Front Lines (2008)
A tribute to the combatants in the First World War, Front Lines traces the conflict through the writings of six Canadians who experienced it first-hand. Ninety years after the Armistice, these letters home, a war diary written in the heat of events and archival film footage bring the conflict alive with a human face and heart.
The film opens with the words of Claudius Corneloup, 22nd Battalion, writing in his war diary: "What a strange feeling! To look at one's self and to think with justifiable pride: 'I'm at the front.' Oh, how eloquent that first letter, written, sitting on your pack, as shells whistle overhead. And how that first time in the trenches changes the hearts of men. Even the light-hearted are serious. In the blink of an eye all is set ablaze and suddenly we understand what our country expects of us!"
That's the setting. Next we hear from five of his contemporaries in turn, besieged by varying emotions: pride, hope, dedication, fatigue, fright and pain. Professional actors read the poignant words written by five soldiers and a nurse, aged 23 to 31.
The film follows a compelling dramatic arc. Voices sometimes overlap almost like a choir, blowing away the cobwebs of time to show the immediacy of war. These private letters are addressed to mothers, fathers or sisters, and one detects between their lines an unspoken horror censored by war and propriety. The diary entries of Claudius Corneloup explode like mortars amid the other voices, illuminating the truth of trench warfare, the mud, rifles and corpses shown in the archival footage.
The film shows historical footage shot in Montreal and Europe, as well as actual photos of the war diary and letters. The directorial talent of Claude Guilmain breathes life into these 90-year-old documents so that we experience the conflict from the inside.
Front Lines lays bare the souls of dutiful, patriotic and dedicated people confronted by an inhuman situation. How poignant to hear 23-year-old Leo reassuring his mother that all is well and she must not worry, while comrades begin to "fall." Between the lines we detect fear, a sense of absurdity and an urge to flee the nightmare.
These lines, written from the front lines, draw us close to the anxious, solitary yet united men in the trenches.
Captain Édouard Légaré, 22nd Battalion
After the war he worked at the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
- He writes to his mother, brother and sister. At first, his only thought is to cross to Europe and serve, but after the death of a commanding officer his vision of war is tainted by fear and revulsion.
Sergeant Major Napoléon Marion, 22nd Battalion
A Montrealer, he joined the first contingent of the 22nd in 1915 and served in the trenches until July 1916, when he was repatriated. He was declared an invalid towards the end of the war.
- Napoléon is anxious and asks his family to pray for him. He writes emotionally of the dead and wounded around him and is sad not to get letters from his betrothed.
Leo LeBoutillier, 24th Battalion
Distinguished Conduct Medal
In November 1914 he joined the 24th Battalion Victoria Rifles in Montreal and crossed to Europe in May 1915. He was killed in the first assault on Vimy Ridge on April 18, 1917, aged 23.
- Leo writes to his mother and his sister. Sensitive and considerate, he reassures them even as war rages around him.
Major George P. Vanier, 22nd Battalion
Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross
One of the founding members of the 22nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he lost his right leg in France in 1918. Vanier became Governor General of Canada on August 1, 1959, the first Quebecer and first francophone to fill the position.
- He writes to his father, mother and sister, reassuring his family but using harsh words to describe life in the trenches. He tells how he lost his leg.
Sergeant Major Claudius Corneloup, 22nd Battalion
Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Medal
The excerpts from his war diary provide the main narrative framework of the film. This incisive, intense voice, untouched by the obligation to secrecy, tells of a pitiless fight between enemy lines.
Madame Katherine Maude Mary Macdonald
Nursing Sister, 1st Canadian General Hospital
Born in Brantford, Ontario, Katherine Macdonald, of the Canadian Army Nursing Service, died on May 19, 1918 in Etaples, France, aged 31. She was the first nurse killed during German bombing of Etaples.
- She writes to her mother and sister. She is proud of being a nurse and passionately dedicated to her job.