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The map shows where William Barnett Evans, pictured to the left, fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War. Above are the medals he won. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
The map shows where William Barnett Evans, pictured to the left, fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War. Above are the medals he won. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

First World War: How do we remember it meaningfully, a century later? Add to ...

That’s where the diary begins, on Jan. 1, 1916. He writes of inspections from various lieutenant-colonels who came to the training grounds to assess the fresh troops, noting that they “expressed themselves as well pleased.” But a lot seemed up in the air. He complains of “a sheer waste of public money” on equipment issued by the Canadian government that had to be “scrapped.” They weren’t sure when they would be sent to France. They would have heard stories from the front line, but if he was fearful, he does not admit it.

His writing is light and cheerful, as though he felt he was at the start of a great adventure. He described how early each morning he would ride his horse through “beautiful country, deep valleys and moors covered with gorse.”

It was like reading a novel, only I knew what would come, and he didn’t, which made his entries almost painful to absorb. Like a character in Downton Abbey, he was on the brink of losing his innocence about the genteel world he knew.

As my great-grandfather led me into the past, I was overcome with the experience of remembering, my mind filled with swirling fragments of stories – what I had heard about him as a child, the things my mother and uncle could remember and my memory of my grandmother and the aspects of her personality that were likely influenced by him.

I remember that she had a great romantic notion about men going off to war. This must have been the story she was told about her father who, naturally, would have spared her the details, as her mother would have, too. If she had grown up to know some of the realities, which she surely did, perhaps she wanted to forget them. She needed to shape and colour them in a way that would make them an epic adventure.

It is complicated, this very human endeavour of remembering. Since the dawn of Western civilization, the great thinkers have puzzled over and theorized about the nature and purpose of memory. Now, we have more scientific knowledge about the nature of memory. It can be flawed, for example – 70 to 75 per cent of people convicted on the basis of what eyewitnesses remember are later exonerated.

“It’s a constructive activity, not a video recorder,” explains psychologist Daniel Schatner, a memory specialist at Harvard University. “A lot of factors influence an individual’s recollection: state of mind at the time, goals and biases, beliefs and events that have happened since.”

The very act of retrieving a memory, he adds, may increase the distortion, as it may be retold with certain aspects altered to suit the circumstances. “Eventually, the original memory may be lost.”

So, if there is no guarantee of the truth, what’s the point? Prof. Schatner says memory will retain the “gist” of an experience and isn’t a “complete fabrication because it wouldn’t have served us well in evolution if it were.”

But he concedes that “the further away we move from lived experience, we open the door to myth-making.”

Sunday, April 2nd, 1916

The Germans have had everything their own way apparently here & there has been no aggressive attitude on the British part, but we hope to change all that and have made a good start.

Once on the front line in Belgium, my great-grandfather still wrote extensively, noting in his small, neat script the details of the men’s first major engagement. His battalion fought as part of the 9th Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division, and the Second Battle at Ypres, as it was called, would be their trial by fire. The amateur Canadian troops earned a reputation for being fierce – and, yet again, if he felt horror or fear, he made no mention of it. His entries are full of stiff-upper-lip determination: the burials of soldiers at Maple Copse, the infamous first poison-gas attack, trenches with “thigh-high” mud that made it impossible to walk.

But there are many blank pages, too, and some on which he simply noted the weather. I began to fill in those blanks using my imagination – and to wonder about his stamina. He saw many of his friends die, noting their burials. And somehow, in that random way that life or death happens, he was spared, which must have invited survivor guilt. The shifts between the benign and the horrific read like torture at the hands of some psychotic kidnapper. “A beastly day in the trenches” would be followed a few days later by church, a “parade as usual,” a baseball game and a “jolly dinner” when they moved behind the front lines. They just pressed gamely on.

As I read, I was learning that, if memory is imperfect and selective, so, too, is first-hand documentation of an event.

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