If you have ever wondered how major historical events affect individuals and those they love, you may want to join VIU History professor Dr. Stephen Davies for an eye-opening presentation on Friday, Nov. 16, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in the Malaspina Theatre on the Nanaimo campus. In this next presentation of the Arts and Humanities Colloquium Series, Dr. Davies will speak about the human impact of military conflict as it is revealed in intimate letters exchanged during World War I. Following only days after Remembrance Day, his presentation “Voices through Time: Letters of the Great War” shines a light on the experiences of individual Canadians caught up in the ‘war to end all wars’ by letting us hear their voices and see their faces.
Thanks to Dr. Davies’s initiative, dedication, and many years of research, VIU is home to a unique national history project, The Canadian Letters and Images Project (see <www. c a n a d i a n l e t t e r s . c a > ) . Under the directorship of Dr. Davies, the Project has become the largest collection of Canadian war-related personal materials in the country. Receiving acclaim from across the nation, this marvelous historical resource also employs seven VIU students in its operations, giving them a superb research experience.
Using sources drawn from the Project, Dr. Davies will explore the “culture of the letter” to examine what personal war correspondence can and cannot tell us about the experiences of Canadians during wartime. “Private letters are crucial in letting us understand the human impact of war,” Dr. Davies says. “No other source takes us as close to the individual and his or her most intimate experiences.”
One of the most difficult things to understand and to teach is the human cost of war. “If we talk about Canada’s 60 thousand dead for WWI, that’s a figure that is difficult for most students to comprehend—and it’s not just simply 60 thousand, it is 60 thousand individual lives,” Dr. Davies says. “It becomes even more difficult when we discuss the wider war experience, with casualties of extended battles such as the Somme or Verdun running into the hundreds of thousands. The numbers become so large, and so abstract, that they become meaningless, particularly in terms of the human component.”
Dr. Davies’s goal is to highlight the experiences of the individual soldiers behind those numbers. Once a student understands the significance of one individual life and the loss it represents, the figure of 60 thousand begins to have real meaning. “The best means to accomplish that,” Dr. Davies says, “is letting the soldiers speak themselves. Their letters, as well as those of their families, provide us with what we might call ‘history in the raw.’ They are windows into the thoughts and feelings of the participants, an opportunity to see the world as they did, without a lens of interpretation added through time.” These letters remind us that wars are fought and experienced by individuals and that the battlefront and the home front are intricately connected.
It is when we can recognize ourselves in the ordinary individuals who were caught up in extraordinary circumstances that we can begin to understand; their hopes and fears, ambitions and loves, were not that different from ours. They were as in love or as lost as we are, and they wanted to lead fulfilling lives and be with the people they cared about as much as we do. Their letters poignantly remind us that war is also about relationships and that it is a shared experience. In making the voices and faces of those before us available to all of us, Dr. Davies restores a level of humanity that is more than simply a name on a cenotaph.
Through his work on the Project, Dr. Davies has succeeded in making the past relevant and accessible to everyone. With a click of the mouse, anyone, anywhere, can access the Canadian Letters and Images Project. “One of the greatest achievements of the Project,” Dr. Davies says, “is having taken history beyond the academic world and making it accessible for everyone.” As a result, the materials of the Project are being used in classrooms, from elementary schools to universities, across the country, and indeed outside of the country as well.
Please join us for this unique and timely view into history. As always, the Arts and Humanities Colloquium will be followed by discussion. Everyone is welcome to attend and join the conversation. Refreshments will be provided, and there is no admission charge.
For more information, contact Dr. Daniel Burgoyne at 250-753-3245, local 2126 or <Daniel.Burgoyne@viu.ca>.