Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Week Before War

July 28, 2014

Next Monday, August 4, will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One. On that day in 1914 Britain's ultimatum to Germany to get its troops out of Belgium expired and the British Empire, including Canada, went to war.

The clergyman Charles Gordon (who was better known under his pen name as the popular novelist Ralph Connor) left an evocative account of the last days of peace in his memoir Postscript to Adventure. At the end of July Gordon was camping with his family on an island in Lake of the Woods near Kenora, Ont.

"It was glorious weather. With our canoes and boats, with our swimming and tennis, with our campfires and singsongs our life was full of rest and happy peace. It was a good world. On Thursday July 30 our boat returning with supplies from the little town brought back a newspaper with red headlines splashed on its front page. Austria had declared war on Serbia... This was a full month after the Sarajevo murder, which we had all forgotten.

"On Sunday morning, August 2nd, we motorboated in to church. A little group of men were standing on the wharf listening to one of their number reading from a morning paper, in which red headlines announced that Germany had declared war on Russia. Germany, Russia, Austria, Serbia were at war, but thank God! our Empire was out of it and would doubtless keep out.

"On August 4th ...the British ambassador at Berlin informed Sir Edward Grey that he had received his passports. Half an hour later Britain declared war on Germany and the old world had passed away.

"I remember taking the newspaper from my son and going off into the woods to look at the thing and to consider what it had to do with me."

At the same time as Charles Gordon was receiving the dire news, so was the prime minister, Robert Borden. He had been enjoying a brief holiday swimming and golfing at Port Carling in the Muskoka Lakes. On July 31 he was called back to Ottawa by the developing crisis in Europe and on August 4 he was the leader of a country at war.

This is how almost everyone remembers this week, one hundred years ago: a time of blue-sky innocence abruptly interrupted by the hammer's fall.


July 12, 2014

My new book, Closing Time, is safely in the hands of the printer and is due to appear from Douglas & McIntyre this fall. Here is the cover.


It is an illustrated history of prohibition in Canada, from the temperance movements of the nineteenth century to the...

July 5, 2014

The latest issue of Geist magazine (#93) is out. Along with my regular books column, it contains my feature article on Richard Maurice Bucke, the 19th century alienist and religious mystic.

I first got interested in Bucke when I was in graduate school in the 1970s. His story is fairly well known to specialists -- there is an unfortunately lifeless 1986 biography by Sam Shortt, Victorian Lunacy -- but not I suspect to the general...

July 3, 2014

Yesterday my peregrinations took me to the People's Co-op Bookstore on Vancouver's Commercial Drive where I was delighted to find Rolf Maurer tending the cash. Rolf, whose job-job is the publisher of New Star Books, is a determined volunteer at the store, as well as the recent chronicler of its history. (The story, which is a fascinating one for anyone interested in the recent history of the book trade, may be found at New Star's blog, ...

June 28, 2014

Today marks one hundred years to the day that the young Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, setting the world on the road to war. Philip Larkin, in his poem MCMXIV, captures the watershed moment as posterity has come to see it.

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of...

June 21, 2014


Thursday last the Vancouver Heritage Foundation held a drinks party in the lobby of the Sun Tower and I was invited along to say a few words about one of my favourite subjects, Louis Taylor. The highlight of the evening for me was a chance to venture into the upper storeys of the Tower where some of the original fittings and fixtures are still in place.