Reconstructing the Great War Narrative

Reconstructing the Great War Narrative

Posted on February 16 by Andrew Traficante
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When Bryan and I initially read Arthur Manuel’s untitled manuscript, we were uncertain as to his intentions when he had decided to “tell his story” almost forty years ago. The document tone suggested Arthur wanted to set the record straight, as he saw it  — a Great War history told from the common soldier, front line infantryman’s perspective. He had plainly spent many hours researching, as the stubs from various book chapters confirmed, ones inserted at places where Arthur was making a specific point. Many notable twentieth-century military experts are referenced throughout his 400-page, single-spaced manuscript. 

But as we thought about what Arthur was trying to say, more than thirty years after his death, Bryan and I gravitated away from the specific WWI engagements Arthur describes with such passion and precision, to think hard about Arthur’s intended revisionist history, perhaps recast as a personal memoir of his wartime experiences. 

The stories Arthur relates supported his forceful thesis – the War was a strategic disaster and unconscionable slaughter for whom inept Allied and German generals alike were morally responsible.

For Arthur, the notion that WWI “made Canada a nation,” or similar sentiments might have invited a punch in the mouth.

His visceral hatred of war and those who orchestrated it radiated from every page. We agreed with David Manuel, Arthur’s grandson, who discovered and preserved the rough manuscript, that Arthur’s intelligence, wit, love of his fellow Newfoundlanders, and his fundamental human decency were the core elements from which we would do Arthur’s memory justice, and “tell his story” as he told it.

Arthur’s account spans his early, often hard Botwood, NL, upbringing, his 1914 Regiment enlistment, and the sheer terror he often felt at Gallipoli and the tragic Beaumont Hamel assault. But wounded, battered, and then rehabilitated, his 1917 Passchendaele battlefield capture and the horrors of German POA “slave camp” existence lead to rare stories of POW life, an ill-fated escape, and brutal recapture. We decided the man, and not the battles, would be Arthur’s contribution to the Great War historical record.

How then to present Arthur’s work?  To edit the manuscript into an entertaining and readable memoir, many of his opinions and historical speculation would need to be removed.  Even so, we felt strongly that to preserve the integrity of the text, Arthur’s intended message needed to appear crystal clear to readers. 

Assembling Arthur’s memories into a narrative presented challenges.  His War recollections were not neatly organized into chapters. Arranging them into a chronological narrative was like assembling a large jigsaw puzzle.  We were determined to create text that supported, and never dominated, Arthur’s compelling narrative, relying on Chapter introductions to give context and fill any gaps for the reader. Piece by piece it came together, from Botwood to Bavaria and home to Newfoundland.

We dearly wished to have known Arthur in person. We would love to ask him how he learned about the horrific events he describes in the neighbouring Russian POW camp in Bavaria, the apparent deliberate German starvation of enemy soldiers that today would be prosecuted as a war crime. It would be wonderful to have received his approval regarding what we have done with his words! We can only rely on what Arthur spoke into his newly acquired Dictaphone in 1978 and 1979, and hope that we have done this “uncommon soldier” his well-deserved justice.

Andrew Traficante

Posted by Dundurn Guest on May 10, 2016
Andrew Traficante photo

Andrew Traficante

Andrew Traficante teaches high school with the Algoma District School Board in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. Recently, Andrew wrote and researched an online exhibit exploring the Sault’s industrial heritage for the Virtual Museum of Canada