With the arrival of its centenary, much is being made of how difficult it is to appreciate the true impact of the First World War. A century later, the carnage (even the survivors were never quite the same) and the toll on those left behind seem like ancient history.
But an eyewitness account can soon revive a flagging sense of immediacy.
Andrew Robert (Bob) Coulter was a 19-year-old farm boy from Manitoba’s Swan Valley when he reached the Western Front in early 1917 – in time to serve as a stretcher-bearer at such pivotal Canadian battles as Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.
Despite his youth, the diary he kept shows he was a keen observer, chronicling the mayhem with a detachment suggesting none of the demons that were to haunt him for the rest of his life.
He does confess, however, “I do not think there is one man in a hundred that goes anywhere near the front line that is not thankful, and fully realizes that it is a miracle that he got out alive.”
Although a farmer as well, Daniel MacMillan was 51 when war broke out and had just lost his father, inheriting the family homestead north of Fredericton. Thoughtful, single and an avid newspaper reader, he comments on everything from geopolitics to the price of apples – but also reveals how deeply torn he is between wanting to fight, like his brother and beloved nephew, for a country that “surely surpasses any other in the world,” and having to fight just to stay afloat. “There are bills coming due, and nothing to pay with,” he laments. “Something has to be done; what it may be I cannot think.”
What the two wrote unconsciously in tandem over the rest of 1917 – a year in the war – captures the essence of life both in the trenches and on the home front.
The war diary of Daniel MacMillan: ‘I have had quite hard living lately’
March 1, 1917 – Another of the Cunard liners, the Laconia, has been sunk by a German submarine with Americans on board. I wonder if this will be sufficient “contact” to move President Wilson to action?
March 17 – I had Dan Jaffery call on me today. It seems that Mr. Bell, who owns his farm, is going to sell and has ordered him out of his house. I am not in much better circumstances myself. I might be compelled to give the whole thing up.
March 21 – There has been a complete turnover of affairs in Russia, the Czar himself compelled to abdicate the throne. The Germans have sunk three American transports the other day. Uncle Sam is near the brink of war.
March 22 – Today makes the 54th time the earth has gone around the sun since I entered this sphere of existence, and really my physical and mental condition are very good, considering how long they have been in use. It is just simply a serious matter to be laid up under the circumstances in which I am living. I am thinking quite serious this spring of making some kind of change.
April 6 (Good Friday) – The address of President Wilson to Congress is being read all over the world. The president urged Congress, assembled in joint session, to declare a state of war.
April 13 – The British are making good progress on the Western front these days. The Canadians took by storm the strongly fortified position of Vimy Ridge and are holding thus far.
April 14 – I had a letter from [his nephew] James today from France. He tells me he has had a turn in the first-line trenches and has escaped so far. He will have had an experience, if he has survived at all. He speaks of Willie Fullarton, says they are well and do not regret going, and are proud to belong to the Canadians who have a great name there.
April 27 – I had another letter from Jim somewhere in France. He spoke of being out for a rest, so I take it that he has had another turn at the front.
May 23 – The government at Ottawa is now considering a conscription bill, which is likely to pass. I hope they succeed – it is what should have been from the start.