Wartime experiences a slice of Canadiana

Jonathan Vance//Special to Western News

Historian Jonathan Vance and his sister Valerie, as children, at a German artillery piece in a park in Waterdown, circa 1966.

There’s a photo in A Township at War of a young boy and girl, posing before a German artillery piece, a trophy of battle transplanted four decades earlier to their small-town Ontario park.

The gun belongs to Waterdown’s history as much as to the memories of Jonathan Vance, now a Western professor and one of Canada’s foremost military historians.

A Township at War, newly published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press, examines how the Great War transformed both those who went overseas and the rural communities the men and women came from.

The small township of East Flamborough, north of Burlington, is the focal point of Vance’s history – and is representative of thousands of rural Canadian places where similar stories played out.

Vance’s family was among the first settlers in the township, and he grew up in Waterdown, one of its communities.

Like many small villages, the small community had been isolated and insulated from the world, and, with the start of the Great War, “suddenly, they’re thrust into this cataclysmic event,” said Vance, J.B. Smallman Chair in the Department of History.

About 200 people in East Flamborough – about 10 per cent of the population, and many of them related to each other as part of three or four large interconnected families as was the norm for rural Canada – went overseas to battle.

“The losses of the war would have resonated much more in a small community than in a city where people didn’t know each other. This was a big chunk of a community’s future.”

In some cased the war losses – exacerbated soon afterwards by deaths from the post-war flu pandemic – were so extensive that the communities themselves died. “There are places in Canada where the only thing left is the war memorial,” Vance said.

This year, Nov. 11 marks the 100thanniversary of the Armistice that marked the conclusion of what was to have been the War to End All Wars.

Vance’s book details war-time events abroad through a local lens – a way to tell the national story by focusing on one of thousands of rural townships with similar tales of their own.

A Township at War, by Jonathan F. Vance

The daily rhythm of farming, and the births, deaths, annual fall fairs and church picnics: all these carried on while the men and nursing sisters were off on the battlefield. “The soldiers at the front tried to maintain a connection with what was going on at home”­ – in part to make sense of the turmoil they were experiencing overseas, he noted.

Vance drew on letters, Women’s Institute meetings, church organizations, old photos and council minutes. (“Small towns were relentlessly clubbish and aggressively social,” he noted, and that made for rich source material.)

And he curated materials that his parents, avid collectors of local history lore, stored in their basement. whose family was among the earliest settlers of East Flamborough.

Even so, as he was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, some of the richest sources of information were in his town: those who had lived the events he was later to write about.

He recalls with some regret how he didn’t ask as many of them their stories as he might have. “I remember all those people, and they were hale and hearty then.”

Growing up in a small town reinforced for him the interconnections that still exist – and how residents know reflexively, even if they don’t put words to it, how they are linked to their neighbours and to community events and milestones.

“If you look around the township now, the remains of its past are there to discover from the old family names that are still around. It’s just a matter of paying attention to them.”

And that brings him back to his favourite photo of the book: the boy and girl in the image that is vintage mid-1960s, beside the German artillery gun cemented into place in a small-town playground in the 1920s.

That’s him, the toddler wearing slip-on sneakers and a cap that covers the ears and ties at the chin, with his smiling older sister, Valerie.

It’s more than just a playground scene, more than a family snapshot. In one simple, black-and-white frame, it depicts a century-old story and a refreshed story 40 years later.

And now, 50 years beyond that, Vance is making sure the story stays alive.

“The past is still there, as an under-current to the present,” said Vance.

“We didn’t know it at the time, but that history was all around us. All around us, if only we knew where to look,” said Vance.

Vance is speaking to several groups this month as he introduces his research and A Township at War to the public:

  • Nov. 5 -St Marys
  • Nov. 7 – Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo
  • Nov. 9– Vimy Dinner in London
  • Nov. 11 – Oxford Books here in London
  • Nov. 14 – London Garrison Community Council
  • Nov. 16 – Head of the Lake Historical Society, Hamilton
  • Nov. 20 – Ingersoll

Jonathan F. Vance is one of Canada’s foremost historians and his other books include: The Great War: From Memory to History. (2015, Wilfrid Laurier University Press); Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars (2011, Oxford University Press); A History of Canadian Culture (2009, Oxford University Press); and Unlikely Soldiers: How Two Canadians Fought the Secret War Against Nazi Occupation (2008, Harper Collins).