New book takes Canadians ‘Behind the Lines’

While stories ripped from the battlefield dominate most histories, the contributions of Canadians who remained on home front during the World Wars takes centre stage in McIntosh Gallery’s latest creation.

Released this week, Behind the Lines: Canada’s Home Front During the First and Second World Wars explores the little-known stories and contributions of diverse communities across Canada – from First Nations and women in the workforce, to Japanese internment camps and German prison of war facilities.

The 300-page glossy hardcover, which received $16,000 in support from Western’s Canada 150 fund, builds off two exhibitions held earlier this year at the gallery: In the Beginning, 1942, an exhibit that reunited paintings, now housed at the Canadian War Museum, that was part of the opening exhibition of the McIntosh Gallery in 1942; and Behind the Lines, an exhibit that provided a glimpse into the personal sacrifice and hard work of determined Canadians at home who supported the armed forces overseas during two world conflicts.

McIntosh Gallery curator Catherine Elliot Shaw said plans for the book were in the works more than three years ago, in anticipation of the gallery’s 75th anniversary this year. McIntosh is the oldest university art gallery in Ontario and the second-oldest in Canada.

“Those two exhibitions started me thinking about what else we could do that would honour the military anniversaries that would occurring in 2017,” she said. “All of the attention was focused overseas. I thought, ‘We were doing a whole lot right here in Canada – a tremendous amount.’ In reading more, I kept finding stories that needed to be told and, out of that, came the idea for the book.

“I have a lot of friends in the military – past and present – and it was something very near and dear to my heart. I really wanted to see it through.”

Elliot Shaw received help from numerous volunteers, including 17 authors and more than a dozen Western staff, faculty and graduate students, along with local historians. The people who contributed to the book, she added, are experts in their field and bring together a way to tell a seamless story of what was happening around the country during the wars.

“I put the word out and explained my vision about wanting to tell as many stories from behind the lines here in Canada,” Elliot Shaw continued. “It tells the stories behind what the experiences people were experiencing at the time. People will be able to relate to the stories. Somewhere in the book there will be something that touches anyone who picks it up.”

Alan Noon, a contributor who also did photo restoration for the book, was thrilled to be part of the project.

“War can be a touchy subject, but people should be made aware of the contributions so many made,” said Noon, who spent more than 50 years at Western as a Media Specialist in Photography.

“People will never realize the horror of the trenches in war,” added Noon, who recalls growing up in Great Britain among the bombed-out buildings and rubble after the Second World War. “It’s very difficult. People have to remember – yet should we remember everything? I don’t know. On one hand, we should remember. On the other, I want to forget. But we can’t afford to forget everything. It’s a difficult subject.”

The book also highlights the wartime contributions of Western, including the development of radar, a special Chemistry course designed to train female lab technicians who then developed synthetic rubber, as well as the legacy of two field hospitals staffed by university medical faculty and students.

History professor Jonathan Vance, a specialist in military and cultural history, contributed part of his vast collection of picture postcards, advertising circulars, comics and handbills to the books content.

“I really like the idea that this collection covers people living on the home front. It brings to life so many things during the war that were so everyday,” he said, adding he loves the way the stories and photos in the book interact so well, echoing from section to section.

“We can’t pretend that history was nice and tidy and only good things ever happened. We have to admit that awful things happened and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. In the two wars, Canada was dealing with extraordinary situations and this book is a way to understand how those ordinary people responded to those extraordinary situations.”

Launched earlier this week at London’s Wolseley Barracks, the book is available for purchase at the McIntosh Gallery and online at brownanddickson.com.

“It is my hope it will encourage people to perhaps find their stories within their own families,” said Elliot Shaw.