Manitoba History: Book Review: Frederick George Scott, The Great War As I Saw It, Will R. Bird, And We Go On: A Memoir of the Great War, and Philippe Bieler, Onward Dear Boys: A Family Memoir of the Great War.
by C. J. Taylor
McGill-Queens University Press has published three memoirs of the First World War that remind us of the tremendous human cost of that cataclysmic event. Two of them—F. G. Scott’s The Great War As I Saw It and Will Bird’s And We Go On—are re-issues of books that were published in 1922 and 1930, respectively, while the third, Philippe Bieler’s Onward Dear Boys, is an original publication.
There is a passage in Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business that may have been inspired by Bird’s memoir: “Commanders and historians are the people to discuss wars; I was in the infantry, and most of the time I did not know where I was or what I was doing, except that I was obeying orders and trying not to be killed in any of the variety of horrible ways open to me.” This fictional passage aptly suggests the difference between memoir and history. A memoir is not intended to be an appraisal or narration of an event, but rather an account of the experience of that event. A memorialist often steps back to find meaning, but from a personal, not a social or political, perspective. From this perspective, then, a successful memoir should have three elements: a strong personal narrative, a record of sights, sounds and smells, and some articulation of how they felt about that experience. Seen with these criteria, the Bird and Scott memoirs are fine examples of the genre, perhaps the best written by Canadians. Both men had extraordinary experiences, both kept records of what they saw, and both are skilled writers. Bieler, on the other hand, is writing from the present, using an unpublished manuscript of his grandmother, letters and notes from his grandfather and from four of the sons who served overseas, and his own narrative structure and contextual comments. Thus the book is more family history than the first-person memoirs of the other two books.
And We Go On and The Great War As I Saw It have merited two very competent introductions. Mark McGowan has the easier task in introducing the better-known work of F. G. Scott. He underlines the significance of the memoir to later generations of historians writing of the war. “It has been read by any serious student of Canada’s military history,” he tells us, “and remains one of the cited war testimonies among Canadian scholars of the Great War” (p. viii). He then provides some useful context for the memoir, briefly describing the position of churches and the war, the army chaplaincy, and Scott’s subsequent post-war pursuits. Perhaps more could have been made of Duff Crerar’s Padres in No Man’s Land, providing more context about Scott’s history in the army, and more about the sense of the war as religious crusade. Nonetheless, as an introduction it serves the reader well.
David Williams’ task is more difficult because, although And We Go On is a deserving classic, it is largely unknown, having been long out of print and overshadowed by Bird’s truncated re-writing of the memoir published in 1968 under the title, Ghosts Have Warm Hands. Williams ably sorts out the differences between the two books and makes a convincing argument that the earlier version is the better book. Moreover, he asserts that And We Go Onis the equal of internationally acclaimed books such as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (p. ix), a claim that this reviewer does not dispute. Williams also convincingly suggests the possible influence of Bird’s writing on novelists like Robertson Davies, Timothy Findlay, and Joseph Boyden. More could have been written about the historical context of the memoir. For example, it would be useful to know that much of Bird’s fighting experience centred on the Canadian Corps’ push for Passchendaele after the capture of Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917. In that short period, the Canadians suffered some 15,000 casualties out of 20,000 troops. Three out of four men were killed or wounded during this offensive, an appalling statistic that would have coloured the perspective of anyone surviving that awful experience. Williams makes use of the Clarke Irwin collection at the McMaster University Library, but does not seem to have availed himself of the Bird papers at Dalhousie. Nonetheless, these quibbles aside, Williams, like McGowan, provides a useful introduction to the subject.
Onward Dear Boys is a different sort of memoir, for the memorialist is also the editor and so its introduction works differently from the others. Bieler describes the family’s origins, its members, and gives something of their background before going on to explain how the rest of the book works: “There are therefore three voices: those of the boys [Bieler’s father and uncles], those of my grandparents, and my own voice relating the news of the day as I have derived it from numerous sources” (p. xviii). Unlike the other two books, therefore, the contextualization of the introduction continues throughout the text.
While Onward Dear Boys is an interesting account of a family’s experience of the war — the parents were active on the home front while four sons served overseas — it lacks the immediacy of the narratives of Scott and Bird. The story is broken up between the principal historical actors: the parents, Charles and Blanche, and sons Etienne, Andre, Jean, and Philippe. Much of the story is told through correspondence and, although the letters from home can have considerable detail, the letters from the front tend to be bland, constrained by military and self-censorship. The impact is further diffused by multiple voices: the original correspondence, Blanche’s subsequent family history, and grandson Philippe Bieler’s historical gloss. The individual stories are not without interest. Brothers Etienne, Andre, and Jean interrupted their studies at the beginning of the war to enlist as private soldiers — Etienne and Andre in the infantry, and Jean in the medical corps. Etienne’s mathematical background got him transferred to the artillery as an officer, and toward the end of the war he joined a defence research establishment in London. Andre was wounded and then transferred to an army map unit. A fourth brother, Philippe, was too young to join up at the beginning of the war, but enlisted on his 18th birthday in 1916. He died a year later of a sudden illness in France. So, while these are individually interesting stories, they don’t form a particularly compelling narrative, and it lacks the broader appeal of the other two books.
The other memoirs, however, have strong stories and read almost as novels. Frederick George Scott was an Anglican minister in Quebec City, senior enough in the church to be addressed as Canon Scott. In 1914 he was 53 years old but, as chaplain to the 8th Royal Rifles, he considered it his duty to volunteer for overseas service. Before the end of the year he found himself in the English camp where the Canadian 1st Division was being trained. When, in February, 1915, the Division was ordered to France, Scott was determined to stay with his men, despite having received orders to report to a military hospital in England. With no clear chain of command in place for the army chaplains, Scott found it easy to stow away to France where, for several months at least, he became a kind of camp follower, begging transportation, meals, and accommodation.
Canon Scott as a guerilla chaplain, operating independently and without orders, is a main thread of the author’s narrative. There is a bumptiousness to Scott, as he presumes on the tolerance of others to support his Quixotic quest to bring Christ’s message to his men. Besides leading church services and giving holy communion, he would discourage gambling and lecture the men on the importance of a smart turnout. Sympathetic faces could be rewarded with a poetry recitation, regardless of their fondness for Erato’s art. But Scott has many endearing qualities: he showed a genuine concern for the material well-being of the troops, he would venture out to the front lines, earning him the respect of the men, and, perhaps above all, he has a self-mocking sense of humour as revealed in the following anecdote. One evening he was reciting one of his poems to an officer when shells began to fall near where they were standing.
This ironic humour appears throughout the memoir, as in the episode when he pursues a British officer believing him to be a German spy, or while recounting his continuing attempts to build up his empire beyond a batman, acquiring a driver, stableman, choir assistant, and boxer. The latter served as a kind of recreation organizer.
But mixed in with the rollicking yarn thread of the narrative is a very dark view of the war. Two examples stand out. Scott devotes an entire chapter, entitled “A Tragedy of War,” to the story of a soldier to be shot for cowardice. Scott was asked “to go and see him and prepare him for death” (p. 210). Scott spoke with the prisoner and discovered that he had enlisted at the beginning of the war, had participated in many battles, and had only caved in for the last one, probably more from battle fatigue than any lack of moral fibre. He begged the commanding officer for clemency, but was turned down. The inevitable outcome provoked one of Scott’s bitterest statements of the war: “I have seen many ghastly sights in the war, and hideous forms of death but nothing ever brought home to me so deeply and with cutting force the hideous nature of the war ...” (p. 215).
Rivalling the story of the executed soldier is his description of finding his son’s body on the battlefield. This is a shorter and more emotionally detached account than the story of the condemned soldier, but the description is no less moving. Accompanied only by a soldier who knew the location of the body, Scott went out into no-man’s land. Although the body had been buried and marked with a post, a hand protruded from the ground with a signet ring that allowed the father to identify the body as that of his son.
It is ironic that the deepest tragedy can inspire the finest writing.
Besides his vivid descriptions of the war, Scott’s memoir contributed to a thread of post-war memory: the war as a building block of Canadian nationhood. There are two aspects to this theme. The first is a sense of national community that grew from the common experience of the Canadian Corps. When he first saw the soldiers training in England, Scott wrote: “I think that the lessons of unselfishness and the duty of pulling together were being stamped upon the lives that had hitherto been at loose ends” (p. 15). Far from their being the lost generation, Scott repeatedly alludes to the moral superiority of these men, implicitly suggesting that the returning soldiers will contribute positively to the improvement of Canadian society. Scott’s second argument in support of the war as a nation-building event is the notion that it gave Canada a status independent of Britain on the world stage, an idea that is commonplace now but was novel in 1922. Again, describing the formation of the Canadian Corps he wrote: “Here was Canada’s quickening into national life and girding on the sword to take her place among the independent nations of the world” (p. 17).
Will Bird’s And We Go On has all the immediacy of Scott’s memoir. It, too, reads like a novel, and is a focussed account of Bird’s experience in the trenches from 1917 until the Armistice. His story begins with him working in a Saskatchewan wheat field in 1916. His brother Steve had enlisted the year before while he had been turned down for health reasons. Steve is killed and his ghost appears before the brother, causing Bird to drop his pitch fork and return to his native Nova Scotia where he joined the newly formed Nova Scotia Highland Brigade.
The ghost is a recurring image in Bird’s memoir. Often it takes the form of his brother tapping him on the shoulder to warn of imminent danger or guide him back to his trench from no-man’s land. But ghosts are also conflated with the many soldiers that died on the battlefield, whose spirits formed an invisible host, as apparent in the author’s visit to the Mont St. Eloi battlefield one evening:
This single scene, reminiscent of Scott’s description of the battlefield in front of Regina Trench, can serve as a portrait of the entire western front.
At a time when the entire Canadian Corps was suffering an enormous number of casualties, Bird’s occupation as scout, sniper, and reconnaissance patroller repeatedly going out into no-man’s land and occasionally raiding enemy trenches, was particularly dangerous. While his account of these exploits makes for exciting reading, one can also see how it must have been extremely stressful as, one by one or two by two, his comrades disappear. It is in this context that the two forms of ghost serve a useful purpose. The presence of a personal ghost explains why he survived when so many of his companions did not, while on the other hand, as name after name goes on the casualty list, the growing army of ghosts behind him takes form, rather like the dead in the famous poem by John McRae. This sentiment is articulated by Bird’s friend Tommy at the end of the war: “‘Bill,’ he said, ‘while it lasted I didn’t want to get mine. I sweat buckets when I was in it those last few weeks, but now I wish — oh how I wish — that I was under one of them white crosses. I don’t want to go back and leave the boys’” (p. 223).
It is this survivor syndrome that leads Bird, along with other returning veterans, to always feel apart from the rest of Canada, tied more to the dead than the living. “We could no more make ourselves articulate than could those who would not return; we were in a world apart, prisoners, in chains that would never loosen till death freed us” (p. 231).
Both Scott and Bird feel immense sadness at the end of the war at a time when others may have felt a reason to celebrate. Although Scott always remains more positive in tone than Bird, he, too has a downbeat ending to his narrative in contrast to the optimism of 1914. While listening to the cathedral bells of London celebrate the peace accord, Scott reflected: “The monstrous futility of war as a test of national greatness, the wound in the world’s heart, the empty homes, those were the thoughts which in me overmastered all feelings of rejoicing” (p. 326).
The solemn mood of Scott and Bird is connected to the sense of mourning, mixed with remembrance of that ghost army, that still envelops many Canadians on Remembrance Day. In articulating this national sensibility, their memoirs are indeed classics of Canadian literature.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 8 November 2020