The Last Post

Having spent the past semester reflecting on past events, it seems only fitting that we conclude our participation in the Century America Project in the same fashion.

In reflection, therefore, what must be immediately addressed is the extent to which my research-partner and I ultimately deviated from the parameters which we had set for building our website. Plans to incorporate an interactive map of our community or a timeline of important events occurring therein eventually proved to be somewhat overly-optimistic, given our joint lack of experience with digital architecture. In the case of the timeline, we did include the caveat that the timeline was only “a prospective” addition to the site.

In terms of the proposed pages which would comprise the site, our contract is largely congruent with the current state of the site, though we ultimately determined, after advisement from Dr. Pearson, to combine the proposed “Chester Ronning” page into that for the Camrose Lutheran College. Likewise, the idea of a “Daughters of Empire” page was eventually folded into the broader category of “Women’s Contributions”. Finally, the “Our Experiences” page proposed in the contract was dropped all together, as we came to feel that a page describing the process of building the website was of lesser importance and therefore an unnecessary allocation of time and energy that could be better utilized on other developing other aspects of the site.

As for how closely the content of those pages that were eventually included accords with our contract proposals, the overlap appears, in my estimation, to be fairly close for the most part. The only major exception would be that the page for “The Military Experience” currently contains little information concerning the specific units mentioned in the contract (other than a brief reference to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry) or to recruitment drives. This particular deviation resulted from the realization that the topic of recruiting fitted better within the “Propaganda and Attitudes Towards the War” page than “The Military Experience”, which ultimately became became devoted specifically to the story of Sgt. Harry Connor as the emblematic Camrose soldier.

Concerning the experience of participating in this project, in brief, I’d happily do it all over again if the opportunity presented itself. The topic of study is both fascinating and important to understand in light of how so much of what we take for granted in modern social and geopolitical arrangements proceeds directly from the Great War and its aftermath. Additionally, the digital and archival course-work, while perhaps somewhat intimidating for the neophyte, was both extremely useful experience as a scholar and also a lot of fun. Finally, it must be said that the teleconference aspect of the course was excellent. Drs. Pearson and McClurken, ably assisted by Leah Tams, married academic professionalism with humor in a highly-effective manner, and in terms of the websites that the students eventually produced, I think that the results speak for themselves.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Drs. Ellen Pearson and Jeff McClurken, Leah Tams, my research partner, Summer Roasting and our fellow student-participants in this program for an immeasurably enriching experience.

~James Hudec

Letters From the Front

One of the first Camrose men to enlist, and one of the most frequent correspondents to the Camrose Canadian, was Harry Connor. A partner in the Connor Brothers’ bakery, the 32-year-old Connor was fluent enough in French to “get on well” with the locals, and seems to have been attached to a machine-gun section from early 1915. As a letter-writer, Connor’s authorial voice is matter-of-fact and to-the-point, particularly concerning the conditions endured by himself and his fellow soldiers at the front. In his letters home, Connor flatly describes being briefly buried alive by shellfire while taking cover from an artillery barrage in a cellar, seeing a man’s head exploded by a German sniper’s bullet or having to lay motionless in muddy water for up to 48 hours at a time so as not to give away his unit’s position.

Though Connor believes in the cause of Empire (albeit asserting that the war would be sooner won if he and his comrades could rely more often upon their bayonets than the infuriatingly delicate and malfunction-prone Ross rifles Canadian troops were armed with until at least July, 1916) his correspondence is nonetheless brutally candid at times concerning the CEF soldier’s life. In one instance, Connor suggests that in order to understand why the troops are not enjoying “hot meals” at the front, his interlocutors should dig “a hole in a wheat field 6 feet long, 1 ½ feet wide and 4 feet deep, in the rainy season in Alberta, half fill it with ice cold water, get into it and stay there for 24 hours and each time your head comes over the top someone tries to blow a hole in it to air your brains, you may understand how many hot meals we get, or possibly you can see us getting nothing at all if we don’t carry it in ourselves”.

This acid answer to curious civilians wondering at the extent of the hardships endured by the men in the trenches calls to mind Bill Mauldin’s similarly acerbic advice from his 1944 book Up Front, recommending that the folks back home practice sitting in muddy holes for days at a time while imagining that someone might brain them or set their houses on fire if they doze off. As such, Connor’s correspondence testifies to the unchanging commonalities of the infantryman’s experience across time: to the bloody, grimy misery, the resentment, and the devotion to duty, comrades or whatever other ideal inspires those who fight at the most direct level to persevere in the face of the chaos of war.

Article Commentaries

For my article readings, the first of the potential choices to jump out at me was Steve Hochstadt’s “The Future of American History”. What initially interested me about the article was just how jarring a contrast it presented with my experience of participation in the Century America Project to date. Thus far, I’ve enjoyed what seemed to me to be a unity of purpose, and, for the most part, of perspective, regarding the experience of the Great War amongst the students and instructors in this course, and if these impressions are to any degree in error (or to whatever degree they are in error), nonetheless, the interaction between the participants has been, for the most part, overwhelmingly positive and cooperative in nature.

Hochstadt’s article, by contrast, describes a very different academic environment. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but the milieu of historicism that Hochstadt describes calls more to mind William Faulkner’s observation that the past is not dead, nor even past. For the National Association of Scholars on the one hand, and Hochstadt and his ilk on the other, the field of History appears to be a very present thing indeed, and less a sanctuary of scholarship than a battlefield, where opposing armies are locked in existential struggle for control of contested territory. As such, Hochstadt’s article, with its us-versus-them theme, reads rather like some of the propaganda pieces I’ve been looking at as part of my research for this course, an impression which the arresting and symbolic juxtapositions comprising the accompanying artwork help perpetuate.

While the experience of reading this article was, in consideration, something of a disappointment, in that my own personal experience of interacting with other history students and historians has largely been one of shared love for our chosen discipline, it was nonetheless useful for putting my work with this course into perspective, allowing me to better appreciate both the positive aspects of my scholastic career to this point and the potential political uses, consequences and repercussions of our work as historians, no less potent today in 2015 than they were in 1915.

The second article I looked over was Joseph Locke and Ben Wright’s “A Free and Open Alternative to Traditional History Textbooks”. Being in somewhat reduced circumstances financially, at least by the standards of most of the modern Western world, the sometimes exorbitant-seeming costs of academic textbooks comprise an issue of definite interest to me. I also have some personal experience with textbook-less history courses, having two now under my belt with one of our local faculty members at U of A Augustana, who has not used physical textbooks for years now, preferring that to assign online resources for coursework, as well as leaving it up to the students themselves in some cases to track down the materials in question in order to encourage familiarity with the use of various academic database search-engines. All things considered, I found this approach quite helpful (and not just in monetary terms!) and so wish Locke and Wright continuing success in their endeavour.

Camrose Cenotaph

Photos of the Camrose War Memorial as it currently rests, disassembled and in storage, awaiting the construction of a new Legion hall. These were actually taken a couple of weeks ago, but there was initially some ambiguity with the local branch of the Canadian Legion as to whether it would be acceptable to publicise the names, so I held back on posting the photos until now.

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Eureka

After much time on the telephone, I managed to determine the current whereabouts of our local Legion war memorial, which was moved when the old Legion hall was decommissioned. At present, it’s under a tarp in a local crane yard. I’ll be stopping by after school tomorrow to check it out.

Sorting the Wheat from the Chaff

The first of the three websites I chose to look at for the project was the Roy Rosenzweig Center’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution. As others have noted, the site’s aesthetics make it feel quite elderly, in internet terms, and the blank, red expanse that consumes most of the right side of the browser window on the site’s home page is awkward to the point of distraction, while the collage of portraits portraits taken from various paintings, political cartoons and the like of the era gives the appearance of cheapness. Compounding this awkward impression, at least in my estimation, are the hyperlinks labeled “Explore”, “Search” and “Browse”. Though each actually has a distinct function in using the site, the terms themselves are roughly synonyms of each other, and appear to betoken a certain lack of thought in word-choice. Looking through other sections of the site, the impression that more effort could have put in to its design and organisation continues, despite some very interesting material. The collection of images, for example, includes some striking items, but with photographs, political cartoons, portraits and propaganda pieces all jumbled together seemingly at random, navigating the contents can feel like a chore.

The second site I looked at was Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters. The home page embraces a rather spartan aesthetic, with fairly restrained use of red and dark grey over a background of light grey, the elaborate logos of the site’s study partners adding some visual interest to a clean, professional-looking presentation. What will immediately draw the eye of any visitor to the site, however, is the large and detailed “narrative panorama of the project” that occupies most of the upper portion of the home page. Credited to Michele Graffieti, depicting dozens of scholarly and intellectual figures from the last half millennium or so, from the Mexican nun Juana de la Cruz to Voltaire, Jeremy Bentham and numerous modern academics and their respective institutions. Accentuated with endless dotted lines tracing one figure or school to another over the course of history, the piece serves as a striking visualisation of the continuity of scholarship which the project proposes to map. Above and slightly to the right of the mural are links to other areas of the site, helpfully highlighted with red boxes when one moves the mouse cursor over them. Below, there lies a brief explanation of the project and an additional introductory video embedded. All thing considered, it’s a very attractive presentation, albeit there is a small instance of text-error in the “About the Project” blurb, and the site itself may have not been updated in some time, as the fine print at the bottom reads “© 2013, Stanford University” and the site’s weblog appears to be dead or missing. Still, a very impressive bit of design.

Finally, I visited the University of Houston’s Digital History site. The home page is almost overwhelmingly organised in appearance, with part of the page usefully divided into categories such as “Eras”, “Topics”, “Resources” and “References”, each of which is further split into various related sub-categories such as “Revolution” or “World War I” for “Eras” or “Architecture” and “Controversies” for “Topics”, each of which, on the other side of the hyperlink, is again divided into multiple sub-sections within its own sub-section. Above, there is an intriguing slidable chart by which visitors can track the progress of American history from the pre-Columbian era into the 21st century, but the hyperlinks within the chart itself are unfortunately broken. Again, quite a good effort so far as presentation goes.

Preliminary Survey Report

Thus far, Summer and I have identified the following resources relating to our school and community:

  • 3.74 cubic metres of meeting minutes, yearbooks, bills, letters of application/resignation, photographs and other records of the University of Alberta’s Augustana campus (formerly Camrose Lutheran College) at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
  • Microfilm of the weekly editions of the Camrose Canadian newspaper, 1914-1919, at the Camrose Public Library.