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The Great War through the eyes of Chilliwack

Using the Progress for a good part of the research has meant unparalleled home front perspective, and from the theatres of war.
Museum curator Paul Ferguson along with publishers Casey G. Williams and Ian Williams were working on the book photographs last week in St. Thomas Anglican Church in Chilliwack.

There are signs the Great War has never really been forgotten in Chilliwack.

Shiny memorial plaques can still be found on the walls of St. Thomas Anglican Church somberly honouring local soldiers who never made it back home.

As curator of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives, Chilliwack's role in the First World War is of keen interest to Paul Ferguson.

Being the son of a soldier himself, and a boy who grew up knowing that his grandmother had lost her father, uncle, and cousin in the Great War, he too carried that feeling of loss.

"Having read a lot of this history through the years, I really wanted to do something completely different," he said.

His new book, Chilliwack's Great War: At Home and Overseas, he sets out to paint an intimate and personal portrait of what happened to Chilliwack during that pivotal time in Canada's history.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns was a huge inspiration for this book. Something about the vivid photographs, and telling newspaper accounts.

Ferguson said he took one look at Burns' documentary, The Civil War, and it instantly resonated so deeply that he knew one day he'd do something similar for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The CEF was established in 1914 as Canada's army overseas in the First World War.

Well that day is almost here for the author, who goes by his full name William Robert Paul Ferguson for the book.

Using the Progress newspaper collection for a good part of his research has meant unparalleled home front perspective, and from the theatres of war.

Ferguson's research has been more than 15 years in the works, and it's finally time to tell those stories.

Having the entire Progress archives from that time has been a "wonderful" resource for the book, and five Progress employees signed up and went to war, including pressman Percy Jackman, and their letters were subsequently published revealing a range of experiences.

Chilliwack's Great War is in the production stages right now, with layout and photography underway to be ready for printing this fall.

Ferguson along with publishers Casey Williams and Ian Williams were working on the project last week in Chilliwack.

"It's a cool book," said Casey Williams, Academy award-winning American filmmaker, who is also working with his son, Ian, on a film about Piper James Richardson. "You cannot read this book and not be changed."

It's not just Chilliwack's story, or B.C.'s story's, he underlined. It's about Canada stepping onto the world stage.

Part of it, is how stunning visual the book will be, he said. Authentic detail is part of it.

"Paul is such an incredible historian. He's an encyclopedia and he's painstakingly chosen to tell a story on an emotional level," said Williams.

Ferguson and the Williams father-and-son team were photographing memorial plaques in St. Thomas church recently.

"St. Thomas evokes the right character for the time of the Great War," said Ferguson.

"It's basically unchanged from that time. It takes you back to the time when these names were read straight from the pulpit."

One of the plaques in the old church was In Memoriam for Lance Cpl. Leo H. Grossman from the Buffs East Kent Regiment, who was killed in action in Sheik Saad, Mesopotamia on Jan. 7, 1916 at the age of 29.

Grossman was the great uncle of Robin Lister, 81, who was holding some photography equipment during the shoot.

"These plaques are the emotional archeology of the time," said Ferguson.

Families would purchase the plaques to honour their loved ones.

"Everyone knew each other. Everyone was affected by anyone's loss.

"It's a very moving project. I thought I would do Victoria but Chilliwack is as close to perfect as it gets.

"Because like so many towns across Canada, all these people came together. They didn't know how bad it would be."



Jennifer Feinberg

About the Author: Jennifer Feinberg

I have been a Chilliwack Progress reporter for 20+ years, covering the arts, city hall, as well as Indigenous, and climate change stories.
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