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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.

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