I first posted this on November 12, 2018. I have updated it slightly. It is a long post, but I hope you will read it, and find meaning in it.
Today is the 103rd anniversary of the signing of the treaty that ended the 1914-1918 war, usually called World War I, known then as “the war to end all wars.” We all know now that although that name was filled with hope, that hope was quickly dashed.
Today, in ceremonies in small towns, in cities, at cenotaphs, in hearts, those who fought in that war and those who didn’t return will be remembered. We also remember those who fought in subsequent wars. We hope that someday there will be peace on earth.
There is also another group who made an enormous sacrifice during the bleak days of World War I, and who continue to sacrifice much every time soldiers are called to battle anywhere around the world – those who are left at home to carry on “normal” life.
It was true then. It is true now. And it is also true that often the sacrifices and courage and fears of those on the home front are not recognized, or are taken for granted.
There has been a great deal written about the battles of the First World War, about the soldiers on both sides, about the conditions, about all that happened on those muddy battlefields “over there.” There are official accounts, there are novels, there are small personal memoirs and diaries.
Not as much has been written about the home front, either officially or in fiction. One particular book in Canadian literature stands out, and has been called by some the best account we have of home life in Canada during that war. Once the modern reader gets past the decidedly different style of a book written in 1921 – 100 years ago – the story takes hold of the emotions and the intellect, and takes us into the heart of what daily life was like in that difficult time.
Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery, is the last of the beloved Anne series that begins with an eleven-year-old Anne in Anne of Green Gables and continues through Anne’s growing up years into her maturity. In Rilla of Ingleside, Anne is verging on middle age, and most of her large family have grown up.
The reader’s focus is turned to Rilla, the youngest of Anne and Gilbert’s children, who is fifteen at the beginning of the book. She is, as her mother laments, not ambitious at all. She’s only interested in enjoying life. Storm clouds on the horizon indicate that is about to change.
The author herself wrote later
In my latest story, “Rilla of Ingleside,” I have tried, as far as in me lies, to depict the fine and splendid way in which the girls of Canada reacted to the Great War—their bravery, patience and self-sacrifice. The book is theirs in a sense in which none of my other books have been: for my other books were written for anyone who might like to read them: but “Rilla” was written for the girls of the great young land I love, whose destiny it will be their duty and privilege to shape and share.
–L.M. Montgomery, from “How I Became a Writer,” 1921
Into the joy of a shoreside dance, a young man comes with the announcement that England has declared war on Germany. Some of the young men present are eager to prove themselves, seeing the possibility of fighting overseas as “a jolly adventure.” Others know, deep in their hearts, that there is nothing jolly about war.
One of the advantages to writing a novel about a period of history, even just a few years later, is that one can view the entire experience in its entirety, and one’s characters can seem more prescient than was likely in real life back then. Even realizing this, it is moving and heartbreaking when Anne’s son, Walter, speaks of the fulfillment of a vision he had in his childhood, of the Piper piping and all the youth following spellbound…
Young and heedless Mary Vance speaks for many as she says,
“What does it matter if there’s going to be a war over there in Europe? I’m sure it doesn’t concern us.”
Walter looked at her and had one of his odd visitations of prophecy.
“Before this war is over,” he said—or something said through his lips—”every man and woman and child in Canada will feel it—you, Mary, will feel it—feel it to your heart’s core. You will weep tears of blood over it. The Piper has come—and he will pipe until every corner of the world has heard his awful and irresistible music. It will be years before the dance of death is over—years, Mary. And in those years millions of hearts will break.”
Walter was right. And Rilla felt it as she lived through those years, and as she changed through those years: as she started a Junior Red Cross group in their village; as she took care of her ‘war baby,’ whose mother had died and whose father was at the battlefront; as she learned to follow every scrap of news avidly; and as she learned to check the published lists of those missing or killed.
What Rilla went through in fiction mirrored what countless families in Canada and elsewhere went through as they watched from afar. They were helpless to do anything but their best, and to hope it would all end soon, that peace would again come, though it would be a peace in which the world would no longer be the same.
We owe L.M. Montgomery our gratitude for giving us this glimpse into the world of those left at home. We can show that gratitude by being understanding and caring toward those who are dealing with the same griefs and heartaches and hopes in our time. And we can hope for peace. Someday. True and lasting and overarching peace.
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To set Rilla’s story in the timeline of history, the event that set off the escalation of the conflict, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, took place on June 28, 1914. Britain declared war on August 4, 1914, and all colonies and dominions in the British Empire – including Canada – were immediately and automatically plunged into the conflict.
Canada’s population in 1914 was a little less than 8 million. By the end of the war, 619,000 Canadians had enlisted in the fight. Hundreds of thousands worked on the home front to help the cause.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – November 11, 1918 – the treaty was signed that ended the “dance of death.” And every year since, we remember, and we remember those who have served since then, both those who have returned, and those who have not.
Let us also remember their families.
You can read more about the history of World War I at the War Museum of Canada website.
You can read more about Rilla of Ingleside as a depiction of home life during that war at the following links:
Rilla of Ingleside: An Account of Canadian Women and War by Jennifer Spiteri
From “The Conversation,” Anne of Green Gables Goes to War
From Great War 100 Reads, Rilla of Ingleside.
Peace to you. Peace to all.