How will we remember the “Great War”?


by Jamie Swift

it strikes me that in the absence of government funding and government direction, Canadian citizens will be empowered to promote and initiate their own commemorative activities at the local and national levels and explore events outside of Vimy and other mythologies.

– Jonathan Weier, University of Western Ontario

Having just spent ten days touring the former battlefields of World War I in France and Belgium, I’ve been thinking about how we remember – and how we will remember — World War I. Mythologies aside.

Historian Jonathan Weier has recently explored British controversies around commemoration. His conclusion about the importance of citizen-initiated commemoration efforts underlines PeaceQuest’s aims. This is what civil society groups like our own are doing.

In Flanders, the government has been carefully developing a thoughtful program of commemoration over several years. The government of Flanders “explicitly wants…to convey a present-day message of peace, which fits into a broader international trend to frame war remembrance in terms of peace and human rights.”

A lively “No Glory in War” campaign ( has sprung up in Britain, with peace activists conducting a national campaign of political, cultural, and educational activities to counter what they call “nationalist” interpretations of the First World War. They seek to promote international solidarity and peace.

This is, of course, controversial. The British Education Minister has attacked those who he claims would denigrate the honour and sacrifice of soldiers, arguing that the war was a fight for freedom. Many historians weighed in to disagree.

Here in Canada, York University historians have just produced a remarkable set of short videos that help to explain the Great War in ways that go beyond sloganeering about patriotism and freedom. The seven episodes offer a Canadian perspective on the war. The subjects include the war’s origins, how Canada became involved, French Canada’s reaction, women and the war, “Empires at War”, technology and the war and “The Spoils of War.”

The series is a must-view for Canadians interested in how this world-shaking war affected Europe’s Jews and Chinese nationalism. In shell shock’s “thousand-yard-stare” and the arrival of the mass production of shells in Canada. In women’s work as “farmerettes” and the fracturing of the growing feminist movement.

An altogether fascinating Canadian look at World War I.