Sunday, 14 December 2014

Sunday December 14th, 2014 City of the Poppy

Thunder Bay Public Library is a partner in the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project which brings together a number of organisations in the city to remember the Great War and also to create a lasting legacy. Did you know, for example, that Thunder Bay is the City of the Poppy – so named because it was here, at the Prince Arthur Hotel, that the Canadian Poppy Campaign was launched in 1921. This makes our city unique at a time when the whole world is recalling the tragic events of 1914-18. 

So what was happening 100 years ago? The early events of the war were captured in the book 1914 by Lyn MacDonald in her vivid, unforgettable portrait of the first months of fighting. 1914 was a year that saw warfare enter the modern age; war became depersonalised, as heroic notions of glory and sacrifice vanished in a smoky haze of death. In this book Lyn Macdonald lets the British soldiers of 1914 tell their own moving, and often tragic, stories. They were professionals, disciplined by hard training, bronzed by long marches under tropic skies, toughened by fighting and manoeuvring on the frontiers of an Empire that stretched halfway around the globe. 

Unlike the volunteers who rushed enthusiastically to the colours when war broke out, they did not go to war with heroic notions of glory and sacrifice, but because it was their job. Their only weapons were rifles, which they handled so skillfully that the Germans meeting their rapid fire believed they were being mowed down by machine guns. But the ‘Old Contemptibles’ (from the Kaiser’s description of the British forces as ‘a contemptible little army’) were standing in the path of the main German advance, and they were outnumbered, often ten to one. By the end of the year they had sustained 90% casualties, and it was the end of the Old Army. 

Lyn Macdonald’s research has uncovered a wealth of eyewitness accounts and new or little-known material – letters, diaries, official papers and reports – which she has woven together into an engrossing and moving picture of what it was like to be a soldier in the British Army in 1914. The relentless marches, the punishing shellfire, the hardships and deprivations – as well as the unexpected moments of light relief that made life bearable – all are graphically described and set within their military framework in 1914, a book which made a major contribution to the history of World War One. 

I particularly liked the perspectives of civilian observers such as Madame Deron who recorded events in her diary. Gaston Degardin and Andre Betrancourt (both aged 12) who give a child’s-eye view of the conflict.  Father Camille Delaere describes the destruction of Ypres and its many fine buildings, including the beautiful Cloth Hall. Lyn Macdonald has written a number of other books about the Great War which are well worth reading, including Somme (a history of that legendary and horrifying campaign of 1916), The Roses of No Man’s Land (the story of the medical teams who nursed battlefield victims), and They Called it Passchedaele (an account of the notorious Third Battle of Ypres in which so many Canadians lost their lives).

Check out the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project site and keep an eye out for regular updates. If you have any materials which you would like to share – letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings, ephemera – please let us know at

John Pateman

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