Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Books for Remembrance Day

Nov 8, 2013

On the occasion of Remembrance Day, a few of my favourite books relating to war.

1. Two wonderful volumes by the Ottawa military historian Tim Cook: At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-16 and Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18. Cook recreates battles and explains tactics but his finest achievement is to take the reader into the trenches where the soldiers' lives were lived, and lost. And he has interesting things to say about changing interpretations of the war's impact on Canada.

2. The Danger Tree, by David Macfarlane, is about Newfoundland's involvement in World War One, and much more. A tragic story, beautifully told.

3. In Villa Air-Bel, Rosemary Sullivan, a professor of literature in Toronto, describes the heroic attempts to smuggle refugees from the Nazis out of Europe during World War Two.

4.The Living Unknown Soldier by the French historian Jean-Yves Le Naour is one of those books that seems to be about a "minor" subject but turns out to be about the world. It is the story of "Anthelme Mangin", an amnesiac found wandering the train station platform in Lyon in 1918. Who was he? In describing the heartbreaking search for his relations, Le Naour is led into a wide-ranging discussion about what The Missing meant to those who were left behind.

5. History is written by the winners. In Command of History, by David Reynolds, explains how the process worked for Winston Churchill whose multi-volume story of the war celebrated his own role in it.

6. And lastly, a good spy story. Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre, retells the story of the "man who never was", a bizarre plan to mislead the Nazis about Allied plans to invade Europe. A combination thriller/opera bouffe.