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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 ...

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.

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