How Do We Understand Grief in War? - Champlain Society August 2020 Findings/Trouvailles

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This month the Champlain Society is pleased to present a preview of its August 2020 Findings/Trouvailles. Read the full post at


How Do We Understand Grief in War?

By Jonathan F. Vance


As long as I’ve been researching war, I have struggled to understand the impact of loss on communities. My most recent attempt, A Township at War, explored the First World War as experienced by the people of East Flamborough, an agricultural township in southern Ontario where my ancestors settled in the early nineteenth century.[i]


The exercise was partly scholarly but also deeply personal. My father was fiercely proud of where he grew up and I wanted to know more about how that place and its people coped with the ravages of war. What traumas were behind the names listed on the plaque in front of Waterdown’s Memorial Hall?


I often cite Sam Hughes’ idea for a war memorial scheme in which each community would be issued a standard memorial, but in a size that corresponded to the number of dead it sustained.[ii] The more dead, the bigger the memorial. But what did each death mean? If grief could be quantified, could we say that the town with a large memorial was sadder than the town with a small memorial? That’s certainly what Hughes’ plan implied: that grief could be objectively measured, and then rendered as a tangible object.


At the end of A Township at War, I suggested that the communal grief occasioned by the deaths of the First World War was more profound in rural places than in large urban ones because of the inter-connectedness of rural society. Everyone in a rural village knew everyone else, and half of them were related to each other. Grief reverberated through extended rural families for whom kin relationships constituted a cardinal virtue. Would Sam Hughes, himself the product of a rural upbringing, have agreed that a multiplier should be applied to any rural community when allotting war memorials?


But the memorial wasn’t the only way to gauge loss. Modern war is a bureaucratic exercise; if militaries privilege anything beyond fighting prowess and comradeship, it is accounting. A glance through any Canadian Expeditionary Force [CEF] service file shows how much the institution was devoted to valuation. Pay ledgers, the precise value of items of kit, demobilization gratuity amounts, assigned pay, separation allowances, the value of a soldier’s possessions at death, and on and on. Everything about a soldier’s life was enumerated—and so too was everything about his death. The CEF generated vast amounts of paper, most of it to be held in government archives but some to be sent out, to find a place in family records like mine. Read the full post at:



Thank you for reading!


[i] Jonathan F. Vance, A Township at War (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018).

[ii] Robert Shipley, To Mark Our Place: A History of Canadian War Memorials (Toronto: NC Press, 1987), 62.