled onto that monument. It may be a place for the missing’s family to grieve but it cannot be special to them and to their family, they share that same space in front of the panel their loved one’s name appears on with at least 30 other grieving families. For me, sympathizing for those families, I don’t know if that would be any comfort at all.

Whether or not any of these conjectures are true, or were intended by the architect, Thiepval was an incredibly impacting place for me. It was the first place that really put magnitude of the lives lost in perspective. It was the first place that I found that personal connection to the war despite knowing that I probably am not even distantly related to any of the Burns on those walls. In that way, Thiepval did its job. Thiepval made me realize the true tragedy of the war, and in the end that is what matters. To make visitors see those that are remembered there and realize just how many gave up their lives in World War One and to appreciate that in a whole new way.


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Reflections on Our New World Adventure


In the class “We Are Making a New World,” we often talked about how little we know about the First World War and its impacts on the world, but I did not know how great my own disconnect with the First World War was until I came on this trip, especially with regards to environmental destruction. Even though there are many pictures of barren dead trees and the great scars upon the earth from mine craters, shell holes, and trenches, the environmental destruction still seems unimaginable and even to a certain extent impossible. Even now, after I have seen preserved trench lines, mine craters, and the damage from artillery on the land in person, I cannot picture myself in the midst of the destruction as it must have been during the war. Throughout our trip, I have tried to imagine the places I have been as they would have looked after bombardment, but for the life of me I could not.

Many wounds lay upon the environment still today through careful preservation of trenches and shell holes in memorial parks and some forests in France and Belgium. Even in some places where very little or nothing at all was done to preserve the state of environmental destruction, environmental impacts remain visible, especially in forested areas. However, in fields, one usually cannot tell that any fighting went on there at all. Human intervention on the land both wipes out the effects of World War One and keeps it around for all to see. I suppose that keeping the destruction around helps us remember the horror of the war to some small extent, and it is useful for historical and commemorative purposes, yet I feel that perhaps we do a disservice to the land by slowing its healing process. Thanks to human efforts, many types of plant and animal life do not inhabit preserved park sites. Even though these preserved sights are not common, it seems so selfish of humanity to refuse to let nature take its course, to forbid healthy ecosystems to regrow in the places where we have so cruelly killed them. It speaks to man’s want of dominance in the world as a whole.

Man feels that he has power over the world and can use the world as he pleases, but such behavior is irresponsible as man does not make reparations for the damages done after he exploits the land. Man creates great machines and weapons for the purpose of destroying other men, and unknowingly or unintentionally kills the environment too. The environmental destruction of World War One was not predicted. We take great pride in our technological achievements, yet we do not know the potential consequences of such technology. Either that, or we know that we hurt the environment with our technology, but we do not take the destruction seriously and let things get out of hand extremely quickly. We prove this again and again: atomic bombs, oil spills, pollution, global warming. World War One’s environmental destruction is evidence of man’s great ignorance of the dangers of his own technology.

We have made a new world, literally.

Now, here is what this new world looks like…

Some trenches at Newfoundland Memorial Park


The remains of a tree original to the war in the same park



Part of the grounds-keeping team at the Newfoundland park, helping to keep the trench lines visible


Lochnagar crater, so large that I could not capture it in one frame


A shell crater in Thiepval wood



The effects of artillery fire as seen at Vimy Ridge, a site that has been actively preserved


Hill 60, minimal preservation work has been done here, except by some sheep


A slope that is part of a large mine crater, again at Hill 60


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Last days – for now

Apologies for yesterday’s silence. I was on my chinstrap by the time we finished our awards last night.  I’m very nearly as tired tonight after a lot of driving and a lot more walking in Gay Paris.  But back to yesterday. 

In the morning we marched.  Down the Menin Road to Hooge Crater Cemetery – a deceptively large cemetery anchored by the eponymous crater – and then on the Sanctuary Wood museum, where we saw the grave of Lt. Talbot (who will return to our story later in the day).  After the cemetery came Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood Museum.   The museum houses a large collection of artifacts in varying states of preservation, including some rather harrowing stereoscopic images, but the real ‘highlight’ is the preserved trenches in the back garden.  It’s a bit of a tetanus outbreak waiting to happen these days, with a shocking amount of rusting iron lining the trenches, but it’s still very evocative and offers a marked contrast with the cultivated fields all around.  We all managed to make our way through the preserved/restored tunnel system with the aid of our cell phone lights, which inspired more than one comment about what the soldiers might have given for such devices.

From the museum we proceeded to the Canadian HIll 62 memorial, which offered wonderful views back toward Ypres and out along Observatory Ridge.  We enjoyed some local chocolate bread under a couple of trees before carrying on back toward the Menin Road via Stirling Castle, stopping for a group picture in front of what would have been Inverness Copse during the war.   (Significance:  it was the subject of Nash’s painting We are Making a New World which inspired the course.  Shameless rip-off on my part).    Returning to the hotel, socks and shoes were changed (casualties of the trip through the muddy tunnel system) and we piled in our Zafiras to visit HIll 60, the site of intense fighting and mining during the war.  The site has been left as it was – ‘as far as nature will allow’ and there is a great deal to see in terms of the war’s impact on the landscape: craters, bunkers, collapsed bunkers, shell-holes, trench lines, etc. 

We changed gears entirely for the afternoon, traveling to Poperinge, where we ate lunch in the famous La Poupé cafe and visited the Talbot House Museum. Talbot House or TocH was founded by the Rev. Tubby Clayton and named after the Lt. Talbot mentioned above.  It was an everyman’s club of sorts, where soldiers and officers could mix and relax in relative safety and comfort.  It was an oasis of sorts really, offering lodging, company, food, tea, music, reading, games, and religious services for those so inclined.   It reverted to its original owner after the war, but he soon tired of receiving streams of curious visitors and since 1929 it has been operated as a sort of living museum.  There’s a great interpretive centre focused on life behind the lines and the house itself is magnificently preserved and decorated with some fascinating ephemera  (loved the ‘Old Bill’ plates) documents (Friendship corner was a highlight for me) and art (including some of Kennington’s sketches for The Conquerors).   Verdict: highest recommendation.  It’s a really touching place where you can feel the same sense of peace and welcome that made it so popular with so many thousands of men who passed through the Salient.

From Poperinge we returned to Ypres, where the Other Ranks had free time and @mshagerman and I went shopping for awards.  We did well, finding little curious of WWI vintage for Our Battalion Adjutant, our Battalion Farrier, our Signals Officer (Iddy-umpty), our Mess Officer, our American exchange officer, our Medical officer (Croaker) and our Quartermaster.  Presentations were made back at the hotel, but not until we’d had some really wonderful discussions about what the trip had added to students’ understanding of the themes discussed in the course – and of course their personal highlights of the trip so far. 

This morning we made a brief stop at the Island of Ireland Peace Tower at Messen (Messines), which seemed a fitting last stop on our battlefield Tour.  The tower is a gorgeous stone structure worth seeing in its own right, but all the more interesting for providing an example of how the destruction caused by the Great War has been appropriated for very specific political aims in the present. Even so, it’s hard to deny the power of its call for reconciliation and the abnegation of violence.  

As we left Messines bound for Paris and all its blandishments, I’ll admit to feeling a mixture of sadness and relief.   Relief that the trip has been such a success (in my own mind anyway) and sadness that it was coming to an end.   Good thing the City of Lights was waiting at the end of that drive.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

            I’m kind of a literature/grammar geek. Seriously, the worst fight my best friend and I have ever gotten in was over how often the semi-colon should be used in creative writing. It’s that bad. I especially like words with minutely specific definitions like apricity (‘the warmth of the sun in winter’), defenestrate (‘to throw out a window’), and callipygian (‘having well-shaped buttocks’). Driving around through land that’s dotted with little cemeteries and full of piles or rusted shell casings keeps reminding me of two of my favorite ultra-specific words: flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam, according to Dictonary.com, is “the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water.” Jetsam is “goods cast overboard deliberately, as to lighten a vessel or improve its stability in an emergency.” I’ve always found it fascinating that we, as an English-speaking collective, have drawn distinctions between the wreckage of what we lose because of disaster and what we chose to let go because of disaster. As minute as that distinction is, the line between flotsam and jetsam seems to become remarkably indistinct when it comes to the First World War and how society has continued to deal with the aftermath.

             Every year around the area that used to be the Western Front, farmers plow up what they call ‘iron harvest’: lead shrapnel balls, scraps of shells, bits of barbed wire, etc. It gets piled alongside fields, in peoples’ back yards, and in armature and professional museums. For the locals, finding an undetonated ninety-six year-old hand grenade in a field is a mundane part of life. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the supplies produced during the war have become jetsam: abandoned by the world in the heat of war and the bustle of life afterwards. In Thiepval Wood, the tour guide told us about a soldier’s intact pack that was unearthed recently and explained that it was probably abandoned when the owner was severely wounded during the fighting. The kit had a toothbrush, hairbrush, and mustache brush (along with some other articles). In the turmoil of battle, the incredibly personal objects became just another speck in a sea of jetsam. And then there’s the North Staffordshire clip and pin that I’ve found in souvenir stores. They’d both sat in the shop for goodness knows how long because not many museums and even fewer tourists want badges from a little regiment that didn’t specifically win any major battles. But when I saw them, I was absolutely thrilled because they actually mean something to me. It’s the same with the shrapnel our group has found in the fields we’ve walked through; we’ve all been carefully storing the little lead balls we’ve been finding as souvenirs, even though they’re practically worthless. Mostly by chance, these little bits of jetsam suddenly seem a lot more like flotsam: they aren’t being cast away as worthless, they’ve just been lost wreckage for a long, long time.

          The same pattern of flotsam and jetsam pops up in the structures and laws that made up the civilizations that took part in the war (my group is looking at the overall theme of Destruction of Civilization, so I’ve got to mention it). We’re staying outside of Ypres (or Wipers, as the British called it), a city that was reduced to rubble, along with its medieval cloth hall, during the war. Over the course of the fighting on the Ypers Salient, an entire city, with all its rich history, was reduced to flotsam. But then that flotsam was carted off and is still used today to patch roads and farm tracks. I guess its jetsam instead, now. We also visited the memorial at St. Julien, where the first gas attack took place. In the frenzy to gain ground, morality got shoved aside to allow for the hideously effective weapon to be used. Similarly, at the start of the war, the higher-ups still tried to use cavalry as an offensive weapon. Horses faired about as well against barbed wire and machine guns as one would imagine: the animals were butchered in the most horrific ways possible. In both the case of the gas and the horses, ethics became flotsam. And then both sides embraced gas as a weapon and started an arms race to produce increasingly deadly and efficient chemical weapons. Horses were retained as a major part of the army’s transport system and regularly faced conditions that violated literally every aspect of the existing animal welfare legislation. Society’s morals became jetsam.

           Then there’s the thing that really got me thinking about the contrast between what we lose and what we throw away: Langmarck Cemetery. It’s the first German cemetery we’ve visited and it’s a chilling contrast to the Commonwealth cemeteries we’ve been seeing for most of the trip. Commonwealth cemeteries usually have no more than two soldiers listed on a single headstone and always are bright and open. Langmarck has just over 44,000 men buried on a plot that can’t be more than eight acres. The flat, black granite stones each have at least four names or unknowns listed (most have six to ten listed) and stretch away in seemingly endless rows under the brooding shadows of massive, spreading oaks. It’s the first cemetery I’ve been to where I was unnerved by the fact that we were walking over the dead. After both world wars, the French and Belgians didn’t like the idea of little German cemeteries dotting their country, so more and more bodies were moved into a few main cemeteries until the plots were latterly crammed with the bodies of men who, by chance, belonged to the losing army. It wasn’t the trees or the gothic design or even the masses of dead men that I found so chilling. It was the idea that humans could become jetsam. All of the cemeteries we’ve visited have made it clear that humans can easily become flotsam in war: lives are lost in the chaos of battle, bodies are lost in the pounding shell storms, and names are lost on the rows and rows of near-identical headstones. But Langmarck was different, the dead had been deliberately cast aside into a patch of ground that is clearly too small for the multitudes it is forced to hold. However, the care and planning that went into Langmarck keep it from being utterly disturbing. It is impossible to enter the cemetery except through the tomb-like gate, it is impossible to get a clear view of the sky through the spreading oak branches, it is impossible—thanks to the flat gravestones—not to look at the various names without bowing one’s head in an attitude of mourning, and—because of this minute attention to detail—it is impossible to think of the dead as merely cast-aside jetsam. True, they have been lost, true they have been piled into a tiny plot of ground, but the obvious effort that went into the design of the cemetery imbues Langmarck with a dignity that a mass grave of ‘enemy’ soldiers would not usually posses. Through the devotion of those left behind, ‘cast-off’ has become ‘lost’: jetsam has become flotsam.

               Like most topics related to the First World War, Wilfred Owen summed up the contrast between being lost and being abandoned perfectly. His ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (Lit Nerd Fact: this is an utterly flawless Petrarchan sonnet) demonstrates how lives can become flotsam in war and how the devotion of those left behind prevents the dead from becoming jetsam.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

   -Wilfred Owen

 I know it’s a bit early to be drawing overall conclusions about the trip, but this has been a major and recurring theme for me over the past five days. Everything can and eventually will be lost. Shells, barbed wire, trench lines, cars, cell phones, homes, cities, moral codes, names, bodies, and lives will all be lost. All that remains is a choice for those left behind: remember with “patient minds” what has been lost or throw it away as something that is no longer wanted or needed or useful. Flotsam or jetsam.


 Langmarck Cemetery. A crew of German soldiers was doing maintenance work on the graves. They were incredibly careful not to let the yellow power line go over any of the gravestones.

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Ambulance wagon: In Flanders Fields Museum

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