The Half Way Point

It’s hard for me to believe, but this weekend marks the halfway point in this journey.  Later today I will post the 26th of 52 profiles. On one hand, in the life of a busy person with two kids and a full-time job and other commitments, I haven’t always been excited about sitting down and spending the time each weekend to make this happen.  On the other hand, my busy life with its daily highs and lows is a very beautiful one, and part of that is that is underscored by the hope that the era of the citizen soldier, at least in my country, is past. This is a hope that is deeply rooted in privilege, and I mean that in all its connotations–it is my privilege and honour to live in Canada and be a Canadian, and I am also aware my experience of this pride and patriotism is intertwined with the lens of socio-economic and cultural privilege extant in being a white, middle-class woman.  Taking the time each weekend to remember families whose lives and their own versions of the daily highs and lows were completely up-ended due to the war has given me some insight into parts of this privilege in a way I hadn’t considered before.

First, many of these families were not comfortable from an economic standpoint.  Obviously, due to actually having fixed addresses at which they could be enumerated for a census, they had homes, but some of them were in precarious positions when one or more of their family members with top earning potential went to war.  On the other hand, these men were paid for their service, and separation allowances were paid to their families.  For some families, it is very possible that the financial driver of a steady wage for a period of time was far more of an incentive than patriotism, or indignation over the invasion of Belgium, or the pressure of the propaganda or their peers.  For some, this was an opportunity for a job.  I had always been aware of the military as a career choice (my mother comes from a military family), and I remember watching American tv as a kid and seeing recruitment commercials during Saturday morning cartoons saying “be all that you can be” in the army.  But to think that during a time of total war, the chance to procure a wage would entice a person to join even as one in ten who did so died as a result is astounding to me. I didn’t realize that I still had a bit of a veil of romance over my eyes about this, but I did.

Second, the voice that comes through the records I have found is overwhelmingly, homogeneously white.  From a genealogy perspective, this isn’t surprising.  Genetically, (yes, I did a test) my origins are over 40% from the British Isles, and the balance from other parts of Western Europe.  I knew that in deciding to profile ancestors, I was not going to have a lot of cultural or ethnic diversity in my posts. That said, I now consider myself a pretty adept researcher of WW1 history and events in popular media, and it is rare to come across resources that approach the British or Canadian experience of the war from a perspective other than that of people of British descent. This is not to say that there hasn’t been a lot of scholarly work done on this, because of course there has been, but since a lot of my scholarly work was on the popular consciousness of the war, that is where my mind still goes.  In 1914-1918 very specific rhetoric was grown and maintained in the popular consciousness about the experience of war.  A century later, this has grown and changed, but it is far from being inclusive.

Finally, one of the things that has always made me uncomfortable about acts of remembrance is the rhetoric around “they died to protect us,” as though somehow without the farmer from Kent or telegraph operator from Ontario going to France, civilization would not have gone on.  This is part of why the Timothy Findley quote about this not being a battle of David and Goliath but rather of “one little David against another” has always resonated with me.  But now, through the act of looking more closely at these individual stories, I’m realizing that the scale of the losses from WW1, WW2, and Vietnam for the US has done something to protect us.  Not in the sense that my little corner of land in Canada is somehow more secure or safe because of these soldiers, but in their role as cautionary tales.  We have examples to point to as nations as to what it looks like to immerse ourselves in total war.  Should we come to this kind of crossroads again, and right now things do feel pretty volatile on the world stage so this doesn’t feel entirely hypothetical, we can and should look to these stories to think deeply about whether the benefit of engaging the citizenry in military action will outweigh the profound losses to communities. If this is kept in mind, then yes, they died to protect us.  From ourselves.  From making decisions without the context of what they may mean.  It is our responsibility not to ignore this context.

I’m hoping that this little blog contributes to keeping that context alive.  Thank you for coming along on the journey with me up until now.

On the eve of 52 Davids

Before tomorrow and posting the first of 52 profiles of my ancestors, I want to reflect a bit on what has brought me here and clarify my own expectations of what this year will and won’t bring.

I’m not a professional historian. I’m not a professional genealogist. My methods in assembling this blog will probably make professionals from both those fields roll their eyes.  I was an academic briefly–long enough to know that my lack of secondary sources,and avoidance of historiography/critical theory is more than enough to not take this effort seriously as a contribution to any major discourse in Great War history.  And that’s fine. I’m ok with that. If any of my old profs from Waterloo ever read this, I haven’t forgotten what you taught me, I just decided not to do it that way.

I know that there are gaps in my family research too.  I have not aggressively sought out birth certificates or other documents through direct contact with archives, I have let my subscription to a genealogy service do that for me. I have reached out to distant family members, but I haven’t hounded them, and I have no intention of doing so.

I also have no intention of digging for secrets, scandal, or intrigue in these stories. I do not want to invade the privacy of the families of these men–men who in many cases their families still think of and remember. When family members have shared personal stories with me, I consider that a great privilege and am humbled to be trusted with that information. Such stories are only shared in these posts with express permission.

In many ways, each profile of each ancestor is like a thought experiment for me.  A jumping off point to consider the “what would that have been like” of a given situation. A way to reflect on my own life and how I would face a situation as a parent, a spouse, a daughter, a sister. It provides greater context for my life.

And then there is the commemorative aspects of this blog. I have a complicated relationship with acts of remembrance.  I deeply distrust the  “support our troops” rhetoric that has been rampant since 9-11, while also having profound respect for the armed forces and what they do. My mom is from a military family.  Her father, RSM Albert Rajotte, to whom this entire effort is dedicated, had a long career in the Canadian military. He was is one of my greatest heroes in many ways–and I am fully aware that he was, like all of us, not perfect. Tomorrow, although the posting of my first “David” profile is important, going to visit my grandfather’s grave is my first priority. He is my guidepost as I write each profile–I think about how I would want my grandfather to be written about. I wouldn’t want his story to be embellished or sugar coated–but I would want it to be respectful, honest, and placed in the context of where he was from and what the world was like for him. Hold me to that if at any point you don’t see me living up to it.

There was much written at the time and since about how a veil was lifted in the summer of 1914–that time was measured by “before” and “after.” In literature this is often described as a stripping away of innocence, in patriotic histories it is described as a crucible through which stronger national identities were forged.  I am fascinated by this idea of this kind of line in the cosmic sand, the crossing of which changes everything.  It bears a lot in common with 9-11.  Everything from the way we travel to discourse on race relations changed that day.  That bright September morning as people headed to work in the moments before the first plane hit is often described in the same language as the final summer days in 1914 before Germany attacked France and Britain declared war on Germany.  A charmed moment before all hell broke loose.

I’m grateful for the support of my husband Terry (who actually is a legitimate historian and public history advocate) who has been bearing with me as I squint at records on my computer screen and click clack away on the keyboard for the past two years. I’m grateful for anyone taking  a moment to read a bit of this effort. I hesitate to say that I’m grateful that my or anyone’s ancestors were involved in this conflict.  It was brutal and ugly, and over time spawned more brutality and ugliness.  I would rather that it hadn’t been a situation that anyone had to face. They did face it, though.  So I do want to commemorate it, and I want to learn from it. So that’s why I’m here.  We’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.