An image from the 2018 documentary <em>They Shall Not Grow Old</em>, which cleaned and restored century-old film footage to show World War I and those who fought in it in a new light. (Photo credit: YouTube)

An image from the 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, which cleaned and restored century-old film footage to show World War I and those who fought in it in a new light. (Photo credit: YouTube)

The Editor’s Desk: They shall not grow old

Giving names and voices to soldiers from the past bridges the year between them and us

A story in the Globe and Mail this week described how a nameless Canadian soldier who had been buried at a war cemetery in the Netherlands during World War II had been identified and his family informed about where he was interred.

Trooper Henry George Johnston was killed during Operation Blackcock in the Netherlands in January 1945, and was buried as an unknown soldier. His headstone noted only his date of death and the fact that he was Canadian. Researchers with National Defence Canada’s Casualty Identification Program started with those facts, then used historical documents to narrow down the search and ultimately give him a name. Johnston is the second Canadian soldier identified under the program this year, and one of 31 Canadian soldiers, previously unknown, whose remains have been identified since the program started in 2007.

You might wonder why this is important. Beyond the fact that it provides families with knowledge — denied them for years — of where their kin are buried, and a concrete place to grieve and remember, it brings these unidentified soldiers back to life. “It’s amazing how knowing who he was and seeing his picture gives him his humanity back,” wrote one commenter on the story, and it’s true. Johnston is no longer an “unknown soldier”; his picture shows a dark-eyed, thoughtful man gazing at us across 75 years.

The story made me think of a documentary I saw at the Paramount Theatre in Kamloops last year. They Shall Not Grow Old was made by Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson, who was given access to more than 100 hours of black-and-white, silent footage from World War I in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, London. He also had hundreds of hours of audio recollections by WW I vets, and from this material he crafted an extraordinary film.

It is told entirely in the words and voices of those now long-dead soldiers, and their stories play out over jerky, grainy, silent footage that takes us from the pre-war summer of 1914 through joining up, training, and shipping off to France. Up to that point the black-and-white images possess that slightly distancing effect that silent film has on us. It is a recognizable world, but not a familiar one, quiet and grey as it is.

Then, at about the 20 minute mark, something astonishing happens. The image spreads to widescreen format, and as it does so gradually turns from black-and-white to colour. The jerky movements are smoothed out, and we see the men marching to the front line 100 years ago as if they were filmed yesterday.

Even more extraordinarily, we hear them: the low hum of conversation, the whinnying of horses, the creaking of wagons as they churn through the mud. A man turns and looks at the camera, and we hear him say “We’re on film!” Jackson used lip readers to identify what the men were saying, and researchers to identify what regiment they were from, then had actors with the appropriate accents/dialects record their words. Not only do we see them: they speak to us — literally — across more than a century.

Just like Trooper Johnston, at a stroke the soldiers go from remote, almost ghostly figures to real, flesh-and-blood people, laughing, joking, talking. They are, suddenly and vividly, the men from John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”: “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow / Loved and were loved.”

It is the most moving thing I have seen for some time, and as I watched and listened to the men it brought them, and the war they fought in, to life in a way that I had never experienced. Their story is well worth searching out (it is back at the Paramount on Nov. 7 and 11), watching, and remembering, along with the story of Henry Johnston and the many other men and women who served, some of whom paid the ultimate price so that we would know freedom.



editorial@accjournal.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A rainbow shining on Kelowna General Hospital on May 12, 2020 International Nurses Day. (Steve Wensley - Prime Light Media)
New COVID cases trending down in Interior Health

24 new cases reported Thursday, Feb. 25, death at Kelowna General Hospital

(File Photo)
Crash causes delays on Coquihalla southbound, travel advisory issued

A vehicle incident between Merrit and Hope has caused major delays heading south

A nurse performs a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
30 new COVID-19 cases, five more deaths in Interior Health

This brings the total number of cases to 7,271 since testing began

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

The future of the Cache Creek pool is still up in the air as council ponders different options and cost considerations. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
No decision about whether Cache Creek pool will open in 2021

Council still discussing pool’s future; no date set for public meeting about its fate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Carolyn Howe, a kindergarten teacher and vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says educators are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of pressure that comes with it. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Stress leave, tears and insomnia: Island teachers feel the strain of COVID-19

Teachers still adjusting to mask and cleaning rules, pressures from outside and within

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

The missing camper heard a GSAR helicopter, and ran from his tree well waving his arms. File photo
Man trapped on Manning mountain did nearly everything right to survive: SAR

The winter experienced camper was overwhelmed by snow conditions

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

Most Read