This debut compilation combines American-Canadian journalist and poet Carmichael’s poems with historical photographs, documents, diaries, letters, and stories related to the First World War.
The author writes that she took her inspiration for this book from the “trench letters” written by her World War I veteran grandfather, George “Black Jack” Vowel. She’d turned them into posts on Facebook and Twitter and then broadened the project, traveling in 2016 and 2017 to the former Western Front and collecting a wide variety of letters, memoirs, journals, and other firsthand accounts of the war. The result is this self-described “flash documentary creative non-fiction” book, which includes Carmichael’s poetry and a few songs. Arranged chronologically and amply illustrated with photographs, sketches, and documents, the work offers the personal experiences of a wide range of people. The viewpoints of Canadian soldiers dominate the text, but Carmichael importantly offers a much more diverse assemblage of wartime participants than most other histories do. For example, she highlights the important contributions of First Nations fighters, such as Lt. Albert Mountain Horse or Alexander Wuttunee DeCoteau, and of women, whether they were nurses or those who disguised themselves as men, such as Serbian Milunka Savic, “the most decorated female fighter in the history of warfare, period.” The horrors of trench warfare come through clearly, as do the courage and wit of soldiers trying to survive; the book also covers the grief of loss and the ravages of PTSD, formerly called “shell shock.” Carmichael’s poems, mostly free-verse lines with pauses indicated by virgules, include snippets from “Black Jack” in italics, which provide poignant commentary: “Must try to remember why I am here / I am done / I am played out / I look like a loose button on an overcoat.” But although the verses include powerful moments, they’re occasionally too obvious, as in a reflection on “The ‘Great War for Civilisation’ ”: “How could something that lays waste an entire generation…ever be great?”
A harrowing, compelling, and moving scrapbook of primary sources and reflections.