The newest book from Port Alberni author Jacqueline Carmichael explores the human side of the First World War.
Heard Amid the Guns: True Stories from the Western Front, 1914-1918 is the latest book written by Carmichael, a long-time journalist and Port Alberni resident.
The subject is familiar ground for Carmichael, who offered a “real-time” glimpse of daily brutalities on the front lines in her 2018 book Tweets from the Trenches, by refashioning snippets from personal correspondences into the form of a 21st century Twitter feed.
For her new book, Carmichael said she wanted to branch out and expand beyond the “white Anglo-Saxon male” perspective, giving a voice to those often overlooked by history. Carmichael researched “more than a thousand” postcards, letters, war records and “every museum I could get to.” She also interviewed several other wartime descendants.
“I expanded my knowledge past my own family, to every province and territory, and even other countries,” said Carmichael. “It really was a World War.”
The result is a narrative gathered from letters, diaries and interviews that shows the human side of the war.
“I looked for a range of people,” Carmichael said. “People who were different from each other and had diverse backgrounds. I really wanted to do a good job of broadly portraying the sort of people who were involved in the war.”
Highlights include profiles of people from nearly every Canadian province, including people of colour and women. The book is “roughly chronological,” said Carmichael, but themed sections explore racism in the military, gender roles at home and on the front and even animals who served in battle—from dogs to pigeons.
Heard Amid the Guns also includes the stories of Vancouver Island soldiers like Port Alberni’s George Bird, who wrote letters to his father about his experience at the Somme. Bird eventually died of injuries sustained in the Battle of Arras in June 1917.
Carmichael was finishing her book when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and as a result she went back to expand the chapter in her book on the influenza pandemic in 1918.
“My own grandfather was ill at that time,” she explained.
The book is illustrated throughout with First World War-era photos, postcards, documents and Carmichael’s own contemporary photos from battlefield sites and monuments. It also includes a number of tools for educators, like an index and a timeline of events.
Carmichael, the second-generation product of two soldiers in the First World War, was inspired by the letters and journals of her paternal grandfather, George “Black Jack” Vowel. In 2016 she travelled to Europe to walk on the western front in his footsteps.
“I went and walked where they fought,” Carmichael explained. “After walking, I guess I realized the scale of it—how much bigger it was than my grandfathers.”
Heard Amid the Guns got personal for Carmichael, as she went into detail about her grandparents’ “difficult” marriage after the war. From his journals, Carmichael said it was clear that Vowel had undergone a transformation during the war.
“His journals were no longer funny,” she said. “They were more terse. After the war, he was changed. He had a terrible temper. He was difficult with his kids and his wife.”
Overall, Carmichael said the project helped her gain a better understanding of the people who lived through this pivotal period in history.
“I learned that they were just like us,” said Carmichael. “They were young, in love, scared. They had their social media—postcards and telegrams and letters.”
Heard Amid the Guns was released by Heritage House on Nov. 3. Carmichael said this was her first time working with a publishing house, as opposed to self-publishing.
“They were so supportive,” said Carmichael. “It’s been a remarkable experience. I’m proud of Canadian publishers for taking on a project like this, in the middle of a pandemic.”
Due to COVID-19, Carmichael will not be holding any book signings or public events, but she does have a Facebook page for Heard Amid the Guns with dramatic video-readings of the book.
Heard Amid the Guns is available to purchase on Amazon, although Carmichael hopes to have it stocked in local stores, as well.
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