Today we remember the end of WWI and all those who served, were killed and impacted by the Great War. A few months ago, I was the keynote speaker at a family history conference in Victoria and a year previously had been given the topic: 100 years since the end of WWI. I was flattered to be asked to speak but was concerned about what I would say; although I loved history, I knew very little about WWI.
As I am neither a professional historian, nor an expert on WWI, I decided to focus on what I do best: gathering stories. I chose to study Duncan, BC and spent many hours at the BC Archives in Victoria where I read about Duncan and the War through the Cowichan Leader from 1914 through 1918. I found myself immersed in the initial excitement followed by the unsettling reality of war that was revealed through graphic and tragic letters from the boys at the front. I was caught up in the town’s fervor to wrap bandages, raise money, send parcels, and preserve food – anything to help with the war effort.
I felt an overwhelming sadness on the battle days when everything was being reported as normal at home in Duncan (whose chickens laid the largest eggs?) while I knew that thousands were at that moment being killed at places like Vimy Ridge. By digging deep into one town’s war experience, I was able to feel a small glimpse of what it was like to live through the war, as a soldier and as a loved one at home.
We have a tendency to think that those who lived before were naïve and led simpler lives; as I read articles in the newspaper I realized that their concerns were similar to those we see in the news today – how will returning veterans be reintegrated back into their communities and into the workplace; how have the horrors of war impacted them; how should immigrants (“enemy aliens”) be treated; the importance of buying local and supporting the local economy through troubling times; recycling products and saving food.
Immersing myself in local history and focusing on the community helped me to better understand my own family and what their lived experience was on the home front through the war. As a result of my year of research, Remembrance Day is more personal, more poignant, more sad.
If you haven’t had a chance to delve into WWI history, I would encourage you to do so. In Canada, we have an amazing array of digital archives and records to help you learn about the experience of your WWI ancestor. Check out the Library and Archives Canada site for photos, personnel databases, war diaries, and more.