Saturday, April 7, 2012

Depression era Prairies as Great War Battlefields, 1931

The writings of EH Oliver during the Great Depression show that the landscape of the ruined First World War battlefield was a reference point for desolation long after the fighting was over.

Oliver at Benhill-on-sea 1917
Edmund Oliver, was a professor of history and principal of St. Andrew's College, Saskatoon, when he set out overseas during the Great War.  Oliver enlisted in the Canadian Forces, becoming chaplain to the 196th Battalion.   In 1917, he was instrumental in setting up the "University of Vimy Ridge" in France, a school for the soldiers of the Canadian Corps.

David Marshall's Secularizing the Faith (1992) argues that in the long period of secularization of the evangelical Protestant churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that the Great War was a reactionary period.  The men who experienced the misery of the trenches were not comforted by the message of the importance of moral and social deeds which came to typify the church's liberal theology.  Instead men looked to the earlier evangelical message of personal salvation, and empathized with the notion of the suffering of the innocent.

Marshall shows that EH Oliver's experiences of the Prairie West during the Great Depression were shaped by what he saw in the muddied fields of France and Flanders.  Marshall writes that, "Images of the First World War were recalled by Oliver, for the ruination of that war was the only thing within his experience that he could refer to which was similar to the wind-whipped, sun-scorched, desert-like 'Garden of Saskatchewan'" (Marshall, 234)
Saskatchewan 1930-34
Oliver attempted to portray what he observed of his 1931 tour of the arid Saskatchewan prairie.  He asked his readers to imagine,  "if it was possible,  the choicest wheat fields of our modern plains churned into yawning gravel pits, streaked with long rows of zigzag, gleaming,chalk trenches with an occasional tree trunk standing, twisted and bent and smashed." (McKinnon, The Life of Principal Otter, Toronto, 1938, 35, as quoted in Marshall)
"Dugout on the Somme" Hamilton, Mary Riter, 1873-1954.LAC Acc. No. 1988-180-3

Oliver wrote, "It left me weak and sore afraid, as though I had turned the corner of our street, eager and expectant to catch a glimpse of home and found it wrecked by a bomb or burned to the ground. 'An enemy hath done this,' was the thought that leaped into my mind, as thought the devastating hand of a malignant spirit had waved a wand over the great Prairie to spread desolation and drought and death.  If there were added to the scene a battered house here and there and an occasional trench it would be like the desolation of the western front." (National Emergency Relief Committee Papers, as quoted in Marshall)

Marshall noted that the tensions of the Great Depression caused Oliver to return to the traditional emphasis on the Bible and what God would provide, and question the power of the social gospel.  Like the Great War, the depression made some clergy abandon the liberal theology and embrace a more conservative God-oriented faith.

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