Robert Holmes Thomson, better known as R.H., has probably portrayed more national historical ﬁgures on stage and screen, from Samuel Lount to Mitchell Sharp, than any other Canadian actor. But it was only later in life that Thomson, now 71, became interested in the intimate family histories created for so many Canadians by the Great War. He went back to a cache of letters preserved by his maternal great-aunt about her ﬁve brothers at war—two were killed and three returned damaged in body and mind—and crafted his play Lost Boys from them in 2002. That led to Thomson’s Vigil project six years later, which projected against the wall of Canada House in London—and also in six Canadian cities—the names of every one of the 68,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who died in the conflict. The project’s success stoked Thomson’s ambitions, and in 2014 he marked the centenary of the war’s outbreak with The World Remembers, an extraordinarily ambitious attempt to showcase, year by year, the names of every fallen First World War combatant, regardless of the flag served. The names are displayed on screens in schools, museums, libraries and other public spaces in eight countries as well as online. It reaches its climax this year, the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, with more names and more nations included, and in the midst of a thicket of practical, ideological, ethical and political questions.
This is the year with the largest number of the dead to commemorate, partly because the ﬁghting reached its peak, and partly because it includes those who died of lingering wounds during the following four years. How many names are there in all?
We passed one million a few weeks ago.
Your display period must be longer than in previous years, given the number of deaths listed for the ﬁnal year. And how can families see it?
Yes, longer this year. We began Sept. 12 and it will run 12 hours and 50 minutes every day until we complete the names at sunset on Nov. 11. It will show roughly 16,000 names a day for 61 days. But the search function is already up and running, just like the 1914-17 search functions. Our website [theworldremembers.org] will tell you two things right now: it will show you public locations, maybe 80 this year, where people can watch—in their school or library or university, or the big display in Ottawa on the wall of the railway station that will become the Senate’s new home [when Parliament Hill undergoes rehabilitation. The building is currently known as the Government Conference Centre]. Families can ﬁnd a moment to turn up. We also stream the list to the website, so if people can’t make it, they can see it on the site.
How is it organized in terms of individual names?
We think a name is not information in itself. The names are linked to people, therefore each name must stand still. So there’s no scrolling, and each name is timed. Nor do we order the names, because there was no order in death. There’s no A to Z, no privates, captains, majors. We scramble the names. However, this year, for the ﬁrst time, we will deliberately order one name: George Lawrence Price was the last Canadian killed in the Great War, so Price’s name will be the last to appear, early in the morning of Nov. 11. But for everyone else, like my family—my great-uncle Joseph Stratford will appear this year—the search function will tell you exactly when Joseph’s name is going to turn up.
If there are 16 nations involved, there are clearly still some missing—this was a world war. So who is absent? Still the Russians?
The Russians are missing. Explaining that is an afternoon with two beers, a very, very long adventure for data reasons and political reasons. The Russia story is thick with politics. I went to Moscow. Our French organization partner said we don’t have a project without the Russians because almost more Russians were killed than people of any other nation. Right. Okay. But for Russia, the First World War is not the Great Patriotic War. It was an imperialistic war. So in Soviet times and into the beginning of Putin times, it was pushed to the back of the line because the Second World War was so much more signiﬁcant. So the data never got out of the dungeons, so to speak. Putin paid to digitalize the Second World War records, but the First… [it’s] complex, complex, everyone I spoke to in Moscow kept saying, “Impossible, impossible, the revolution, everything destroyed, complex.” But then I heard about a little museum on the outskirts of Moscow.
You went there?
Of course I went there, with the translator and a person from the embassy. Not a museum, actually, more a rundown archive with barking dogs on chains. And after a long conversation in Russian by the tile stove because it was cold, this guy in blue overalls ﬁnally began to understand what we were looking for. And he goes out and comes back with an old book—a handwritten regimental report full of names. And he says, “I have 2,000 of these.” Do you have copies? “No.” Do you have scans? “No.” Do you have microﬁlm? “No.” That was it. But he thought he had a million names in those books, page after page in Cyrillic, because the regiments were required to write down the names of the dead at the end of every day.
Nothing came of this trove?
That adventure never really started because then Russia went into Crimea [in 2014] and then into East Ukraine. At that point, I had to stop because I can’t move internationally in Budapest or Belgrade or Berlin, anywhere, without Global Affairs being right beside me.
Why is that?
Brian, Brian, we are small Canadians working out of our wife’s sewing room in Toronto. Why would the National Archives of Hungary talk to us? Especially about something like this? You’re in fairly big nationalistic territory when you’re talking to these people about that war, which changed all the eastern borders. In the world of data, everybody plays with numbers for political reasons. The moment the Russians went into Crimea and East Ukraine, Global Affairs quietly said, “Robert, if they initiate something, ﬁne—but you can’t take it any further yourself because it gets very, very complicated.” It’s sad because it was a huge opportunity. I wrote Putin. I was so crazy, I thought, why not? I wrote him in Russian and sent it through diplomatic channels, telling him I believed his next great project was to digitalize a database of every Russian killed in the Great War. I didn’t hear back.
So who gets remembered? That has to be a difﬁcult ethical and practical decision. Not civilians, for the most part, if only because it’s so hard to trace them.
Only the Belgians are actually doing that now. The Belgian In Flanders Fields Museum has decided that morally there’s no difference between civilian and military deaths. You have to respect them all. So the Belgians are doing two interesting things. They say we will not just commemorate our own, we will remember everybody who died in our territory. That makes them very aligned to what The World Remembers is doing, and they have become good friends with us. But the second thing is they say you must ﬁnd civilian names. They have spent years with archivists trying to ﬁnd out, for instance, whether Emily, who died in 1916 when she was visiting relatives in France, died naturally or in a bombing. That’s real hard-core archival work. People don’t understand that about the data—they think we just get a list of names off the web and put them up! We don’t take responsibility, because we can’t, for the accuracy of data that national organizations and governments give us. So when someone phones up and says you got my great-uncle’s name wrong, our response is, well, your ﬁrst conversation has to be with Veterans Affairs, because we used their lists. And Veterans Affairs continually corrects and updates those—the ongoing evolution of the data is another story altogether. Anyway, the Belgians are really the only ones who are seriously, in an archival fashion, trying to acknowledge the civilian deaths.
Soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion are not a practical issue—there are records—but modern responses vary by country.
I think it was 23 Canadians executed for those reasons who were added to the ofﬁcial records of war dead in 2001 after being posthumously pardoned. The reassessment of shell shock as not being cowardice but actually being PTSD has changed our attitudes, but other countries have their own responses.
British Indian soldiers are ﬁnally starting to get their due.
We show them as the BIA, because there the data—the politics, actually—gets intense. They were from pre-partition India, meaning three modern nations—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—and there were roughly 74,000 who died. They were mainly from the north of India, the Punjab, we think, but if you wanted to open up that data and try to be precise about which contemporary country, you’d need a budget of $150,000 and ﬁve researchers who spoke the languages and recognized the name differences.
And you are determined to cover the Chinese labour battalions, who were recruited by England and France to do support work on the front lines. So many of them crossed Canada in trains from the Paciﬁc to the Atlantic.
Oh yes. It took hard work to get those names because they were under both British and French control. It seems there are maybe seven who died crossing Canada and who are buried where they died, Vancouver, Halifax, wherever. Commonwealth War Graves has started to mark those graves. Rightly, because these are war deaths, young men on their way to the front. And I ﬁnd that very poignant because we concentrate on the big stories and we let the little stories disappear. Many we don’t know anything about—don’t tell me that some Chinese guys didn’t want to get off that train when it stopped, don’t tell me some young Chinese-Canadians didn’t think, wow, what an incredible adventure, and want to get on. Think of Wee Hong Louie from Shuswap, B.C., who later sent a letter [and his uniform and medals, after he was refused a business licence because he was Chinese] to Prime Minister Mackenzie King. That’s why we put out small booklets showing the diversity of Canadians in the war: here’s the Ukrainian-Canadian soldier, the Sikh-Canadian soldier, here’s the First Nations soldier. When we put up the big display in Ottawa on the 15-m screen on the side of the old railway, the title, The World Remembers, will be in French, English and Algonquin.
It’s these stories, real and imagined, that have inspired you to do this project.
It goes back to Lost Boys and how my maternal family suffered terrible losses in the First World War. But it was the stories that walked in the door of my dressing room every night I performed it that really made me think. Visitors and friends all started telling me their families’ stories of war. Not “big” stories, but the power of history is in the personal, so therefore, logically, every person’s story must be told. And that is The World Remembers, as impossible as the idea is: how do you tell—or at least note—every soldier’s story? Someone has to do it. How can you go through the centenary years of that incredible conflict and not name the dead? What I’m stunned at is that no one else has. That’s what leaves me gasping on the floor.
MORE ABOUT FIRST WORLD WAR:
- The First World War brought the end of cavalry and the advent of the tank
- With stained glass and service, a Toronto church remembers the fallen
- We printed the names of Canadians killed in the Great War. You gave their stories life.
- Conscription divided Canada. It also helped win the First World War.