Silent Casualties of the Great War

Reviewed by Sherrill Grace

Many books have recently been published about Canada and the Great War, but few are as good as this one. Susan Fisher has done an enormous amount of original research and written a fascinating account of the ways in which children were influenced, through education, fiction, and propaganda, to support the war effort. Her narrative and analyses are exceedingly well written and accessible to anyone interested in the war, in Canadian cultural history, or in the impact of the war on young people. At the same time, the information she has gathered from early textbooks, Salvation Army publications, children’s literature, poetry, and her superb illustrations provides invaluable data for an academic researcher or a teacher who wants to expand the classroom study of the war.

Fisher draws many important conclusions from her study, and chief among these are that adults viewed children as targets for political propaganda, that the impact of the war on these children was profound and long-lasting, and that kids (sometimes as young as toddlers of two) were dressed up as tiny soldiers to sell various articles of clothing, games, and toys. The cover of this book shocked and moved me: it shows, on a white ground, a forlorn boy of about five dressed in full uniform, from boots and puttees to cap, saluting the person behind the camera. This image, like others Fisher includes, raises a compelling question for twenty-first-century readers: is the boy a child soldier? Did Canada actually promote such a phenomenon?

But Fisher is not writing a simple anti-war study. Her scope is much broader and more complex. She is writing cultural history, and her tone is nuanced, her research multi-faceted. She examines what children were given to read in the war years, in their school textbooks, Sunday-school papers, the Eaton’s catalogue, and in popular stories, and she identifies some key themes in these materials: an appeal to patriotism, an encouragement of anti-German sentiment, and the reinforcement of unquestioning respect for duty. Children, especially boys, were being trained to obey the demands
of the church and state. The Cadet Corps, important in most schools of the period, played a strategic role in grooming boys to idealize the role of the soldier, while encouraging girls to admire a cadet. Poems like “The Charge of the Light Brigade” or “Recessional” were staples of the curriculum, and not until Jack Hodgins’ Broken Ground (1998) and Stephen Massicotte’s Mary’s Wedding (2002) have Canadian writers begun to question the consequences of such literature for the young.

There is a wealth of material in Fisher’s book, but I want to single out two chapters that I found valuable. In chapter 6, Fisher examines national identity in detail and concludes that young Canadians were being told to consider themselves British and as loyal to the British king, not to anything or anyone Canadian. She found one exception—a novel by William Lowery— that celebrated being Canadian. Is it any wonder, then, that a confident sense of national identity was devalued because of the war or that appeals to Canadian pride were problematic (Vimy Ridge notwithstanding)? In her last chapter, “A War for Modern Readers,” Fisher brings her study of children’s literature up to the present and notes that revisitings of the Great War have made “an astonishing comeback.” Moreover, she provides a list of such works and analyzes many of them to determine how the contemporary treatment of war, national identity, education, and propaganda differs from the works disseminated almost a hundred years ago. This chapter, like her entire book, is very timely, especially in light of the enormous popularity of War Horse, originally a British children’s story by Michael Morpurgo and now a stage play and film that may try to critique war but turns it into a sensational, seductive spectacle.

This contemporary pressure is one more reason why I highly recommend the reading of Fisher’s book. In addition to informing us about Canadian cultural history and the place in it of those young, silent casualties of war, who are often forgotten, Fisher asks us to see history as living now, all around us, a text from which there is much to learn. Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land won the 2012 CFHSS prize for the best book in English-language Humanities, and when you read it you will understand why.

This review “Silent Casualties of the Great War” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 164-65.

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