R.H. Thomson’s mission is to make The World Remember

The faces of the war. Canadian soldiers take a break during training. Photo: The World Remembers

How do you make the names of the dead live?

If you are R.H. Thomson, you create, with many colleagues, something called The World Remembers which is an endeavour undertaken some six years ago to publicly remember the names of those who died during the First World War.

The names of soldiers from some 16 countries who fought in the war have been projected  each fall onto buildings in a moving tribute to the fallen.

As this is the anniversary of the end of the war, the final roll call is underway. It will also include those who died of their wounds or from other reasons up until 1922, Thomson said. In all 1,003,167 names of military personnel will appear.

R.H. Thomson. Photo: Michael Cooper

“Veterans Affairs sent us deaths up to 1922 because that was the official cut off,” he said. “If you died of wounds in 1923, you were out of luck, you weren’t an official war death. But we are still counting those who died of wounds and other complications until the end of 1922. This is similar to the Commonwealth War Graves.

“It is an interesting story in the numbers of deaths in 1919-22. It tells what happened when these people came home. They continued to die. We don’t know how many might have committed suicide in this group. Officials didn’t know where to put that category.”

Because this is the final year of the roll call, there are other events in the commemoration.

At the National Arts Centre, there will be a concert on Nov. 11 at 12:30 p.m. featuring co-commissioned pieces of music for choir and orchestra. And the NAC’s massive Kipnes Lantern will broadcast a collection of photographs that The World Remembers has assembled over the years.

“We have put together since 2012, about 320 photographs from Canada, the U.S., Britain, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. They are a broad selection of photos of the nurses, the soldiers, the prisoners, the munitions workers and the refugees. These are the faces of the war.

“These aren’t regimental pictures. These are the people … like the Belgian kid sitting on some steps smoking a cigar. He’s a refugee. These faces will be up there for a week. It is a fantastic venue. I am thrilled that we are up there with these images from 10 p.m. to the morning.”

The photos and the names also tell a strong story of diversity, Thomson said.

“We are remembering every community in Canada. From the Chinese community, the Italian Community, Indigenous First Nations, the Japanese community, the Ukrainian community and all the others. We include all the names, of everyone. This is a way of saying to those who see the names, ‘Be aware’ of the widespread diversity in Canada in 1914.

“We don’t acknowledge it. We think of everyone as white in this war, all the white guys who died killing other white guys in a lot of mud. But all races were there. There were more young men from pre-partition India killed than Canadians.”

Last year. The World Remembers put out a ‘passport’ of First World War Canadians with the historian Jonathan Vance.

“It was 34 pages long and made up of all races and ethnicities. We gave those away to schools. We have always been a diverse nation.”

The stories of those who died and their families has always been at the centre of The World Remembers.

The concert on Nov. 11 is the ultimate result of another aspect of The World Remembers.

In 2014, Thomson told then NAC CEO Peter Herrndorf that he hoped to express through music, the war and the people.

Herrndorf, typically, jumped right in a over the past few years three song cycles have been composed: The Song of the Poets, The Song of the Soldiers and The Song of the Mothers. These will all be performed Sunday. A fourth piece of writing to be read Sunday is a poem written by Chief Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the Credit of the Anishinabe called The Song of the Land. Written in English, and translated into Ojibwe and French, the poem is about war and fighting for Canada from an Indigenous soldier’s point of view. Other works on the program include To Young Canadians by Ottawa composer James Wright, with text written by former NDP leader Jack Layton (from his last letter to Canadians), and Udo Shalom by Ottawa composer Christine Donkin, with the text consisting of the word peace in 30 spoken languages and five sign languages. 

The Song of the Poets, with music by Toronto-area composer Abigail Richardson, contains texts drawn from French, British, German and Canadian poets selected by Thomson.

Convalescing after a battle. Photo courtesy The World Remembers.

The Song of the Soldiers with music by Vancouver’s Jeffrey Ryan draws on letters and writings by Canadian Jack Stratford (Thomson’s great uncle) and the German painter and soldier Franz Marc, one of the founders of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a German expressionist group. In the text, based other letters and writings, you can hear the emotions of the soldier.

The Song of the Mothers (with music by composer Meiro Stamm) features words from a French mother, a Canadian and a German.

“In The Song of the Mothers, the Canadian is Elizabeth Stratford, the French mother is a Madame Mireille and the German mother is the well-known artist Käthe Kollwitz who lost son Peter in 1914. After Peter died, she decided to create a monument to him. The two  statues are called The Grieving Parents. They are in a German cemetery in Belgium.

“They are stunning.”

At the end of the roll call, Thomson is breaking with his tradition.

The last name will be that of Pvt. George Price who was killed two minutes before the armistice in Mons, France.

“I believe that if you have respect for the dead, you don’t order them, they are all equally important in death.”

Except for the last guy killed.

“We thought, why not? The displays in Canada were built for Canada.”

Countries like to stake their territory around things like this, and, Thomson said, “maybe the last man killed is one of those staking of territories.

“Do you listen to history with one ear or with two? It’s more complicated if you listen with two ears. You have to approach complexity of history and not make it simple.”

The Grieving Parents by Käthe Kollwitz. Now located in the Vladslo German war cemetery near Vladslo, Diksmuide, West Flanders, Belgium.

Over the years, The World Remembers has assembled a clear, searchable data base of the names of 3,070,000 soldiers who died during the First World War. A total of about nine million died fighting.

It is quite an achievement that was truly hard work. Even the United States did not have a single data base. They ended up sending The World Remembers some 81 excel documents from different states and other jurisdictions, that Thomson and his colleague have assembled into one data base.

Each country provided its own quirky roadblocks.

“The countries that won, wanted to glorify the number of dead. Therefor they kept accurate records. They felt good about the war. They won. The losers tended not to keep good lists.

“But if you think of this as a statement of humanity then each name is important to keep and accord respect, to allow research, to help families find their relatives.

“We get some incredible emails. We get emails from people who are upset that they missed a name. That tells me how much people care about seeing their relative appear. People have profound reactions when they see the names. They say they never expected to be that emotional.

“And they will stand for an hour watching other names. My ultimate respect is for the men and women who went and put their lives on the line. You have to name them.”

Some people can’t understand why the names of the dead are shown.

“We get that attitude as well. There seem to be two sides of the street. Some people think good ceremonies and nice speeches are enough. Those on the other side of the street think we have to name them.”

Once you build something like this you want it to live on. And Thomson is beginning the process of that in a series of discussions with the Canadian War Museum and museums in the U.S. Belgium and Germany.

“I’m a bit scared to think about what I’ve done.” Survivor’s guilt perhaps?

“That’s it, but also, in all honesty, what do I do with the assets of this project, this incredible data base in four languages (hopefully we are getting Italian soon)? What do we do with the photos and the data base?

“It is a massive, clear, accurate, searchable, study-able data base that has never been put together before from multiple nations. That’s an asset. What do you do with these? How do you add to it?”

He knows there are 400,000 Italian names missing from the data base.

“I know they are there, somewhere. People should be able to see these names. My dream would that the Canadian War Museum would lead The World Remembers into the future with partners in the U.S. and Europe. If others would care to join us we’d be delighted.”

The World Remembers
A concert featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Germany with members of the NYO Canada, Orkidstra and choirs from De La Salle and Canterbury High Schools and the Calixa-Lavallée Chamber Choir from the University of Ottawa
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 11 at 12:30 p.m.
This is a free concert. For information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.