One hundred years ago saw the declaration of a war that would forever change our understanding of war. With a staggering loss of life, World War One was, by all accounts, a brutal and devastating tragedy. And yet, on the eve of the hundredth anniversary, countries around the world are preparing to commemorate the Great War not with regret but with nationalist pride. Conservative forces, already well into a program to elevate the place of the military in society, are embracing the opportunity to replace today’s apparent cynicism with an unquestioning patriotism similar to that which existed a century ago. Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are imploring their citizens — especially their youth — to revive the sense of duty embodied in the generation that served in the trenches.
But is the ennobling nature of patriotism the real lesson that people today should extract from that now-vanished generation’s experience? Through a dialogue with a pop-culture artifact from a lost world — a boys’ annual called Young Canada — Noble Illusions examines the use of propaganda to glorify racist colonial wars and, in the wake of those, the Great War. A juxtaposition of earnest instruction on the cultivation of everyday virtues and brutal tales of war masquerading as moral lessons on valour and righteousness, Young Canada helped to persuade a generation of young Canadians to head eagerly to the trenches of World War One. Concerned that the rise of militarism is leading today’s youth in a similar direction, Stephen Dale offers this examination as an inoculation against the blind patriotism politicians are working so hard to instill.
“An important account of why young Canadians ‘voluntarily’ enlisted for the senseless slaughter that was World War I. Noble Illusions is an antidote to the political forces trying to re-create that political culture today.”
— Yves Engler, author The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy
What ideas and convictions motivated the legions of young men who so eagerly headed off to the trenches of the First World War? What were the boys who stayed home told about the events of that war as the carnage escalated? And what sort of patriotic stories could be peddled after the war to youngsters who had lost fathers, uncles, brothers and neighbours mostly in Europe’s killing fields, but also in Asia, Africa and the waters between?
— Active History (full review)
“Dale asks, given all that happened in the dark twentieth century, whether young Canadians today would be as quick to rally to the colours and fight in a new war. Though he does not necessarily answer this question directly, he does suggest that the promotion of Canada as a warrior nation has this as one goal.”
— Jon Weier, for Historical Studies in Education/Revue d’histoire de l’éducation (full review)
An important and timely book.
— Historical Studies in Education (full review)
Dale argues that Young Canada’s lessening of the realities and reasons for WWI, where in its pages war is something equivalent to keeping bees or perfecting one’s slap shot, helped to result in thousand upon thousand of young Canadians aching to sign up to go do battle with the ‘Kraut’, truly believing that they’d be home by Christmas.
— Miles Howe, Halifax Media Co-Op, Sept. 2014 (full review)
The sharp-eyed Ottawa writer Stephen Dale has produced a short book about how boys were invited to war a hundred years ago.
— Jamie Swift for Peace Magazine (full review)