A 'Test' for the Survivors in the Exhibit In Flanders Fields: How We Remember.
This is an enormous task, and one that the exhibit did not pretend to take on by itself. In Flanders Fields, after all, was just a single cabinet of Canadian remembrances of the war. One might have looked at the objects, read the labels and, very quickly, called it a (Remembrance) day. To me, however, In Flanders Fields pointed towards other commemorations on related themes, some even simpler and others much grander. As such, we should not interpret it in isolation. Instead, it should serve as the starting point of a more complete remembrance experience. For historians, particularly, this should involve looking back to the scholarship on the remembrances of the First World War.
While In Flanders Fields allotted a large portion of its space to John McCrae (1872-1918), it, nevertheless, compelled us to think about others who had served and fought during the First World War. Take McCrae's poem, prominently displayed and from which the cabinet took its name. "In Flanders Fields," we learn, was almost lost, with McCrae having thrown it away somewhere in France only to be recovered later--"from the mud," the cabinet declares--and published in England. How many more of McCrae's poems, not to mention those of other poet-soldiers, have been lost forever? And what of those who did not write poems at all or, worse, those who simply could not, for example, because of psychiatric afflictions? Leading up to Remembrance Day 2009, Andrew Motion, who had just ended his time as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wanted to give "An Equal Voice" to sufferers of shell shock. Motion's best intentions, however, were met with charges of plagiarism by the military historian Ben Shephard, the author A War of Nerves, the book from which many of Motion's lines came. The ensuing spat, well documented in The Guardian, reveals that remembrances of the war, be they literary or historical, are not always straightforward affairs. (1)
What about the physical afflictions of war? The cabinet reiterated that McCrae had been a physician besides a poet, and several reminders of his medical career held a prominent place among the objects on display. In the same way that his famous poem motivates us to appreciate the poetry that he and others produced during the war, the medical books that McCrae used at the Royal Victoria Hospital and at McGill University remind us of the common afflictions in which he and many other medical practitioners found themselves immersed during the conflict. On display were Drugs and the Drug Habit by Harrington Sainsbury, Hookworm Disease by George Dock & Charles C. Bass, and Tuberculosis As a Disease of the Masses and How to Combat It by Sigard Adolphus. McGill fielded a full general hospital onto the European battlefield. In 2017, historians and doctors Andrew Beckett and Edward J. Harvey wrote a biography of No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), pointing out that surgeons, nurses, and medical students worked with physicians like McCrae. The unit aided tens of thousands of patients between 1914 and 1919, all the while carrying out important medical research, reporting on the horrors of modern industrial warfare, and suffering tragedies themselves. (2) McCrae, who died in France of pneumonia and meningitis in 1918, certainly was not the only medical practitioner to lose his life during the war.
The narrative of one-half of In Flanders Fields concluded with a story of the evolution of the remembrance poppy. In Flanders Fields noted the poppy's connection to McCrae's famous poem and told an uncomplicated story of the adoption of the poppy as "an important symbol that connects personal feelings with national memory." Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum, by contrast, before the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017 wrote that the acceptance of the poppy as a symbol for remembrance in Canada had to be negotiated among political and societal camps through the years. (3)
A Canadian Expeditionary Force uniform that had belonged to J. E. Lord of the 52nd Battalion anchored the narrative of the other half of the cabinet, turning our focus in earnest to the question of How We Remember. Next-of-kin received the first remembrances of their dead, often expressed in terms of gratitude. Several of these symbols of thanks appeared in the cabinet. Mrs. G. P. Little received a medallion in memory of her husband Thomas of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles who was killed three months after arriving in France. The note from King George V that accompanied the medallion thanked Mrs. Little for "a brave life given for others in the Great War." Mrs. Jessie Beker of Jarvis Avenue, Winnipeg, received a letter from the Minister of Militia and Defence that mourned with the new widow and thanked her for her husband William giving his life "for the great cause of Human Liberty and the Defence of the Empire." The 'Next of Kin Monument' at the Manitoba Legislature would eventually bear William's name. Art historian Marilyn Baker reflected on the value of 'Next of Kin Monument' among many other war memorials. She noted that they are simultaneously "an expression of collective grief and a response to personal loss," but worried that they have become "a mute memento of a bygone age." (4) Three decades later, on the centenary of the 1918 armistice, one could ask, "Has Baker's worry become reality?" The Manitoba Historical Society, for its part, maintains a database of the more than 300 war memorials in Manitoba, including the 'Next of Kin Monument,' in an effort to encourage visits of remembrance. (5) The question remains, however, what else can we do to help protect our remembrances from being lost to the tides of time?
Exhibits like In Flanders Fields have helped to assuage Baker's concerns. The Manitoba Museum has already given us the next steps in the more complete remembrance experience. For one, the museum collaborated with The World Remembers (TWR), a non-profit organization based in Toronto that has taken on the enormous task of streaming the names of war dead of 1918--from all countries--in a video component installed next to and complementing In Flanders Fields. The work of TWR over the five centenary years has concluded, but one can continue to search names through the organization's website (theworldremembers. org) or those of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or the Canadian War Museum. The Manitoba Museum also exhibited Vikings of the First World War: Icelandic Canadians in Service (26 October 2018 to 3 March 2019), pointing not just to Winnipeg-specific remembrances, but also to the contribution of different immigrant groups to the war effort. Finally, "To Pluck a Flower from this Peculiar Place" by Kristin Maria Hreinsdottir, which has appeared in both the Manitoba Museum and the National Museum of Iceland, provides an interesting complement to John McCrae's famous poem.
In Flanders Fields described remembrances of war dead as a 'test' for the survivors. For communities building and maintaining memorials, the test comes from, as the exhibit stated, the required "determination, money, and organization." For museums like the Manitoba Museum, the test lies in the curatorial challenge of providing the public with the useful context of remembrances and memorials. And, as I hope I have shown, the test for historians is to continuously regard war remembrances with a critical eye, ensuring that commemorations reflect and speak to ever-changing historical memory.
(1.) Andrew Motion, "An Equal Voice," The Guardian, 7 November 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/07/andrew-motion-remembrance-day-poem; Alison Flood, "Andrew Motion Rubbishes Plagiarism Charge," The Guardian, 9 November 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/nov/09/andrew-motion-rebuts-plagiarism-charge; John Sutherland, "Poetic Injustice for Andrew Motion," The Guardian, 9 November 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/nov/09/andrew-motion-plagiarism-found-poem. See also Ben Shephard, A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000.
(2.) Andrew Beckett and Edward J. Harvey, "No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in the Great War: Service and Sacrifice," Canadian journal of Surgery 61, no. 1 (February 2018), pp. 8-12.
(3.) Tim Cook, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, Toronto: Allen Lane, 2017, pp. 167, 238, 322.
(4.) Marilyn Baker, "To Honor and Remember: Remembrances of the Great War, The Next-of-Kin Monument in Winnipeg," Manitoba History 2 (1981): unpaginated.
(5.) The Manitoba Historical Society's "War Memorials in Manitoba" is available at http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/features/warmemorials. See also Gordon Goldsborough, "Manitoba's Military Monuments," Manitoba History 76 (Fall 2014): p. 31.
by Jeden O. Tolentino Winnipeg, Manitoba
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|Author:||Tolentino, Jeden O.|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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