Illustrating battlefields of WWI

For most Canadians, understanding the First World War is limited to grainy black and white photographs in history textbooks and a handful of A Part of our Heritage television documentaries. Terry Copp, Nick Lachance and Matt Symes wanted to take that a step forward.

In their book Canadian Battlefields, 1915-18, the three co-authors set out to provide a portrait of the First World War battlefields on which Canadians fought that was not only more real, but also understandable.

“It’s a general entry point into the First World War for any level of enthusiast really,” said Lachance, a fourth-year history student at Wilfrid Laurier University. “For people who are thinking about going or who would maybe never even go [on a battlefield tour] it’s an enjoyable read.”

Lachance and Symes, a PhD candidate at WLU, are both employees at the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) and teamed up with their boss, LCMSDS director and professor emeritus at Laurier, Copp, to write the battlefield guide. Copp is considered one of the premier military historians in Canada, while Symes has been on four battlefield tours and Lachance two.

In attempting to provide a comprehensive guide for a tour of First World War battlefields that saw Canadian action, the book opens with a brief history written by Copp, followed by explanation of battlefield sites, put together by Lachance and Symes.

Throughout the book, Copp also provided suggestions for further reading on specific battles.

“The history itself is not laboured with very complex details of strategy operations and tactics. It’s a very good summary of the battle and what happened,” said Symes. “The focus of the book is giving Canadians a real proper understanding and being accessible. Whether it’s the first time you’re looking at the First World War or you’ve written one of the books [Copp] mentions within.”

One of the ways the book is aimed at being accessible is by using modern Google Earth images of the locations to illustrate battlefields; a process Symes first used while working on a series of guidebooks on Italian battlefields in the Second World War, authored by Eric McGeer.

“I don’t read topographical maps. I do study military history in a certain sense, but I’m by no means a strategic tactician,” said Lachance, who was in charge of putting together the Google Maps in the book. “So in the spirit of making this book accessible to everybody, we wanted to make maps that could be easily understood.”

Along with making the content understandable, Lachance and Symes hope the book will give a window into the experience of going on a battlefield tour, an experience both say cannot be matched.

“For Canadians, this is still a very real battle, it’s a central piece of our national narrative and to stand on the battlefield, it gives you a completely different understanding,” said Symes.

“We’re 90, almost 100 years removed from the war and you still find grenades, shrapnel, unexploded shells, all kinds of stuff… There’s a real interest in the First World War globally and within Canada, there’s always been an interest as a kind of metaphorical birth of a nation and so there’s this desire on the part of Canadians to understand it.”

The three authors began working on the book in January, and throughout the process both Lachance and Symes considered themselves lucky to work with a respected figure like Copp.

“[Copp] has had such an influence on the field and he continues to do so, but he’s done that by being incredibly supportive,” said Symes. “I’m a PhD candidate, Nick’s an undergraduate student and here you have a 73-year-old professor emeritus saying, ‘Wow, this is great stuff.’ I don’t know how many other professors have that kind of mental outlook in terms of supporting the next generation.”

The book will be launched this Friday, Remembrance Day, in Laurier’s Hawk’s Nest.

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