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Familiar Fields to Foreign Soil: Remembering the First World War

November 8, 2018

Canada research chair and Trent faculty member Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer publishes new book

The cover of the new book: Familiar Fields to Foreign Soil

On November 11, Canadians across the country will be commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War – the “Great War” as it was known at that time. It had a transformative experience on our country – socially, economically, and politically. Nearly a half million Canadians would serve out of a population of eight million. More than 66,000 Canadians would never make it home.

Trent’s Dr. Whitney Lackenbauer, Canada research chair in the study of the Canadian North, has co-authored a new book, Familiar Fields to Foreign Soil: Three Rural Townships and the Great War. Written with Jennifer Arthur-Lackenbauer and Dr. Peter Kikkert, the authors use letters, newspapers, memoirs, and other local sources to reveal how people understood home front and overseas experiences at the time, and how the war transformed individual lives, families, and communities in rural Ontario.

“Our book attempts to offer both a comprehensive and accessible portrait of a community immersed in a global conflict,” Professor Lackenbauer explains. “It is researched with all of the rigour of an academic study, but written in a way that we hope will appeal to a broad popular audience.”

Intertwining domestic and overseas experiences

The genesis of the book came when Prof. Lackenbauer and Professor Kikkert gave a Remembrance Day talk in 2014 to the South Norwich Historical Society in Otterville, Ontario, seeking to infuse understandings of the global conflict with a local dynamic. Intrigued by the intersections between local, national, and military histories, this community organization suggested that the two historians consider writing a book on Norwich Township and the First World War. Other local groups quickly supported their vision to tell a local story of the war that would intertwine domestic and overseas experiences, wherever possible using the words of those actually who lived them.

“Our goal was to illuminate how wartime experiences were deeply woven into the fabric of local life,” Prof. Lackenbauer explains. “We wanted to take readers on a journey, through the eyes of local men and women who endured the war. There are the stories of soldiers who fought and died in the muddy trenches on the Western Front, but also those of the woman who organized patriotic societies and knitted socks for the men overseas.” While much of the scholarship focuses on urban experiences, the team “wanted this book to capture the rural context – how demands for increased agricultural production, as well as demands for men to serve in uniform, deeply affected Ontario farm families and changed the rhythms of rural life.”

Remembrance Day is not about celebrating war

Remembrance Day is not about celebrating war, Prof. Lackenbauer insists, but about commemorating sacrifices made by Canadians for what they considered to be a noble and just cause. One hundred years ago, most commentators considered that the loss of so many soldiers represented an essential contribution to the Canadian, British Empire, and larger Allied cause rather than wasted lives.

“We hope that readers will empathize with the sense of danger, horrific violence, suffering, and tragic loss experienced by individual Canadians, families, and communities embroiled in war,” he explains. “At the same time, we should also acknowledge the courage, kindness, volunteerism, and perseverance that underlay much of Canada’s war effort – and continues to animate our country today.”

The authors volunteered their time to research and write the book, and all proceeds from the sale of print versions will flow to the South Norwich Historical Society and Norwich & District Historical Society. In the spirit of open access, an e- book version is available online, free of charge.

Prof. Lackenbauer, who also serves as the honorary lieutenant colonel of 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group (headquartered in Yellowknife and with patrols throughout the territorial north), will be in Whitehorse, Yukon, on November 11 giving an address at the territorial Remembrance Day services.

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