History double-header explores First World War

Matt Gardner
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Local history buffs had plenty of food for thought on Wednesday evening as a pair of back-to-back events shed light on the First World War.

The Prince Albert Historical Museum kicked things off with a wine and cheese to mark the official launch of its summer exhibit, which coincides with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.

Many of those in attendance later headed to the John M. Cuelenaere Public Library to hear a presentation on the origins of the First World War by Dr. Shawn Grimes, who has served as a lecturer in European history at the University of Saskatchewan and previously taught in Prince Albert and North Battleford.

“A lot of historians would state, and I think I’m one of them, that (the First World War) is probably the most important event of the 20th century because it determined everything that came afterwards,” Grimes said.

“The Second World War is in my opinion, and in the opinion of others, merely an extension of the first 21 years later.”

Dozens of people attended the historical museum wine and cheese, which featured a historical drama entitled Songs and Letters from the Front Lines.

Written by local resident Morley Harrison, the presentation dramatized letters by soldiers expressing the horror and sadness, but also some of the more lighthearted aspects, of life in wartime.

“Some of it’s based on some letters that we have,” Prince Albert Historical Society president Dennis Ogrodnick said. “But some of it’s based on just generic soldiers and experiences that men experienced in the trenches, and then some of the humourous side -- the nightlife and things like that.”

Historical museum summer students and actors acted out various parts in the 20-minute presentation.

One of the summer students was Matthew Mihilewicz, 22, who played soldiers writing letters home at three different moments of the war.

The first instance involved a soldier on a train shipping out to the front.

“When they first started … they thought everything was going to be done by Christmas,” Mihilewicz noted.

“They thought it was just going to be a quick war, and it wasn’t that.”

His second role consisted of a soldier describing the Christmas Truce of 1914, in which British and German troops lay down their arms and fraternized for the day.

Mihilewicz called the truce “an amazing story.”

“In this day of celebration, enemies dropped their weapons and they got to share in this very special moment together -- and then when it was over, they picked up and kept fighting.”

The summer student’s third role depicted a POW writing a letter home describing his dire circumstances.

In the role, Mihilewicz’s voice quavered as he requested that “Julie” send him food and expressed his yearning for home, a hot shower and a full stomach.

“The POW scene, it was a little bit tough to get into, I guess you could say,” he said. “It’s hard to understand that kind of terror and that kind of hunger and everything. But it definitely makes you appreciate what they went through for us.”

Meanwhile, his fellow summer students portrayed soldiers in both good times and bad.

Some of the more lighthearted segments included soldiers dancing with British women who commented on the charming nature of “colonial” soldiers from Canada.

Between the songs, those assembled in the museum sang First World War-era songs such as It’s A Long Way to Tipperary. The event also included a recitation of John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields.

“It’s a good turnout,” Ogrodnick said of the wine and cheese. “We’re happy -- some new faces, new people that we haven’t seen here before, so that’s always good.

“We know that numbers are growing and interest is growing, especially our virtual presence through social media. It’s really, really growing and our attendance that way has just skyrocketed.”

They thought it was just going to be a quick war, and it wasn’t that. Matthew Mihilewicz

The exhibit on the First World War will remain at the museum until Nov. 11.

Origins of the First World War

While the historical drama shed light on the experiences of individual soldiers in the war, the subsequent presentation by Dr. Grimes offered a sweeping account of the large-scale factors that led to the bloody conflict of 1914-1918.

As detailed by Grimes, some of the most significant factors included imperialism, the development of competing alliance systems in Europe, the war plans of the Great Powers and the role of nationalism in the Balkans and in the decline of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Noting that imperialism was by no means a new phenomenon for Europe, which since 1500 had established colonies throughout North and South America, Grimes also pointed to some differences in late 19th century imperialism.

“This new imperialism was directed primarily against Africa and Asia, which had previously largely been ignored,” he said.

Besides access to raw materials and the role of heightened tensions within Europe in encouraging the establishment of colonies, Grimes noted a more abstract motive.

“Colonies were also a source of international prestige -- a benchmark for the nation’s importance in European and world affairs,” he said.

“Failure to enter into the race to grab colonies was seen as a sign of weakness and was thus totally unacceptable to any nation aspiring to be a Great Power.”

The most obvious example of such aspirations was Germany, which had been unified for the first time in 1871 following the Franco-Prussian War.

Describing the long period of peace that Europe experienced between that war and 1914, Grimes noted that a series of crises that occurred during that time might have led to war had it not been for the influence of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

“Bismarck realized that Germany’s emergence as a powerful and unified state had changed the balance of power on the continent,” he said.

“He also feared the creation of an anti-German coalition. Now that Germany was a reality, Bismarck firmly believed that the preservation of peace would best maintain the new state.”

Through savvy diplomacy, Bismarck maintained a series of treaties that kept its main enemy, France, isolated.

The 1890 dismissal of Bismarck by Kaiser Wilhelm II, Grimes argued, reversed much of Bismarck’s efforts.

Subsequent rapprochement between France and Russia threatened a two-front war of the kind the “Iron Chancellor” had strived to avoid.

Grimes described the young kaiser as having “a strange love/hate attitude toward Britain his entire reign -- admiration mixed with childish envy.

“For Germany to rightfully attain its so-called place in the sun, Wilhelm wanted a navy and colonies like Britain -- desires that ran not only counter to Bismarck’s continental policy, but would heighten British fears and steadily increase tensions between the two nations.”

Grimes cited the Anglo-German naval race as the main reason Britain eventually lined up against Germany.

The influence of rigid war plans by each nation’s general staff, he added, was another critical factor in the road to a general European war.

“Mobilization -- I will stress this -- means war, pure and simple, according to these war plans.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Historical Museum, John M. Cuelenaere Public Library, University of Saskatchewan Front Lines Prince Albert Historical Society

Geographic location: Prince Albert, North Battleford, Europe Germany Canada Britain Tipperary Balkans North and South America Africa Asia France Russia

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