Eric McGeer, with photographs by Steve Douglas. Canada's Dream Shall Be of Them: Canadian Epitaphs of the Great War. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017. 224 pp. $49.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-77112-310-5.
Reviewed by Teresa Iacobelli (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (January, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them: Canadian Epitaphs of the Great War by Eric McGeer explores the numerous Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries of the First World War that dot the landscape of France and Belgium and mark the sites where Canadian soldiers fought and died. In addition to the number, size, and beauty of these cemeteries, illustrated throughout the book in photographs by Steve Douglas, these particular cemeteries are unique in that, for the first, and only time, the CWGC (then the Imperial War Graves Commission) allowed mourning families to add personal inscriptions to the tombstones. It is these inscriptions that are the subject of McGeer’s work, and which inform the author’s understanding of personal and collective bereavement and memory following the war’s end.
The First World War cost Canada 66,000 dead—18,000 among them have no known grave and therefore no personal inscriptions on tombstones. McGeer acknowledges the limited scope of the epitaphs as a source, noting that “of the identified graves, just under half carry a personal inscription, many of which repeat formulae … of little more than fleeting interest” (p. 59). The author estimates the number of epitaphs able to speak to personal or collective grief of the nation to be at around 3,000, or about 5 percent of Canada’s war dead. McGeer mines roughly 1,000 of these Canadian examples to draw his conclusions.
Having visited CWGC cemeteries several times, I can attest that the inscriptions do add to an already emotional experience. A visitor is first awe-struck by the vast and orderly design of the cemeteries, which helps convey the scope of the war, but the epitaphs then make clear the personal sacrifices borne by the young men and their families. At the time of their creation these epitaphs provided a connection to graves that most loved ones would never see due to the great distance and cost. Through the epitaphs reproduced in this book, the reader sees the war through the thoughtfully chosen words of heartbroken and grieving parents, wives, siblings, and children. McGeer notes that the thousands of inscriptions “preserve the voice of the bereaved and enlist our sympathy, not only for those who died so young but for the next of kin who bore the burden of loss for the rest of their lives” (p. 9).
McGeer argues that the decision to allow loved ones to give voice to their sorrow in these epitaphs has given modern-day visitors to these sites, as well as historians, a deeper understanding of Canadians’ suffering, spirituality, and understanding of the First World War in the years immediately following its end. In the prescribed maximum of sixty-six characters or less, most of these epitaphs show that, despite the massive losses, Canadians still believed that the war was a noble cause and that their loved ones had not given their lives in vain. The bereaved remained remarkably uncynical—maintaining a trust in both their political leadership and their religious faith and believing that the end of the Great War would usher in a great peace. Of course, now armed with the knowledge of what would come just decades later, many of these epitaphs become all the more heartbreaking.
Beyond what the epitaphs can tell us about bereavement, McGeer’s work also underscores the incredible foresight of the CWGC and its member nations as they planned and created the cemeteries. As McGeer notes, the CWGC relied upon the work of architects who had served in the war in order to create spaces that provided a refuge of tranquility and promoted the principle of equality. The designers eschewed outright symbols of victory in favor of those that reinforced the tragedy of war and promoted the hope of reconciliation.
Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them is divided into seven chapters, mostly broken up by notable Canadian battles. McGeer discusses the place of these significant battles in Canadian memory, and acknowledges some of the more recent scholarship in Canadian military history.
The scholarship in the book is sound, but somewhat limited. Certainly, McGeer accomplishes his stated purpose of using the epitaphs to explore the nature of personal bereavement and collective grief. However, there are areas where the reader would certainly benefit from more information. This is especially the case in the book’s final chapter, “He Sleeps Not Here but in Hearts across the Seas,” which is intended to provide images from cemeteries of other nationalities in order to provide a comparative perspective on commemorative design. While this chapter does include photographs from non-Canadian cemeteries along the western front, they are limited in number and lack contextual information describing how other countries came to their own decisions on memorializing their dead on foreign soil. This is even the case for other Commonwealth countries; for example, McGeer does not point out that the government of New Zealand decided against personal inscriptions, believing that it went against the principle of equality, or that Great Britain initially charged a fee for inscriptions, therefore making the option not as universally available as it was for bereaved kin in Canada. A volume putting bereavement in a comparative international perspective may therefore be a topic for future research.
Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them is a beautifully produced volume, including not just Douglas’s stunning photographs, but also reproductions of many paintings that are part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art held at the Canadian War Museum. This book would be of use to any person with a general interest in Canada and the First World War or in commemoration or memory studies. The style of writing is engaging and approachable for any reader. The book would also be a welcome addition to the library of any specialist both for the attractiveness of the book itself, but also for its inclusion of many epitaphs for further study.
. “Shaping Our Sorrow: International Differences,” Commonwealth War Graves Commission, https://shapingoursorrow.cwgc.org/bargaining/international-differences/.
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Teresa Iacobelli. Review of McGeer, Eric; Douglas, with photographs by Steve, Canada's Dream Shall Be of Them: Canadian Epitaphs of the Great War.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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