‘Township’ earns honour from bringing war home

Jonathan Vance never runs out of good stories to tell – that’s because, as an historian, he draws on the entire human experience for inspiration. For his most recently celebrated work, that experience was drawn from close to home by the History professor.

A Township at War explores the Canadian experience of war through the story of East Flamborough Township in southern Ontario. Drawing on an array of local and family sources, Vance interlaces the history of the home front into the story of Canada’s war in France.

The book was recently named the winner of the C.P. Stacey Award for Best Canadian Military History Book.

“In one sense, it was a more difficult book to write. I was so keen to produce a sensitive, empathetic account of the world in which my grandparents lived,” said Vance, who also won a Stacey Award for Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War in 1997.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right – not just the details, but the overall tone and way of thinking that characterized rural Canada a century ago. Because I grew up with the people who populate the book and remember some of them well from my childhood, I felt I owed it to them to help readers to understand what their world was like.”

The C.P. Stacey Award committee, along with the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, describe Vance as “one of Canada’s most distinguished historians,” calling his work “a major contribution to our understanding of how the First World War was a transformative event for Canadians at the local level.”

The award, which includes a $1,000 prize, is presented annually to the best book in the field of Canadian military history, including the study of war and society

In A Township at War, East Flamborough, located north of Burlington, is the focal point, but it is representative of thousands of rural Canadian communities where similar stories played out. Vance’s family was among the first settlers in the township, and he grew up in Waterdown, one of its communities.

Like many small villages, the community had been isolated and insulated from the world, and, with the start of the Great War, “suddenly, they’re thrust into this cataclysmic event,” said Vance, the J.B. Smallman Chair in the Department of History.

About 200 people in East Flamborough went overseas to battle. That number seems small in the grand scale, but it represented about 10 per cent of the population. Many of them were related as part of three or four large interconnected families, as was the norm for rural Canada.

“Although this book is about one very specific place, I hope people will recognize other small towns and rural townships in it,” Vance said. “If they read about East Flamborough and it makes them think of where they grew up in New Brunswick or the Ottawa Valley or south Saskatchewan, that’s great.”

Winning the award is “a great thrill” for Vance as it puts him in important company with many historians in the field who have won the award, including his late friend Brock Millman, a former History professor and colonel in the Canadian Forces Army Reserves.

Additionally, he treasures being part of the C.P. Stacey Award legacy, an award that honours Col. Charles Perry Stacey, the late University of Toronto History professor and official historian of the Canadian Army in the Second World War.

“The spirit of Charles Stacey hovers over anyone who does military history in this country, whether they realize it or not.”

Vance has many more stories he’d love to share. He is currently working on a biography of a Canadian Jewish surgeon who was a prisoner of war in the Far East during the Second World War. “That one makes for a little more gruesome reading,” he admitted.

Other Vance works include The Great War: From Memory to History (2015); Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars (2011); A History of Canadian Culture (2009); and Unlikely Soldiers: How Two Canadians Fought the Secret War Against Nazi Occupation (2008).

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