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1The commemoration of the First World War has given rise to a proliferation of images, images from archives, films and photographs, posters, paintings and sculptures which render the war present anew, in all its horror, a hundred years after its beginning. This proliferation has been accompanied by the development of scholarly research in the field of memorialization, a "memory turn" based on the pioneering work of the early social thinker and theorist Pierre Nora, among others, and the concept of "sites of memory."

  • 1 William Topham was an official war artist. Here is the way he himself describes the scene: what he (...)

2Art as a response to absolute violence is explored in this issue and the cover of the present volume suggests the importance of such sites of memory. A trench in Verdun in 1916 reveals bereft men in a devastated landscape: charred trees, so frequent in representations of war—in Paul Nash’s paintings, in photographs of the front or in the first sequences of Charles Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator—indirectly suggest the dismembering of men. Mutilated trees are also to be found in the landscape surrounding the Canadian soldier-painter William Topham in his water-colour "The Artist’s Home at Bottom Wood" (1916). Alone in this wasteland, outside his shelter, he is painting or writing.1 He is a soldier at war, in a landscape of death and destruction; he responds to emptiness and horror through drawing or writing, a gesture of survival which is going to constitute an act of memory for those who did not see the horrors he records. "The Artist at Bottomwood" cannot see the mutilated trees which are behind his back but he cannot erase them, they are salvaged in his mind’s eye even though they are outside his field of vision.

  • 2 The memorial was supervised by Walter Seymour Allward (1876-1955), a sculptor from Toronto, and a t (...)

3Canada occupies a prominent place in this commemorative volume as Canadian troops had a role of paramount importance in the outcome of the war. In 1914, there were eight million inhabitants in Canada and, of them, six hundred thousand enlisted to fight; sixty thousand died during the conflict. The official discourse in and on Canada has stressed one particular battle, the battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place on Easter Monday in 1917 and during which four divisions of Canadian soldiers advanced on a hill which they managed to conquer. This event is officially considered a key moment in the history of the Canadian nation. Speaking in Vimy in 2007 during the ceremony of rededication of the monument erected there, the Queen declared: "those who seek the foundation of Canada’s distinction will do well to begin here at Vimy." Prime Minister Steven Harper followed suit, stating that "every nation has a creation story to tell, and the First World War and the battle of Vimy Ridge are central to the history of our country" (Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War). Vimy, a founding place of the Canadian nation, has generated a great many artistic representations. The memorial itself, known as the Gate to Heaven Memorial, pays homage to the 3,598 Canadians killed and the 7,000 wounded so that Europe might remain free. At the same time, it is a symbol of the response offered by art to war. Sculpted by Canadian and Italian artists2 from Croatian stone and standing in Canadian territory situated on French soil, perhaps inspired by the drawings of an English stage designer for the performance of a Greek tragedy by an Austrian playwright, the Canadian memorial erases frontiers. It now stands on a hill above the Northern plains where sheep quietly graze, and suggests a peaceful natural setting which hardly conceals scars which will never be sutured. Vimy endures in Canadian literature through Jane Urquhart’s novel The Stone Carvers or the play by Vern Thiessen, Vimy, evoked in the third part of this volume.

  • 3 We should not forget that horses, mules, mine-clearing dogs, and pigeons also paid a heavy tribute (...)

4We have tried in this issue to provide as wide a spectrum of forms of memorialization as possible through a selection of novels, poems, music or films which offer Canadian, Pan-European and transatlantic views on the so-called "Great War." The first section is dedicated to the novel by Timothy Findley, The Wars (1977). This novel profoundly renews our perspective on war by including protagonists who are seldom present in war narratives. These protagonists are animals: we are told about rabbits, coyotes, dogs, horses, hedgehogs and frogs, and we are told about human beings becoming other, becoming animal, and becoming imperceptible. We are made to witness human beings allying themselves with the animal world when the human world becomes too beastly. Findley’s novel is a very ambivalent one that not only speaks about the bestiality of wars and the humanity of animals but also remains profoundly humanistic despite its depiction of the atrocities committed by men.3

  • 4 These contributions were initially presented during the symposium dedicated to Timothy Findley, whi (...)

5Four contributions are specifically dedicated to Findley’s novel.4 Sherrill Grace tackles the relationship between the novelist’s life and archival material that he used in his fiction about World War I. Liliane Louvel evokes the soldiers’ drawings and photographs that appear in the novel. She analyses the time honoured device of ekphrasis to show that the "process of describing an image reveals what matters." Corinne Bigot explores Findley’s literary heritage by making a parallel analysis of Timothy Findley’s The Wars and of Joseph Boyden’s novel Three Day Road. She emphasizes the experiences of young officers and those of marginalized individuals, such as soldiers belonging to Canadian First Nations. Helen Goethals situates the power of The Wars in its particular combination of poetry and prose. She shows, on the one hand, how poetry infiltrates prose and, on the other, how the sources of Findley’s novel are drawn from eye-witness accounts explored by historians and cultural critics in the 1970s.

6In the second part, the selection of works evoked concerns English and Nigerian poetry, German avant-garde music, and English-language cinema. The section introduces war through one of its best-known British poets, Wilfred Owen, a "poet of brotherhood and sorrow," "a visionary, even when he depicts scenes of slaughter," as Roland Bouyssou describes him. Wilfred Owen, like other soldier poets, influenced Nigerian poets during the Nigerian civil war from 1966 to 1970, as Nelly Segers demonstrates. The response of musicians to war is highlighted by Maxime Lachaud who suggests that German avant-garde musicians, Einstürzende Neubauten, relied on Afro-American music in order to pay tribute to those who died during the conflict.

7The third part of this volume concentrates on the representation of war on stage and screen. It examines anew the nation-building event of the battle of Vimy Ridge through the theatrical, non-realist approach in Vimy, a play by Canadian playwright Thiessen (Jan Lermitte). It also explores two film adaptations of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front: one of them was made a short time after the war, in 1930; the other was made more than sixty years later, in 1980 (Raphaelle Costa de Beauregard). An article explores Charlie Chaplin’s burlesque representation of war in Shoulder Arms through an investigation of the remotivation of language through pantomime, demonstrating that far from shirking tragic events, Chaplin performs the task of a satirist and a humanist (Françoise Besson).

8The final section, which is unrelated to the theme of war, brings together essays (by Nicola Chadwick, Lucile Rouet-Bentley and Karis Shearer) on the first collection of short stories by the Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, which specifically highlight the various strategies she deploys in Dance of the Happy Shades.

9From the battles in Flanders Fields evoked in the novel by Timothy Findley to the Elysian Fields suggested in the title of the first volume by Alice Munro, this issue bridges the abyss opened by the horror of war and proposes an itinerary through the arts, literature, poetry, drama, music and cinema, which is not so much a homage as an intimation of the reparation which can tentatively be offered for the unspeakable acts which were then committed.

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1 William Topham was an official war artist. Here is the way he himself describes the scene: what he described as his "home" was later destroyed by shell fire. "My home at Bottom Wood—about 1/2 way between Mametz and Contalmaison, in the trench the entrance to an old German dugout can be seen. The corrugated iron roof is covered by branches to conceal it from aircraft." William Topham, catalogue of the Canadian Museum of History, visited 31st March, 2015.

2 The memorial was supervised by Walter Seymour Allward (1876-1955), a sculptor from Toronto, and a team of sculptors among whom several Italian artists, participated in the construction. See Jacqueline Hucker and Julian Smith's Vimy. Canada's Memorial to a Generation (Ottawa: Sanderling Press, 2012).

3 We should not forget that horses, mules, mine-clearing dogs, and pigeons also paid a heavy tribute to men's conflicts. In Lille, for example, a memorial pays homage to the 20,000 pigeons killed on the French side. See Florence Calvet, Jean-Paul Demonchaux, Régis Lamand and Gilles Bornert, "Une brève histoire de la colombophilie," in Revue historique des armées 248 (2007): 93-105. [On line], 248 | 2007, visited 3 November 2014. URL :

4 These contributions were initially presented during the symposium dedicated to Timothy Findley, which took place at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès on December 13, 2013 and was organized by Héliane Ventura.

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Bibliographical reference

Héliane Ventura and Françoise Besson, « Introduction », Caliban, 53 | 2015, 7-15.

Electronic reference

Héliane Ventura and Françoise Besson, « Introduction », Caliban [Online], 53 | 2015, Online since 24 August 2015, connection on 23 January 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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