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How We Remember: "Noble Illusions" and the First World War


Published in 2014, “Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War” is a concise book by Ottawa author Stephen Dale. While maintaining the utmost respect for the efforts and sacrifices of military forces and veterans, Dale asks questions about why we embrace – and even celebrate – a militaristic approach to patriotism. Early in the book, he points out some of the views held by the veterans we honour every Remembrance Day, and how they can diverge from the views of governments around the world who increasingly depict war as foundational, heroic, and necessary. Dale draws from recent examples, particularly from Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, of major commemorations of war. In order to approach this subject, Dale examines the early 20th-century publication “Young Canada” – a boys’ annual – to discover what messages, stories, and values were being consumed by a generation of young men about to be summoned to the cause of the First World War.


In Dale’s own words:

“My intent is not to look at the factors that led the authors of Young Canada to adopt the beliefs that they communicated so fervently to their readers, but rather to ask if these values should be resurrected in our own world. Nostalgia for the past – and idealized view of what was in the hearts and heads of people who headed to war a century ago – has become a tool of politics in our own day. With this in mind, I think it’s fair to use some present-day norms to interrogate the past and to ask the question: ‘Do we really want the patriotic fervour of 1914 to be resurrected in our own world, to become our compass as we attempt to navigate through our own uncertain times?’”


A brief, incisive book addressing controversial questions with a decidedly strong point of view, “Noble Illusions” is a timely read, particularly for those with whom the work of Margaret Macmillan, RH Thomson, and Pat Barker especially resonate. For those engaging with the subject of the First World War in particular, I also recommend the following interviews broadcast on CBC for The Sunday Edition and The Enright Files:


I would also like to draw attention to RH Thomson’s project “The World Remembers”, an ongoing initiative to honour the men and women of all nations who were touched by the First World War, regardless of country of origin, language, or perceived alliances. This year, names are being broadcast in Ottawa at the Canadian War Museum, from September 29th to November 11th. I urge you to visit the website for “The World Remembers”, as well as the display at the War Museum. This is an opportunity to contemplate the universality with which we are all affected by war, particularly as Canadians with such diverse origins and backgrounds. Perhaps now more than ever, war is a force without borders.



Image: Noble Illusions

Noble Illusions

Young Canada Goes to War
By Dale, Stephen