"Canadians at War" - Remembering our fallen on Remembrance Day

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  • November 10, 2011

Passchendaele, Vimy, the Somme, Hill 70 and Flanders Fields are all still there more than 90 years after they swallowed the lives of Canadian farm boys and office clerks. The once scarred and rutted fields of mud have been transformed by green grass, monuments, grave markers and crosses.

“It’s a vast memorial,” said writer Susan Evans Shaw.

Evans Shaw has produced a 350-page guidebook to the battlefields of the First World War called simply Canadians at War. The book is dramatically and amply illustrated with photographs by Jean Crankshaw.

Actually walking the battlegrounds is an experience of sacred space, said Evans Shaw.

“Sacred in the sense that there’s so much respect due these men and what they did, and what they died for,” she said. “It’s a sort of combination of holy and unholy ground. Pretty horrible things happened there.”

Hamilton-based Evans Shaw began the book six years ago when she came into the war-time letters her grandfather wrote to friends and family back home.

“At first I felt anger at this man. He had spent the years from March 1915 to March 1918 in England, training troops in musketry,” writes  Evans Shaw. “Why, oh why, did he sacrifice his safety, his future, his family to go to the front?”

Captain James Lloyd Evans was killed by machine-gun fire Sept. 1, 1918. As the married father of three he never had to serve in the war at all. Sick of the relative safety of his training mission in England, Evans took a drop in rank from Major so he could get to the front. By the fall of 1918 the end of the war was in sight.

“But he had to go, he just had to go,” said Evans Shaw.

“How can I face my friends at home if I haven’t been to the front,” he wrote from behind the lines. It was the “War to end all wars.”

As a daughter of her generation, raised on the anti-war songs of the Vietnam era and the poems of Wilfred Owen, Vera Brittain and Robert Graves, Evans Shaw was at first vexed and perplexed by her grandfather.

“I saw my grandfather’s death as a pointless waste in a wasteful and pointless war,” she writes.

But as she visited the battlefields and re-read the letters, Evans Shaw began to see how much harder it was to come to a definite judgment about the war while it was going on.

“The whole war was a huge mistake,” she told The Catholic Register. “But they were out there fighting for it and they were fighting for something they thought was worthwhile.”

Evans Shaw’s guidebook does more than just tell travellers where to find the monuments. The story of each battle and the surrounding circumstances get a fair treatment, making the book valuable even for people who can’t travel to Europe.

While Evans Shaw guards the honour and respect due to the lost generation — 60,000 soldiers and nursing sisters were killed out of a Canadian population of just 7.9 million — she has no illusions about the war itself.

A field outside the Belgian village of Passchendaele summed up a great deal about the Great War. Casualty estimates run in the range of half a million, with most calculating that the Germans lost more than the British. There are more than 1,000 Canadians buried there. It was the Canadians who finally took the ridge at the end of the field in the fall of 1917. The next spring Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who had sacrificed thousands of lives to capture that little ridge, ordered it abandoned.

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