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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 ...

The adults talked about him. That’s what I remember. Not what they said but that they did. I was a small child. He would have died about 10 years earlier. I never even saw a photograph of him. But I do recall an odd tone to the voices of those who spoke of him. Perhaps that’s why the memory sticks in my mind. It suggested drama; heroism; a sense of tragedy, maybe; regret. Something – not a story with clean lines.

Whenever he was mentioned, it was at “the farm,” his old country house outside Montreal, where we often visited his daughter, my maternal grandmother, on weekends. And in a small study on the first floor, there was a strange helmet (a Pickelhaube, I now know it is called) with an ornamental front plate and a spike on the top. We were told that our great-grandfather had picked it up on a battlefield.

William Barnard Evans is my personal connection to the First World War. I had wondered what that connection might be, just as many of us are at the moment. Monday marks the 100th anniversary of Britain’s declaration that it (and thus Canada) would join a conflict many expected to be “over by Christmas.”

Instead, it lasted so long and claimed so many lives that every year the world marks Remembrance Day, “lest we forget.”

But how do we remember something, meaningfully, a century after the fact? In 2007, I interviewed John Babcock, then 106 and Canada’s – the world’s, in fact – last known veteran of the war. I had this idea that I could lift something from his memory, like an artifact from a museum, to help us understand the conflict: what it was like to be there.

His memory had faded – his wife had to prompt him for every nugget. Still, there was something surprisingly powerful in his mere existence. I could touch him. Talk to him. He was a link in a human chain that could connect us all with the past.

Three years later, he was gone and the chain broken. We can no longer see the faces of those who were there as they’re rolled out in wheelchairs on Remembrance Day, wrapped up like frail, precious relics. Are veterans not the ones who make the anniversaries of conflicts meaningful and poignant? To pay attention to their emotion, to watch their painful memories flicker silently behind their tear-filled eyes, is an act of compassion. They are the people to whom we can direct our gratitude. We remember through their remembrances.

Now we have to find another way to keep alive both our memory of them and their memory of what they endured.

Preserving our memory of the people is the inspiration for The World Remembers, an international bid over the next four years to commemorate each of the more than nine million soldiers who died. Their names will be projected on public buildings in all 29 countries that fought, as well as being broadcast via the Internet. The project’s prime movers include actor R. H. Thomson, 66, who tells me that he hopes to make enough of an impact that young people will be inspired “to touch this experience that changed us.”

And, as he said before receiving a lifetime-achievement award a few months ago, people his age “remember those old men on the benches, but the generations below me don’t have that, so … it’s my generation’s obligation to do something like this before it passes from living memory entirely.”

But reaching back to a time with little resemblance to our own is difficult. The way people like my great-grandfather thought and lived is now considered quaint, the stuff of historical romance or anthropological curiosity. At first, I, too, wondered what benefit there is to knowing – and caring – about those who experienced the Great War first-hand.

Most of us know the history. We’ve been schooled in national narratives that tell us what to remember, and likely seen movies that bring it to life. What more could we possibly learn?

I should have had no such reservations. First, there truly is value in knowing an individual’s story. The past is like a vast ocean that we skim across, often unaware of its depth; what it contains; how it moves beneath us, buoying us up in our present reality. By dropping a line, we can retrieve the stories, the emotions, the artifacts that connect us to another time, making it real, powerful, instructive.

If we all do this, we can create a collective memory that goes beyond the pages of a textbook because, even more compelling, this act of recovery contains a search for truth.

Veterans rarely spoke in detail of what they weathered and how they really felt about it. Not only was suppression of emotion part of their culture, for many the war was an overwhelming confusion of bitterness, anger, shame and psychological trauma that no one back then had a name for, beyond simply “shell shock.” The national narratives of honour and sacrifice had little competition.

But as some reached the end, they lost their inhibition. Not long before he died in 2009 at 111, Harry Patch, the last British vet, spoke about the war in raw, shocking terms. He recalled the appalling stench in the trenches – soldiers’ latrines, rotting cadavers, sodden clothes – and rats as big as cats, having gorged on the eyes and livers of the dead. Even what he thought of Remembrance Day was unsettling: “just show business.” To him, war was “organized murder, and nothing else.”

Was that anything like what my great-grandfather experienced? Is that also how he – a major who was made a lieutenant-colonel and awarded the Distinguished Service Order – remembered the “war to end all wars”?

As the centenary approached, I decided I had to find out. Even if no history book could help me, I wanted a clear sense of the man and what he had gone through.

But how could I go about it?

The basics were easily obtained. Major W. B. Evans signed up on May 25, 1915, a month after the Victoria Rifles in Montreal, the militia in which he served, mobilized as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, 60th Battalion. The details were noted clearly on his attestation papers, a witnessed, two-sided document that I found online at the National Archives.

He was not a young man but a well-established one, married with three daughters. He described his occupation as “commission merchant.” His eyes were noted as hazel; his complexion, dark; his hair, brown. His religion: “Church of England.” Distinguishing facial marks included a scar on the point of his chin and lower lip. His signature on the form is a swooping slash of authority and élan.

The family lived on the edge of the Square Mile, a neighbourhood in central Montreal, then the unrivalled cultural and financial capital of the country, where many in the merchant class built their stone mansions. His wife, Jean Blackader Evans, and two of their daughters, one of them my grandmother, had been photographed by William Notman & Son, the city’s leading portrait studio.

He also had been in the Victoria Rifles for 14 years. When Canada entered the war, Prime Minister Robert Borden immediately offered “the mother country” the services of troops from the dominion’s system of “citizen soldiers.” But whatever militia training my great-grandfather had received wouldn’t have prepared him for war, especially this one.

Being a citizen soldier was mostly a social endeavour, a “near duty” for men “in his comfortable class of the anglo ascendancy in Montreal,” says Major Michael Boire, who teaches Canadian military history at the Royal Military College. Still, that didn’t dissuade him. “War for these Edwardian men was an exercise in masculinity and duty, not just to England but to Canada.”

I had not known that he kept war diaries. Two small brown leather-backed booklets left to my grandmother had been passed down to my uncle and then his son, now serving in the Canadian Forces. Through a complicated series of communications, they were passed to me by his mother-in-law in a north Toronto mall.I felt like a character in a film scene of a drug deal going down as I milled about the entrance before she approached and pressed a small Ziploc bag into my hands. My uncle had sent photographs of their author, but these fragile documents – their brown leather covers thin as lace, tattered and faded – could be the key to his heart and mind, telling me so much more about the man.

The diaries are seductive documents, and they practically thrummed in my paws as I examined them back in my car. “A Soldier’s Diary” and a maple leaf with a crown and “Canada” at the centre appear in gold lettering on the cover. The army would have handed them out to everyone. “They were very personal” and not part of the official paperwork, Major Boire points out.

Later I dove in, immersed for hours at a time, feeling I could hear the whisper of my great-grandfather’s long-lost voice.

Sunday, February 20, 1916

Today starts the third phase – moving to France. I feel that we should still be classed as very green troops but suppose we will receive a certain amount of training in reserve billets in France.

If France was the third phase of his deployment, the first had been Valcartier, the hastily organized training camp outside Quebec City, and the second England, where members of the CEF were stationed at Bramshott in Hampshire.

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.

“Every exploration [of a diary] is partial,” says Margaret Mackay, the Regina-born former archives director with the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies. An expert in oral history, she agrees that, whether talking or writing about their experiences, veterans tailored what they communicated. An account “would differ according to what they wanted to be known,” she says, “or what they couldn’t say.”

Letters my great-grandfather sent home – in which he may have said something different – have been lost. And as an officer, he would have known that, even though personal, his diaries likely would have been read by others.

There is also the question of the circumstances under which he was writing. In Word of Mouth: Elite Oral History, British writer and historian Anthony Seldon explains that those tempted to give war diaries great credence should realize the need to keep them was “often a great nuisance and secondary if you are in the middle of battle.” They would have been written in a moment of calm, drawn from the memory of a soldier likely exhausted, perhaps even traumatized.

Robert Rhodes James, who wrote Gallipoli, a highly acclaimed study of the Allied campaign in the Dardanelles at the start of the war, made extensive use of diaries and letters in his research. But even he acknowledged that “the very nature of war means that very often the truth of what happened is known only to the dead.”

So, through various sources, I had uncovered pieces of my great-grandfather’s story, but that’s all I had – fragments.

In late September, 1916, he was given command of the 52nd Battalion and praised in a Nov. 13 dispatch for his “gallant and distinguished services in the field.” I imagined him picking up that Pickelhaube in No Man’s Land around that time. It must have been then, I figured, because the Germans used those helmets only at the beginning of the war, before realizing the spike drew attention to them in the trenches.

Five months later, on April 9, 1917, he writes “Zero hour, 5:30,” as his battalion begins the attack on Vimy Ridge. That day, too, his bravery earned a mention in an official dispatch.

But then in July, after 17 months on the front lines, he requested a leave. My cousin suspects he had a breakdown of some sort, but whatever happened is not mentioned in the diary. My great-grandfather simply noted that his superior officer had recommended a staff job.

Despite the lack of facts, scenes blossomed in my mind. I imagined how my great-grandmother must have tried to soothe him. They had suffered a personal tragedy, as well. The same year, having moved to England with the children to be near him, she gave birth to a boy but he died in infancy. I found myself admiring how they must have willed themselves to persevere.

He never returned to the front – and never spoke of his experiences after moving back to Canada when the war had ended. But there were some clues to how it affected him.

As a boy, my uncle once roused his grandfather’s anger simply by putting on the Pickelhaube. “Take it off!” he was told. “It’s dirty.” And my mother recalls frequent, and terrible, coughing fits due to lung damage from the gas attack.

He died of a heart attack at 77, sitting in front of the fire in his beloved house in the country.

Out of these fragments, I made a story, one that may very well be inaccurate, naïve and romantic. The question was whether that made it any less valuable.

To answer that, I remembered something British author Jim Crace told me in an interview last year. Many of his novels are set in the distant past but with themes that resonate for a modern audience. So I asked him about the power of narrative and he spoke of it like an external, free-floating wisdom, something essential to human existence.

“Narrative allows you to draw from the past,” he said, “and it allows you to think into the future, to imagine what might come next.”

It turns out that, according to the latest thinking, memory works the way it does – imperfectly – for much the same reason.

“We use old memories to reconstruct plausible events to help us deal with the future,” explains neuropsychologist Morris Moscovitch, a specialist in memory and aging at the University of Toronto. “The hippocampus stores the beads, and the prefrontal cortex strings them together into different necklaces to be worn that befit the occasion…What you want at the centre is a structure that doesn’t record things perfectly because, if it did, it would not be so flexible.”

Story-telling instructs us, then, by making sense of the bits and pieces of facts. That’s what history is, of course, and there are many examples of memory-based fiction that provide a kind of truth, one tailored to the writer’s point of view.

Erich Maria Remarque based his classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, on his experiences as a soldier conscripted at 18, then seriously wounded. The novel debunked any notion of heroism and was, not surprisingly, one of the books later burned by the Nazis.

Everyone’s journey in recovering the stories of ancestors is an art in a way. So what do we get out of it? How does it serve us? As in this story, the act of writing one sentence after the other about a time and a man helps to create a picture that builds a bridge of understanding to a fading past and, if that connection is empathy, perhaps that’s the key.

Emotions help to collapse time. They are the powerful forces that bring us all to one level playing field, across time and space, background and ethnicity. They are what connect us, because we all feel what it means to be alive and to suffer.

“National rivalries and hatreds really do arise because of tremendous empathies that memory can elicit,” Prof. Moscovitch told me.

But looking back is just as easily a force for good. The recovery of my great-grandfather’s story taught me many things. Of course, there’s pleasure in unearthing a scene of otherness, in catching a glimpse of a lost world.

More important, the empathy his story provoked led to a kind of respectful observance. As one Globe and Mail reader says of the Great War vets in her family tree, “I believe, in learning about them, we honour them.”

But for everyone willing to invest the time and energy in rekindling a personal connection (whether the ancestor is theirs or someone else’s), the reward may be much greater than a keener understanding of the war that didn’t exactly end all wars. There also comes an understanding that all of us, no matter the era in which we live, are often motivated by the same timeless things – the desire to love, the need for courage, the will to carry on, the need to remember and the need to forget. There’s comfort in that; and freedom, too, because you realize that you can’t reinvent human existence, you just have to play it out, however much of it you personally have left.

But what stays with me the most is the realization of how little we can know about the past, about anyone, really, not just people who have died, but of those who are in our daily lives, who sleep in our beds, and with whom we believe we are sharing all of ourselves. Because we don’t, not completely. Thoughts are so private, so ephemeral, and often inexpressible in any medium. Truth is elusive and ever-shifting, just like memories. Everything is fluid.

“You are becoming the repository of your great-grandfather’s memory,” Dr. Mackay told me when we were discussing the hardship of finding truth in diaries and oral histories. “It’s an indirect connection and another kind of knowledge, but it is as valid as any direct connection.”

An acquaintance of mine, a psychologist, recently told me that, being Jewish, “I live with a memory of horror even if it’s not mine. It lingers still.” I now feel something similar. Despite my great-grandfather’s refusal to share his memories of the horror he witnessed, much that defined his nature lives on. I, too, recognize in myself and my family traits that have been handed down, like heirlooms of some sort, only unconsciously; inadvertently. They are waspish and arcane, sure – the desire to fulfill duty, to persevere, to be stoic in the face of hardship – but they’re part of how you push through the world.

We want to know what made us, what still somehow informs who we are. We can, to an extent, but maybe it’s meant to be a neverending, kaleidoscopic mediation. In Moon Tiger, a novel by British author Penelope Lively, whose work often deals with memory, the protagonist, Claudia, an aging historian, declares: “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.”

Maybe that’s all any of us can ever hope for. Still, there’s beauty in that. I can now imagine Major W. B. Evans and, in so doing, I bring him into the present, walking beside me. We dip into the sea of the past to retrieve hints of our genesis – but that’s not the only reason. The dead inform the living, but the living can also give to the dead. In recovering those who are lost, we give them life again, and thus verify that their sacrifices, hardships and disappointments have a lasting purpose.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified William Barnard Evans. This version has been corrected.

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