Corps identity: the letters, diaries and memoirs of Canada's great war soldiers

Gerritsen, Maarten (2008) Corps identity: the letters, diaries and memoirs of Canada's great war soldiers. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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The purpose of this dissertation is to analyze the role published diaries, letters and memoirs of Canadian soldiers played in shaping, consolidating, and preserving the "myth of the [Great] war experience" in Canada. In Death So Noble, Memory, Meaning, and the First World War, Jonathan Vance argues that, during and shortly after the First World War, Canadian politicians, artists and historians created this myth to soften the horrible realities of the trenches. To justify and explain the deaths of more than 60,000 Canadians, the war was most often portrayed as a positive, if costly, experience that led a colony to full nationhood. At the same time, Canadian soldiers were described as backwoodsmen; natural soldiers who evinced a strong disdain for army discipline. -- Although Vance's interpretation of the Great War legacy in Canada has been well received, the role that Canadian soldiers played in the creation of this legacy has yet to be examined. One approach to this enormous task is to probe the hundreds of published soldier sources composed by members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Granted, they are limited in number compared to total enlistment figures. Thus, no final claim can be made that they speak categorically for the CEF as a whole. Indeed, in some cases, the reliability of individual writers might be quite dubious. Still, these sources exist and are part of the historical record. They have, however, yet to be analyzed systematically. When they are, these unique sources collectively offer some intriguing, if conditional, insights into soldier agency in the process of myth-making about Canada's Great War. -- Published sources suggest that the way Canadian soldiers portrayed the war fits, almost seamlessly, with the "myth of the war experience." This is not only because the myth influenced soldier writings, but also because Canadian soldiers had both embraced and helped to generate it during the war. The latter point is often overlooked. Although the war divided the dominion as much as it united it, these soldier sources reveal that, layer by layer, something of a pan-Canadian "corps identity" developed, at least among many within the wartime CEF. Moreover, this "corps identity" is present in material written at the time, as well as in memoirs published long after it. -- Volunteers had not consciously set out in 1914 to create this identity. However, traveling and training together created an esprit de corps before Canadians even set foot in the trenches. Apart from their shared experience, this rudimentary identity was also based on the retelling of anecdotes, generally detailing the CEF's pioneer disdain for army discipline. The fact that British civilians viewed the CEF as a homogenous unit, often as a result of the CEF's unique maple leaf uniform and cap badges, only heightened the soldiers' sense of collective identity. -- The CEF's participation in major battles, Second Ypres, Vimy, Passhendaele and the Hundred Days, added another, more positive, layer to this newfound identity. Considering that the Canadians Corps sometimes managed to succeed where British or French armies had failed, it is not surprising that many soldiers depicted these battles as the crowning moments of Canada's war effort. After April 1917, the successful storming of Vimy Ridge, soldiers generally showed little surprise about the CEF's combat effectiveness. Many explained this by pointing to the outstanding soldierly qualities Canadians had brought to the trenches. Even though most volunteers came from urban and industrial professions, the belief that many CEF soldiers had, in some shape or form, experienced Canada's vast wilderness was, perhaps strangely, deeply entrenched. In any case, this helped to create the perception that 'colonials' were ideally suited for the war. -- There can be no doubt that the Great War furthered a Canadian consciousness amongst many soldiers of the CEF. By portraying themselves as different, Canadian soldiers created a "corps identity" that set them aside from others. This identity, perhaps based more on perception than reality, strongly coloured these soldiers' memory of the war. It is exactly this perception of a "corps identity" that we see in the countless letters, diaries and memoirs that have been published in the more than ninety years since the war.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
Item ID: 10541
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (leaves 272-313).
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > History
Date: 2008
Date Type: Submission
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Soldiers' writings, Canadian--History and criticism; Soldiers--Canada--Attitudes; World War, 1914-1918--Personal narratives, Canadian--History and criticism.

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