Janice Cavell

Regimental History and Soldiers’ Memory of the First World War

Regimental History and Soldiers’ Memory of the First World War: Private McQuade Writes in the Margins

The topic of memory and the First World War has been widely discussed in recent years.  However, the debate focuses mainly on monuments and commemorative ceremonies.  Literature about the war, especially literature directed towards less educated veterans, has received far less attention.  Paul Fussell=s classic study The Great War and Modern Memory is limited to writings by and for the middle and upper classes.  Regimental histories, however, were intended for veterans of all ranks, and would presumably have been read by many former soldiers who were not ordinarily keen readers.  These books recounted events in which the soldiers had participated, and were often distributed to all surviving members of a regiment.  Private William McQuade of Ottawa evidently read his copy of his regiment’s history (The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles 1914-1918, by Captain S. G. Bennett) with care, and added many notes about his own experiences in the margins. 

Regimental histories, from Rudyard Kipling’s The Irish Guards in the Great War to works by obscure amateur writers like Bennett, had a common aim: that of providing a coherent framework for what might otherwise have been random and confusing memories of combat.  While they did not deny the often terrifying nature of the war experience, the authors of these books all insisted that courageous endurance, not despair, was the common response among soldiers.  McQuade’s marginal writings at first seem to confirm that this was indeed the case: he frequently mentioned the ‘tough’ conditions in the trenches, but emphasized that he and his comrades had successfully overcome such obstacles.  However, his service file records that during the first six months after his arrival in France, McQuade suffered from shell shock B an experience he evidently wished to forget.  By examining the relationship of Bennett’s text and McQuade’s notes, this paper seeks to elucidate how the interplay between official history and personal memory shaped veterans= perceptions of the war. 

Making Books, Shaping Readers

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