Reviews

Folly of War

Daniel Francis

During the summer of 1914, when war seemed probable but not yet certain, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked that if it came, “it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.” He was right. World War I claimed sixteen million lives, almost seven million of those civilians, and brought famine and disease that claimed tens of millions more. It toppled dynasties, sparked civil wars and launched revolutions. Yet today, as the Canadian government ramps up its centennial commemorations, we are being asked to remember it as a moment of glory when Canada “came of age” as a nation. Looking for a useful antidote to this patriotic narrative? You could do worse than to pick up a copy of All Else Is Folly, a novel by Peregrine Acland first published in 1929 and now reissued by Dundurn Press with a useful introduction by Brian Busby and James Calhoun. Acland was a clerk in the Department of Finance in Ottawa when the Great War began. He volunteered and was in action in France by May 1915. Sixteen months later he was severely wounded. He was lucky to survive and the novel gives an account of what he went through. After recuperating, bedridden, for five months, he returned to Canada, though it was several years before he fully recovered. Acland was decorated for “conspicuous bravery” but he saw nothing heroic in what he did. His novel was widely acclaimed as a vivid portrait of the front-line experience of ordinary soldiers. By the time it was written the romantic view of the war as a noble cause was beginning to be qualified by a more negative attitude, even a revulsion, against the incompetent generals and callous politicians who, it seemed, had wasted an entire generation of young men. This view prevailed for many years and it is only recently, with the arrival of the centenary, that the more triumphalist view has been heard again. All Else Is Folly is not an anti-war novel but neither does it glorify the conflict. As the editors write, it occupies a middle ground somewhere between the “extremely naïve and jingoistic” and the “pessimistic and realistic,” respecting what the soldiers suffered and accomplished without buying into the heroic myth. As part of a sober reassessment of the war, it is good to have it back in print.

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Daniel Francis

Daniel Francis is a writer and historian. He is the author of two dozen books, including The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Arsenal Pulp Press). He lives in North Vancouver. Read more of his work at danielfrancis.ca.

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The writing contest whose name is almost as long as the entries! Deadline is May 20, 2024.