A personal journey back in time

Michael Winter aptly calls the First World War an “antique war” one preserved in dusty relics tattered photographs and fading memories. Unlike any and all other conflicts since — the Second World War through to the present — the horrifically brutal war that scoured Europe from 1914 to 1918 resides in some sort of foggy conception of history as close and familiar but increasingly out of reach. Our silent yearly observance of Remembrance Day originated in honour of those who fought in the First World War the last of whom are now lost to time.

Winter’s latest book Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead is part travelogue part narrative history tracing the path the Newfoundland Regiment took from the East Coast to the battlefields of the First World War. It’s Winter’s first book of non-fiction and readers won’t be surprised that he tackles the form idiosyncratically. It fits a little awkwardly at times and he doesn’t deny the book’s mercenary origins — a great idea (suggested by his publisher no less) and a break from domestic duties: “I don’t mean to make the life of raising a child and having a significant other sound arduous but it is always good to complement that steady secure life with a dash of abandon and singular adventure.”

The book juxtaposes Winter’s travels — from early preparations of packing a knapsack to walking across Europe — with the much more grueling and terrifying trip made by the Newfoundland Regiment a hastily composed group of 500 soldiers that didn’t exist until they were promised to the British government. Little did they know that many of them would be ripped apart or gassed to death in some of the war’s most horrific battles from the Somme to Gallipoli. When Winter halts in his tracks his mind reeling with the details we stop with him.

It’s a risky gamble on Winter’s part bouncing between his 20th century adventure and one done by young soldiers a century earlier under much different circumstances. Beyond the trip across the Atlantic a research vacation under book contract isn’t the same as boarding a boat to die. And to his credit Winter lets the book acknowledge this for him crafting Kipling-like adventuresome prose that belongs to a more modern era full of ghosts and well-worn though forgotten pathways.

While the history of the Newfoundland Regiment is fascinating — if only because our memories of those men until now remained largely non-existent — the book really comes alive in Winter’s more personal sobering and opinionated passages. He reminds us of how easy it is to lose the gravity of war — the blood and horror — as it seeps away into history.

As an aside he says that war should be kept separate from sport such as singing and saluting at hockey or baseball games. It’s understandable to fear that we come to equate war as mere history a pastime. As his book makes hauntingly clear when we “remember” we need to remember that we’re thinking about the dead.