The ‘war to end all wars’ recounted in new books

by Janice Middleton

The 100th anniversary of the end of the "war to end all wars" has inspired a number of books about the First World War including the latest book by Bridgewater historian Dr. Brian Tennyson, Nova Scotia at War 1914-1919, and Jacqueline Carmichael's Tweets from the the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life and Death on the Western Front, which has Nova Scotia connections.

Tennyson is speaking at the Remembrance Day service at Astor Theatre in Liverpool, which starts at 10:45 am.

"The war was a unique experience for Nova Scotians' as they were rather directly exposed to threats of coastal attack from the Germans," Tennyson said in a telephone interview from his home.

He notes that the war was brought home to Lunenburg fishermen when German submarines sank between 30 to 40 fishing boats as part of an effort to sow fear and terror and disrupt food production.

"In the summer of 1918 the Germans developed a nasty reputation for brutality. At its peak they were sinking a lot of fishing boats out of Lunenburg."

As Tennyson tells it, the submarines on the surface would approach a fishing boat, stop the boat, and allow the captain and crew to disembark in dorys before sinking the vessel.

"There were some funny stories of the Germans inviting the captain onto the sub for lunch and a tour first and then sinking the boat. In some cases, crew members knew one another."

Gloucester, Mass., fishermen originally from Germany went home to fight in the war and knew "very well" the waters of the East Coast, Tennyson said. Tennyson is professor emeritus in the department of history at Cape Breton University and also served as founding director of the university's Centre for International Studies.

As a military historian, "I write about the war and I think about it a lot." A specialist in early 20th century Canadian political history, Tennyson is the author/editor of 17 books. His publications also include Canada's Great War: 1914 to 1918, How Canada helped save the British Empire and became a North American Nation, Percy Willmot: A Cape Bretoner At War, and Merry Hell: The story of the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Regiment).

Author Jacqueline Carmichael says that if a book on the First World War had existed when she was a high school student like her recently published book, Tweets from the the Trenches: Little True Stories of Life and Death on the Western Front it might have made her an "A" student.

Her book, a collage of poetry, brief messages or "tweets," historical documents, and photographs, brings the experience into this century. Carmichael explores the horror and the heartbreak of the Great War in a creative way, documenting the stories of the heroes, sung and unsung, the soldiers, the nurses, and the families who bore the weight of the traumatized vets' behaviours when they came home.

Her research uncovered Nova Scotia connections: She came upon a memorial in an onion field near Passchendaele in Belgium for the 85th Canadian Battalion, Nova Scotia Highlanders. "They honour them where they fell."

She photographed two graves, side by side, for brothers Creighton Wellington Hatt and F. Hatt of Marriotts Cove of the 25th Battalion, (Nova Scotia Rifles) Canadian Infantry, at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Begium. "In death they were not divided," 2.Samuel 1:23.

As a teenager, Carmichael said she was untouched by the history of war as it was taught to her. "All those names and dates meant nothing to me. I couldn't relate," to the eye-glazing stream of material teachers delivered, the veteran journalist from Port Alberni, B.C., said in a telephone interview.

More than a decade ago, Carmichael's aunt gave her a stack of letters and journals written by her paternal grandfather, George 'Black Jack' Vowel, telling her that she was the one that seemed most interested.

Vowel, a young prairie farmer, corresponded during the war regularly with Louisa Watson Peat, a U.K. war wife who connected with Vowel when she sent out a general query in search of her cousin.

Vowel "sent a note back telling her that 'no, I haven't seen him . ..' but the two found each other interesting enough to open a lifeline," Carmichael said. Peat went on to publish a memoir, Mrs. Private Peat, which came as a complete surprise to Carmichael when she saw an exhibit about Peat at the Canadian War Museum a few weeks ago when she was in Ottawa on a book tour.

"I couldn't believe it. She writes about my grandfather in her book."

With the idea of publishing a book to mark the Armistice, Carmichael expanded the research to include others impacted by the war to come up with 150 stories. The cover of her self-published book is a photo of the head of the statue, Canada Bereft at the Vimy War Memorial.

"I had a contract with a publisher but they couldn't bring it out in time for the 100th Anniversary," Carmichael said. She walked on the Western Front in 2016 and 2017 and delved into Canadian war letters, family photos, memorabilia and postcards taken from Dr. Stephen Davies' department at Vancouver Island University.

It's a survey of the allies from all the participants, not just Canada and the U.S. "It's not just about white guys. This really was a World War. Men and women from Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim faiths, black soldiers, First Nations, Asian and Latino."

It wasn't electronic communication but it was social media all the same, Carmichael argues. "Consider two billion pieces of mail posted from the Western Front in World War I. Between 1914 and 1919, notes scrawled on postcards, bits of paper, even telegrams and photos, were a social lifeline for young men who fought in places like Passchendaele and Vimy, and for the doctors and nurses who took care of them.

"In a time that was equal parts boredom and deprivation, but many times sheer horrific carnage and chaos, in pouring rain, they wrote while hunkering down under tin roofs in trenches, trying to keep warm while mortar shells whistled around them. They even wore fingerless "texting" gloves so they could hold a pencil in the cold.

"On brighter days, in training camp, young soldiers were lying around, ignoring their friends, writing home to their parents, wives and girlfriends with pencils they sharpened with their own pocket knives."

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