Birth of a Regiment


Telling the Soldiers’ Story

There is a natural hiatus in historical writing about the Great War for about a twenty year period between 1939 and 1960 as the world became focused on other, perhaps greater, wars.  When historical interest returns it is with a markedly different perspective.  The historians with a direct experience of the Great War have disappeared from the discourse and a new generation who see the war through the eyes of their fathers and grandfathers take up Clio’s banner.  There are two general approaches to this resurgence of interest.  The first, led by John Keegan’s Face of Battle is the desire to show war from the perspective of the soldier rather than perspective of the general or politician.  At the time he wrote, Keegan had been a long time lecturer in military history a Sandhurst.  He described his new purpose this way:

Subjects like “strategic theory, national defence policy, economic mobilization, military sociology and the like – subject which, vital though they are to an understanding of modern war, nevertheless skate what, for a young man training to be a professional soldier, is the central question: what is it like to be in a battle? …. Or it’s subjective supplementary, How would I behave in a battle?” [i]

The second, more personal stream is the desire to give a voice to those soldiers who were fast reaching the end of their lives – to capture that voice directly from those who were involved before it was too late.  Accompanying this resurgence in interest was the attendant commemoration important anniversaries of the Great War.  On the 50th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, the Patricia’s, then part of the British Army of the Rhine serving in Germany provided the guard of honour while a new Canadian flag was raised for the first time.  In time for the 60th anniversary of the battle Pierre Berton’s popular Vimy quickly become a best seller. This urge to commemorate has now become an important part of the pattern of historical writing about the war.  Keegan publishes his The First World War in 1998, and subsequent anniversaries are similarly marked.   (Note – in addition to internal links, the site will direct the viewer to external links where there is particularly good material) Globe and Mail Tuesday April 10, 1917.  Notable absent from these commemorative works is any vilification of the enemy that appeared in the early historical accounts. By this time of course Germany is a staunch ally and a cornerstone partner in NATO.

[i] John Keegan, The Face of Battle, 18.

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