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Review

From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War

By Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson

April 1, 2015

Review By James Wood

 

When Mark Forsythe, host of CBC Radio’s mid-day show, BC Almanac, and journalist-producer Greg Dickson discovered that they were both involved in a personal quest to learn about great-uncles and grandfathers who had served on the Western Front, they decided to join forces in producing a book about British Columbia’s involvement in the First World War. Using Forsythe’s BC Almanac as the starting point, they put out a call to the show’s audience to send in their family stories. “CBC listeners responded by going into their attics and basements to find diaries, letters, photos and memorabilia from a hundred years ago” (9). Their collective response has resulted in a moving and detailed collection of soldiers’ memories from the trenches and family recollections from the BC home front. Public submissions are featured in box-inserts entitled “From Our Listeners,” along with copies of photos, maps, diary and letter excerpts, newspaper clippings, medals, and telegrams. Memoirs, artifacts, and interviews with historians are another major source of material for the book, resulting in a wide-ranging account of British Columbia’s experience of the war.

From the West Coast to the Western Front is evenly divided between material relating to the conflict overseas and its impact on families back home. The soldiers’ own words recount the difficult trench conditions, unceasing artillery fire, cold, mud, loss of friends, and the horror of wounds from high explosives, all of these standing in bitter contrast to their moving accounts of loyalty, comradeship, and memories of home. Chapters on the “The Big Men of the War” (Premier Richard McBride and General Arthur Currie), BC militia regiments and their overseas battalions, and the province’s naval legacy together paint a vivid portrait of the wartime experience. Other chapters focus on the perhaps less well known stories of nursing sisters, First Nations volunteers, Japanese-Canadian soldiers, women left alone at home to care for children, families left to make their way without a father, conscientious objectors, and “enemy aliens” who were consigned to internment camps.

It also tells the story of British Columbia’s twelve Victoria Cross winners in a chapter entitled, “Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Courage.” Another chapter, “Journey to Vimy,” includes a “From Our Listeners” inset that contains a wealth of detail on the day-to-day experiences in planning, preparation, tunnelling, and infantry-artillery coordination in the period leading up to the assault that took place on 9 April 1917. The text and interviews in this section include an exploration of the “Vimy myth” of nationhood, set alongside recollections of veteran pilgrimages and recent student visits to the Vimy Memorial, the Menin Gate, and war cemeteries. In all, the book’s strength is in its detailed collection and preservation of photos, personal memoirs, and the breadth of topics; its weakness, for a scholarly audience, will be its lack of source references.

In introducing From the West Coast to the Western Front, Mark Forsythe admits to having come of age “during the angry backlash to the Vietnam War,… reading pacifist novels. My generation’s ethos was to question the glorification of war” (234). One suspects that readers who share this as point of reference would similarly emerge from reading this book with a newfound respect for the generation that fought the war, including Forsythe’s great-uncle Albert Rennie, who died in action at age 21 at Hill 70 in 1917, and his grandfather Albert Forsythe, who survived. Both, he points out, had enlisted as “members of immigrant families from Great Britain. The colonial imperative was clear: stand up for the Mother Country” (234). Others, including Greg Dickson’s Okanagan relatives, Ted and Theo Dickson, joined on account of the recession of 1913, unemployment, and disappointing job searches as far afield as Montana. Enlistment brought a steady pay-cheque and regular meals. In this book, we are introduced to the tremendous diversity of how British Columbians experienced the war, both at home and overseas. A teacher who responded to Forsythe and Dickson’s call for contributions sums up the tone of their book quite well: “War was not glorious, but the people who fought and died were” (225).

From the West Coast to the Western Front: British Columbians and the Great War
Mark Forsythe and Greg Dickson
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2014. 260 pp. Illus. $26.95 paper