While the veterans themselves are silent, Manitoba historian Jim Blanchard reminds us in his new book Winnipeg's Great War that the city of Winnipeg has its own story to tell about the First World War. Its prominent war memorials, Vimy Ridge Park, and the many churches adorned with plaques honouring the dead all resonate with echoes of an almost forgotten time of patriotism, glory and grief.
In this impressively researched and powerful book, Blanchard returns this era and its fatal passions to life by showing how the city of Winnipeg experienced -- and helped wage -- the Great War and how it was, in turn, changed by it.
Winnipeg's Great War functions as something of a sequel to the author's Winnipeg 1912 (2005), which captured the city at its economic pinnacle. Having secured its position as the major transportation and grain-trade hub of the Canadian West, Winnipeg in the years prior to the war was one of the fastest-growing cities in North America and faced its future with optimism and confidence.
Blanchard shows, however, that the Great War would contribute to ending Winnipeg's dreams of growth and dominance. Between the tragic loss of more than 1,600 of its young men and its inability to attract significant war manufacturing or shipping, Winnipeg was to emerge from the war a changed and despondent city.
Making excellent use of contemporary newspaper articles, letters and other primary sources, Blanchard, a University of Manitoba librarian, does an admirable job of placing the reader in space and time, from the last carefree summer of 1914 to the mournful 1923 installation of the Winnipeg Soldiers' Relatives war memorial on the grounds of the Manitoba legislature.
Organized into four chapters (one for each year of the war), the book is not confined to the city's response to the bloodshed in Europe, but also delves into other major aspects of local history.
For example, this period saw a number of significant events in Winnipeg's physical and social development. Among them were the construction of the Shoal Lake aqueduct, the construction of the provincial Legislative Building (and the kickback scandal that brought down Rodmond Roblin's Conservative government), and the battle between streetcars and jitneys over which would be the city's preferred mode of public transportation.
Winnipeg's Great War is honest in its portrayal of the best and worst of the city's response to the conflict overseas. Readers will likely admire the common purpose and selflessness demonstrated by these vanished Winnipeggers, and regret the relative absence of such in our own cynical and individualistic age.
At the same time, we can't help but recoil from their prejudices.
Blanchard reveals the appalling extent of wartime xenophobia, paranoia and mistrust of "foreigners," communists and leftists. This context is essential for understanding why the official (and media) response to the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 would be so resolutely unsympathetic and, ultimately, violent.
Despite the need to occasionally break from a strict chronological account, the text is consistently interesting and well-organized, if dispassionate.
However, the photographs, while also informative, are often curiously isolated from relevant passages by at least several pages.
While Winnipeg's Great War lends considerable insight into the city's past and present, it also has broader significance: It reveals the virtues, folly and madness of a society engaged in total war, and demonstrates how its values -- largely alien to us now -- allowed that war to be both endured and rationalized by its participants.
Winnipeg's Great War
A City Comes of Age
By Jim Blanchard
University of Manitoba Press, 272 pages, $25
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 9, 2010 h10