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From Classroom to Battlefield: Victoria High School and the First World War

By Barry Gough

Review By James Wood

March 12, 2015

BC Studies no. 188 Winter 2015-2016  | p. 128-30

In his portrait of Victoria High School (VHS), Barry Gough has created a vivid microcosm of the First World War’s impact on Canadians. As one of Canada’s foremost historians, Gough brings a special authenticity to this work: he grew up in Victoria and is a graduate of VHS, where his father was a student during the Second World War and then a teacher. His references to the students, the teaching masters, families, landmarks, and even street names convey a tone of respectful familiarity with the community, as though he were somehow drawing on personal acquaintance with Victoria’s experience of the war. From Classroom to Battlefield makes a valuable contribution to the growing list of new publications commemorating the centennial of the Great War. It will appeal strongly to readers of British Columbia history, educators, social and military historians, and anyone who shares even a fraction of the author’s connection to the city of Victoria. Using a wealth of detail from local newspapers, the Daily Colonist, Victoria Times, and the VHS student-owned and operated magazine, The Camosun, Gough recreates the atmosphere of a school that was startled out of its pre-war serenity and hurtled into a cataclysmic four-year war that was being waged on the far side of the world.

In his tribute to the wartime contributions of both the city and its high school, Gough relies on narrative profiles to reconstruct an image of school life in the golden days of peace, the call to war, the outpouring of patriotic contributions, and, sadly, the days of loss and remembrance that followed. Individual profiles, drawn from family sources and Library and Archives Canada war service records, focus on a range of celebrated names like Arthur Currie, a former VHS teacher and wartime commander of the Canadian Corps in 1917-18, to the less well-known but nonetheless remarkable efforts of Nursing Sister Elsie Collis. Gough presents a unique image of Currie, who emerges as both a corps commander and a former teacher who sometimes encountered former students at the front. A good example is seen in Currie’s note of 10 October 1915 to former student John Anderson. Currie was delighted to hear of Anderson’s daring exploits in a trench raid the previous day, expressing both his personal thanks and a typical “former-teacher comment” that he had always been interested to know how Anderson would turn out (68). Gough recognizes a special strength of Currie as his “respect for the soldiers, his concern for their well-being, and his appreciation of the importance of keeping up their spirits during the darkest of days” (163). Sometimes, he wrote congratulatory messages to their families in Victoria. On other occasions, it was letters of condolence.

Gough’s dual portrayal of Currie, with one foot at home and the other at the front, is typical of the entire book as Gough combines his expansive knowledge of military events with the personal experiences of VHS staff and students to create a truly original account of the war’s impact on Victoria, in some ways “the most British of all Canadian cities” (14), but in other and often heartbreaking respects a very typically Canadian community as well. Gough follows the lives of former VHS students through the major battles of the war, sometimes by featuring family narratives when several brothers have enlisted. The stories of the Scott, McCallum, Milligan, and Knox families portray the tremendous pride for brothers who were multiple officers or award winners, but also the utter devastation for families who lost two or three sons.

In 1918, Currie congratulated the Canadian Corps on their unparalleled achievements and glorious contribution to the British Empire, assuring them, “your names will be revered for ever and ever by your grateful country” (141). Although many of the old photos of the five hundred VHS soldiers, sailors, and airmen who served in the Great War have now disappeared from the hallways of VHS, it might be said that From Classroom to Battlefield goes some way towards keeping Currie’s promise. Against the backdrop of horrendous slaughter during the Somme offensive, the capture of Vimy Ridge, the catastrophe of Passchendaele, and the war-ending victories of Amiens and the Hundred Days, Gough has skilfully interwoven both the heroism and the horrors of the Western Front into a history of imperial patriotism, hometown pride, and family sacrifice of wartime Victoria.

From Classroom to Battlefield: Victoria High School and the First World War
Barry Gough
Victoria: Heritage House, 2014   224 pp. 55 b/w photos $19.95 paper