Robert Fulford's essay about World War I and Canadian History

(The National Post, February 14, 2000)

Before reading this essay, you may want to read Robert Fulford's February 8 column about the First World War, and two historians' reactions to that column:

David Bercuson of the University of Calgary and Jonathan F. Vance of the University of Western Ontario published here on Friday some thoughtful criticisms of my Feb. 8 column about Canada and the First World War. My argument was that we should reconsider our part in that catastrophe and reassess the belief that Canadian nationhood was born in the trenches of France. I noted the British historian Niall Ferguson's claim, in The Pity of War, that the world would have been better off if Britain had declined to fight in 1914. This implies that Canadians also should have stayed home, and that Quebec was right to oppose the war and the military draft, English Canada wrong.

Professor Bercuson replies that Canada's constitutional nationhood stemmed from Vimy Ridge, the famous victory of 1917. But he makes the point in an unusually narrow way, as a matter of enhanced status within the Empire. The more common claim involves national spirit -- that in Vimy and other battles, Canada achieved its true identity, "a coming of age." The war was, Donald Creighton wrote, our greatest collective project.

Professor Vance, more royalist than the king, asserts the traditional Creightonian view and expands on it by attributing the vitality of Canadian culture in the 1920s to the war's effects. Without the national feeling that the war created, he claims, many artists, such as the Group of Seven, might not have emerged. In Prof. Vance we confront a spectacular illustration of the syndrome I was describing.

Neither critic admires The Pity of War or its use of "counterfactual history," which Winston Churchill defined as the technique of imagining what would have happened if some crucial historic event had come out differently. To Prof. Bercuson, that's just "science fiction." Churchill acknowledged it was a "quaint conceit" but nevertheless put it effectively to work in his shrewd analysis of what would have resulted from a Confederate victory at Gettysburg. That essay appeared in J.C. Squire's 1932 anthology, If; or, History Rewritten, which was republished in 1972 as If It Had Happened Otherwise. Squire included essays such as Philip Guedalla's "If the Moors in Spain had won" and Harold Nicolson's "If Byron had become King of Greece." These writers worked in the considerable shadow of George Trevelyan, who brought this genre to life in 1907 with his essay on the consequences of a victory by Napoleon at Waterloo. Speculations like these, casting fresh light on their subjects, demonstrate that counterfactual history is neither new nor frivolous.

Even if the First World War was wrong and foolish, Prof. Bercuson argues, Canada had to fight it: We were a British colony, and in no position to refuse. That's true, as is Niall Ferguson's admission that British politicians would have found it hard to avoid war. But it misses the point. I was trying to consider how we should think about these events today; that is, how we should judge them as we normally judge the past.

On this point, Prof. Vance imagines I'm following W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, the authors of a famous historical travesty, 1066 And All That. They retroactively sorted historic events into Good Things and Bad Things, something serious people apparently should avoid. It's wrong to judge our ancestors, Prof. Vance declares. Here he misunderstands his own profession. Most works of history are crammed with judgments, inevitably grounded in the morals and perceptions of the historian's own time. When Ramsay Cook, for instance, describes the interaction of natives and Frenchmen in his introduction to The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, he makes it clear that Cartier was brutal and treacherous. When J.L. Granatstein, in Canada's War: The Politics of the Mackenzie King Government 1939-1945, painstakingly describes the way King held together both government and country, the implication is clear: This was important work, well worth the doing. In each case, the historian's judgment differs from views commonly held when the original event was occurring.

Prof.Vance wants us to believe that the First World War, which was started in arrogant stupidity and conducted with a dogged persistence that slowly turned into blind fanaticism, "transformed Canada into a nation" and made Canadians feel distinct from Britain for the first time. This seems outlandish to me and always has. But as he says, I did not live in 1914, when crowds lined the streets to cheer young men toward pointless death. In later years, however, I did meet many veterans of that war, including my cynical and literally battle-scarred uncle. Those men would have snorted with disgust at the idea that the calamity in which they took part was an act of nation-building. Certainly I wouldn't have had the gall to suggest it to them.

Prof. Vance insists we are guilty of "crude reductionism" if we fail to acknowledge "the colony-to-nation via Flanders thesis." On this central point we must agree to disagree. My own experience suggests that some people believed this foolishness in the past but that its role in the Canadian imagination has been shrinking for decades. It's an idea with an interesting past but not much future.

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