Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Photo: Adriana Brook, photographer, and the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, Mills Library, McMaster University.

Almost a decade ago, a young McMaster University undergraduate student undertook a summer project to catalogue a selection of First World War songs. As Adriana Brook wrote in the introduction to the collection back then, the First World War was a time of transformation for Canada; as time marches on, we can remember the important names and dates, but we inevitably lose touch with the average person’s experience.

“Enter the war song – one piece of the puzzle that is the Canadian (First World War) experience,” Brook writes. “Music is an excellent source of information on Canadian society during this period as it is unaltered by time and untouched by faulty human memory. Moreover it is an emotional medium and therefore reflects what Canadians were feeling as the war progressed in a way that history books do not.”

Brook is now pursuing a doctorate in classics at the University of Toronto, but her collection is still available online and is getting renewed attention because of the centenary of the war.

Kathy Garay, an arts and science program professor and Brook’s supervisor on the project, has been working with the music again in preparation for a special Remembrance Day concert by the Bach Elgar choir on Nov. 8. “It seems to me that these lyrics perfectly capture that innocent sense of devotion to the motherland ("We can’t turn our back on the old Union Jack") and pride and confidence in the strength of ‘young’ Canada,” Garay says. “It was a message that was meant to shape feeling at home as well as at the front.”

Visit the McMaster site to explore the collection and hear Brook’s piano rendition of some of the songs.

Five plays from the First World War

How the war inspired theatre in Canada

The echo of the First World War’s mighty guns still ripple through time, and inspire today’s artists to wonder about the men and women who endured the unimaginable. The theatre of the First World War has been brought to life on stage many times. Here are five important Canadian plays on the war.

The Lost Boys: Letters from the Sons in Two Acts 1914-1923, by R. H. Thomson (2001). Seven hundred letters home are used as background material to tell the tale of a family of five boys that heed the call and join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Soldier’s Heart, by David French (2001). A father recounts his time as a member of the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War to dissuade his son from leaving home. 

Mary’s Wedding, by Stephen Massicotte (2002). A dream on the eve of Mary’s wedding night tells the love story of her and the farmhand Charlie. In love, then separated by war, in the dream, Mary is able to witness Charlie’s time in France with the Strathcona Horse Regiment.

Dancock’s Dance, by Guy Vanderhaeghe (1996). Shell-shocked and deemed unfit to join the world, John Carlyle Dancock is relegated to an insane asylum where he confronts his demons.

Vimy, by Vern Thiessen (2007). Canadian soldiers wounded at Vimy Ridge rest in a hospital on the Western Front. Their cultural and regional differences bring a pan-Canadian perspective on how Vimy changed Canada.