And so 2014, the year of the great anniversary, begins. I do not mean an anniversary of a personal or even a national milestone; those fall in other years. I am referring to the centenary of World War I (“the Great War”), when the eyes of the world shifted from the shock of the new, as in Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” both of which were first seen by the public in 2913, to the slaughter of millions, many of them young men just starting their lives.
Within the war itself, the mood and circumstances shifted quickly. We can see this shift in the poetry of the period, which moves with distressing speed from Rupert Brooke’s “there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England” (written one hundred years ago, in 1914) to the decline in morale culminating in Wilfred Owen’s phrase “the old Lie,” his acerbic commentary on Horace’s “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and suitable to die for one’s country”) (1917-18). Both Brooke and Owen were to perish in the course of the war.
I am an American Friend, a member of New England Yearly Meeting, who lives in Canada and works as a “temporary” lecturer in Latin and ancient Greek at an Ontario university. World War I had an even greater effect on Canada than it did on the United States. This is due to a number of factors, only some of which are related to the fact that the US was not a part of the war until 1917. In Wellington County, where I now live, and in the nearby city of Guelph, officials decided a few years ago that at least fifty per cent of new streets were to be named for area soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. The decision was rooted not only in the memory of John McCrae, the physician and poet (author of “In Flanders Fields”) who may be the best known native of Guelph, but also of the scars that the carnage had on the region, scars that can be seen in the relative depopulation of some rural areas even a century later. The region is now growing quickly, but no one expects to run out of names any time soon.
Just as the contours of world geography are shaped by the outcome of World War I, so are those of Quaker institutions. The American Friends Service Committee was established in 1917, and the progenitor of its British counterpart (now called Quaker Peace and Social Witness), the Council for International Service, was organized in 1919. The modern understanding of conscientious objection to military service and war preparations is rooted to a great extent in this period. This includes the Friends Ambulance Unit. The roles of women both inside and outside of Quakerism were to also shift as a result of World War I and its aftermath.
I hope to see an increasing number of Friendly discussions of this war and its aftermath as this year and the following ones progress. Woodbrooke has a short course later this year on Friends and World War I, the material of which I hope will be made available to a broader audience.
The boyhood home of John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
photo ©Kristin Lord 2013