Serge Marc Durflinger. Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006. xvi + 279 pp. $93.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1260-3; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1261-0.
Reviewed by Jody Perrun (History Department, University of Manitoba)
Published on H-Canada (August, 2006)
National History through the Local Lens
Histories of the Canadian home front during the great wars of the twentieth century often focus on government policy or issues of national debate. Relatively little attention has been directed at the community level, despite the fact that the struggle waged on the home front manifested itself in myriad local, everyday activities. To reveal the facets of average Canadians' wartime experience, to understand how they coped with separation from loved ones and the hardships of war, requires the study of activities in their daily lives. To give such research coherence, as well as manageable parameters, historians have lately begun to look at cities as focal points for the study of communities smaller than the national groups so common in the historiography of warfare.
Serge Durflinger's examination of Verdun explores the effects of the Second World War in his hometown, a suburb of Montreal. This work, a revision of his 1997 doctoral thesis, is firmly situated within the historiographical context of the so-called "new" military history which seeks to incorporate social dimensions into a field traditionally dominated by studies of operations, changing technology, or unit histories. Durflinger therefore examines some of the less understood issues of Canada's home front like family life, living standards, and linguistic, class, and religious differences within a testing ground that he sees as a microcosm of the national home front experience.
In fact Verdun does offer a unique opportunity to consider the local manifestation of national patterns because it was a city with an important demographic split: the population was roughly 58 percent English-speaking and 42 percent French-speaking during the war years. This makes Verdun an intriguing site for investigation given the national problems in French-English relations which played such a pivotal role in determining Dominion government policy. With tensions running high across the country over issues like conscription and support for the war effort, the central question of this work is particularly apt. Durflinger asks, "Were Verdun's social cleavages overcome during the war, the result of a shared 'national experience,' or were existing divisions shelved for the duration" (p. 5)?
To answer that question, Durflinger crafted a community portrait of wide breadth that leaves few relevant aspects of wartime life unexplored. The author first offers a useful description of the geographic and demographic setting. Verdun was a working-class, residential suburb with the highest population density in Canada. Its inhabitants were hemmed-in by physical barriers like the St. Lawrence River and the City of Montreal's aqueduct, and often sandwiched into three-story tenements. Residents shared pride in the city's substantial contributions of manpower to the war effort of 1914-18; they shared in the hard times too during the Depression, when up to a third of Verdunites were on relief. These factors helped shape a closely knit community, the key to the author's central argument. But the heart of the book is in the chapters that variously explore enlistments in Verdun; city hall's response to the war; participation in activities like civil defence, salvage, war savings drives, and voluntary work; the impact of institutions like the Red Cross, school boards, and war industry; local politics; and family life and social conditions.
This work has much to recommend it. The author is well versed in the general literature and readers will appreciate the way he situates local history within the larger national picture, whether discussing wartime housing crises, support for overseas troops through fundraising and voluntary work, or juvenile delinquency and other social problems. Regarding the mobilization issue, he refutes the persistent notion that many Canadians who volunteered for the armed services did so to escape Depression-era unemployment. Durflinger sets the record straight, at least as far as Verdun is concerned, on the basis of enlistment notices in the local English-language newspaper which usually included brief background notes on volunteers, many of whom quit their jobs to join up. Durflinger read every weekly issue of the Guardian during the war years, so his is a solid conclusion that agrees with Ottawa's Advisory Committee on Demobilization and Rehabilitation, which suggested that 85 percent of volunteers did likewise.
Like any historical work, Fighting from Home has its weaknesses as well as its strengths. Verdun, Durflinger argues, was a cohesive city united by patriotism, shared working-class experience, and a "strong sense of local identity and community spirit" (p. 66). Although the author frequently repeats the latter notion, this "sense of local identity" remains a nebulous concept that the author never quite pins down. Durflinger contends that a fundamental community solidarity defined Verdun's war. The main problem with this account lies in the exceptions which cast doubt on the central thesis. There were many divisions in Verdun, mainly between French and English but also between different social classes. Verdun's strong British character, derived in large part from working-class immigrants, largely determined the city's collective response to both the First and Second World Wars. But 42 percent of the population claimed French-Canadian background, and a significant part of that minority did not support the war effort with the same enthusiasm as the majority. French-speaking Verdunites did not enlist in equivalent proportion to their English-speaking fellow citizens, though Durflinger notes that their enlistment rate "was no less than the overall French-speaking proportion of the armed forces" (p. 49). Groups like the Civilian Protection Committee and Women's Voluntary Reserve Corps, led by anglophones, apparently (and understandably) did not appeal to francophones in equal proportion. Most French and English patriotic groups doing voluntary work "had little to do with one another" (p. 109). And the 1940 federal election and the conscription plebiscite of 1942 revealed the "difficulties of obtaining social and political cohesion in wartime Verdun" (173), a city that Durflinger admits was "strongly divided ... along language lines" (p. 176).
Sometimes these linguistic divisions overlapped those of class. While a majority of Verdunites were English-speaking tenants, most property owners were French, a good number of them absentee landlords (most aldermen, civic officials, merchants, and professionals were also French-speaking). A definite conflict developed between landlords and tenants as the wartime housing crisis experienced by most Canadian urban center manifested itself in Verdun. Incidents where unscrupulous landlords charged exorbitant and sometimes illegal rents, refused to rent to the wives of servicemen, or evicted families with nowhere else to go in a city with vacancy rates close to zero were certainly not exclusive to Verdun but did, nonetheless, reveal "cracks in wartime Verdun's cohesive community consensus" (p. 143). None of these examples invalidates Durflinger's conclusion that despite "occasional differences along ethnic, linguistic, religious, and even class lines, the war does not appear to have deepened existing social divisions in Verdun," though they are sufficient to throw into question the degree to which "French and English Canadian Verdunites prosecuted the war at home and overseas together, and felt its consequences similarly" (p. 203).
One question that readers will not find definitively answered is how unique or representative was the wartime experience in Verdun compared to other Canadian cities. Early enthusiasm for enlistment, salvage drives, and voluntary work were common across the country; large groups of French and English Canadians, living together in such close proximity and often holding different views about the desirable level of involvement in the war, were not. The literature usually tells us that different cultural groups tended to experience the war in very different ways. Durflinger argues that in Verdun, a shared response was the norm, not the exception. Was this the case in other cities?
Although Fighting from Home leaves some questions unanswered, no work can be all things to all people. Durflinger's research is thorough, blending the relevant secondary reading with research in local archives and oral history interviews. It would make a valuable addition to undergraduate history courses for the way it frequently provides a brief general context before viewing national patterns through an inclusive local lens, one that reveals the activities of both male and female Verdunites, French and English, Catholic and Protestant, adults and children. Besides its relevance for both social and military historians, the book should also appeal to a more popular audience, for the main questions it poses continue to resonate in contemporary society. The unity of Canada's various groups behind our war efforts is often a vexed question, and this fact remains true today whether discussing past wars in Europe or the current war in Afghanistan.
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Jody Perrun. Review of Durflinger, Serge Marc, Fighting from Home: The Second World War in Verdun, Quebec.
H-Canada, H-Net Reviews.
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