On Remembrance Day, I do what most people do—I buy a poppy, I lend my thoughts to remembrance, I respect two minutes of silence on the eleventh hour. But I’ve always felt a sense of distance from the people Remembrance Day ceremonies intend to honour, particularly those who were involved in the First World War. The events felt far away, and the number of military and civilian casualties are so overwhelming that it’s hard to grasp, except as one more set of statistics in human history. It’s intellectually meaningful yes, and central to the development of the nation of course, but I felt emotionally distant.
However, as part of my internship at Harbour Publishing, this past November I was in the midst of adapting From the West Coast to the Western Front to an online version for KnowBC. This book is a collection of stories, artifacts and photos about World War One sent in by BC Almanac listeners from all over the province. And as I painstakingly cross-referenced every page, added HTML tags for italics and paragraphs, formatted captions and uploaded hundreds of photos, I couldn’t help but read the words and look closely at the faces. I had identified people in family and military photos, and lingered over the stories and diaries: the young boy who followed his brother to enlistment; the courageous women who left home in order to help and prove their merit; a man who left his family, one who left for his family, and Chinese brothers determined to enlist despite the prejudices of the time. I was engaged in the record of the First World War more personally and intimately than I have ever had opportunity to be before.
Reading the stories of British Columbians who took part in the Great War helped bring it to life for me, and I hope that users of KnowBC will feel the same — like students, accessing the site from their school libraries, who might have had difficulty understanding the human story behind WWI like I did. For me, thinking about World War One is now less about the huge battles and military movements, but about the individual lives that made up each of those events, on the front lines or behind the scenes. Of course I had known before that British Columbians had been involved in these historical events, but it was different to learn that submarines had been built in Burnaby, and then wonder if I had walked past an old naval base and never known.
And now, instead of being part of an overwhelming statistic, I knew the names of nurses and soldiers, many who lived near my hometown, and were my age or even younger. Reading about them made them fully realized people for me, each with their own stories—love stories, tragic stories, stories of fighting to enlist and of fighting conscription—and the record of their lives is now immortalized in both book and web form. I wonder if any of them ever imagined that their stories would be told one day to so many people?