Sunday, 9 November 2014

Valour Road - John Nadler

Title: Valour Road
Author: John Nadler
ISBN: 978-0-670-06821-0
Publisher: Viking Canada
Pages: 368
Photographs: 37 b/w

The title ‘Valour Road’ refers to the name that Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba was changed to once it was discovered that three of the 71 Victoria Crosses (the highest medal for combat valour) awarded to Canadians since its inception following the Crimean War, had come not only from that street, but from the same block. All three were awarded during the First World War; two posthumously. The recipients Leo Clarke, Robert Shankland, and Fred Hall were all recognized for exceptional bravery in the face of the enemy and their stories and the story of the place from which they came is the focus of this book.

Nadler combines the accuracy and detail of a historian with the engaging style of a reporter to bring to life the world of these three soldiers, both at home and at the front. The tale is gripping and harrowing as one is plunged into the chaos and violence of trench warfare while concurrently introduced to the activities of the home front and their unique challenges. The author limits his narrative to the story of these families and soldiers. In doing so he is able to bring out detail that would inevitably be lost were the scope broader. Thus is the reader introduced to the Winnipeg ‘Bomber’ unit that Leo Clark and his brother were a part of; these  soldiers undertook hazardous strikes against enemy trench lines securing the flanks of the main body attacks. Such was their fame and reputation that the City of Winnipeg named their Canadian Football Team after them.

Nadler has drawn upon present day family recollections, diaries, unit histories and British, French and Canadian national military histories to put together a story of remarkable depth and personality. This fusion of historical narrative and personal recollection adds significant breadth to this snapshot of time. I was particularly impressed by the isolation of Winnipeg during this period. Access to information was very limited and it often took a significant amount of time to garner news about casualties and the Front. Further, the idea of travelling to Europe was comparable to the idea of going to the moon today. Despite this, the home front remained very supportive and active; Nadler does a commendable job of shedding light on the stresses of absent soldiers on the routine of everyday life. I was also impressed by the unquestioning loyalty to Empire and the Crown; on the surface a seemingly simpler but extremely challenging period for Canada.

Nadler’s descriptions of life at the front are of particular poignancy. The emphasis on the lives of these three soldiers and their immediate comrades brings the readers focus to the lowest and most basic level of life experience. Faces are put to the WW1 experience; these men are no longer black and white still photographs on a page. They are alive once more with their strengths, fears, flaws and desires highlighted in harsh reality. The capacity for these soldiers to be able to fight, function and maintain their sanity within the absolute nightmare of the Front, is testament to their strength of character developed through their upbringing and bonds of comradeship. Through their recollections we are introduced to the terror, boredom and humour of life in a time far removed from today.

What would have added to the story, in my opinion, would have been the inclusion of maps of the regions in which these men were operating. This would have provided better context and a visual reference for the reader.

This is a gem of a book. For Canadians it serves as an outstanding study of our history both domestic and overseas. Nadler has done an outstanding job and deserves full credit for the contribution he has made to the Canadian story. The narrative of these three men, their comrades and their families is the story of Canada at the turn of the century and we may be proud of the legacy that they left behind.

No comments:

Post a Comment