Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canada’s Golgotha, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

Canada’s Golgotha, a 1918 sculpture by Francis Derwent Wood, documents the power of wartime propaganda. Its story documents what we want to remember – and forget – when the war is over.

The bronze sculpture is now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa (part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art) with this description:

During the Second Battle of Ypres, rumours circulated that a Canadian soldier had been crucified on a Belgian barn door, a story the Germans denounced as propaganda. Whether truth or fiction, Canada’s Golgotha illustrates the intensity of wartime myths and imagery. The crucifixion remains unproven. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Canadian Foresters in Windsor Park, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

The Canadian Forestry Corps was formed in 1916 to provide lumber for the war effort. Recruiting posters soon called for “Bushmen and sawmill hands wanted for the Canadian Forestry Units overseas.”

Lumber was needed for diverse uses like trench construction, railway ties, tent poles, buildings, axe handles and fuel. At first, the thought was that trees would be cut in Canada and shipped overseas. But space on ships was limited, so the Corps went to the wood in the UK and France. The Corps produced about 70% of the lumber used on the Western front. They were occupied in all aspects of the trade – from felling trees and dressing lumber to actual construction. They cleared sites for aerodromes. Some of the wood was fashioned into wooden crosses for graves. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Halifax Harbour at Sunset and Convoy in Bedford Basin

This Wednesday, 6 December, marks the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion – the largest artificial explosion in history until the nuclear bomb surpassed it in 1945. Two ships – the Mont Blanc and the Imo – collided in Halifax Harbour, igniting the munitions carried on the former. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – A Moulder and Girls with a Rail, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

It’s Labour Day in Canada and the US … a day to celebrate workers. In honour of Labour Day, here are two more of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle’s sculptures of war workers on the home front.

Wyle and Loring were commissioned by the War Memorial Funds Committee to do a series of sculptures of “girl war workers” as part of the project to document Canada’s participation in the war. After touring munitions plants, Wyle decided to include some male workers, too. Continue reading

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Canada’s Dream Shall Be of Them

Is your creativity enriched or curtailed by Twitter’s 140-character limit? Imagine the challenge to families of those killed in WW1, asked to keep an epitaph for their loved one to 66 characters.

The Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission decided not to repatriate hundreds of thousands bodies. Rather, the dead were buried with their comrades close to where they fell. A standard stone marks each grave, regardless of rank. But next of kin were invited to add a personal inscription. About half took up the offer. Together, these epitaphs form a striking record of grief and memory. Continue reading


Monday Monuments and Memorials – Apple Picking and Land Girls Hoeing, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

In 1918, the Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned paintings and sculptures depicting women’s work on the home front as part of its project to document Canada’s participation in the war. Manly Edward MacDonald painted scenes of women working in the fields, including Apple Picking and Land Girls Hoeing. They are now part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art at the Canadian War Museum. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Furnace Girl and The Rod Turner, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

Happy International Women’s Day, a day early. For the occasion, we feature two more sculptures by Frances Loring.

Loring and Florence Wyle were born in the US and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. They moved to Toronto in 1913, where they were collectively known as The Girls. In 1918, they were commissioned to do a series of sculptures of “girl war workers” as part of the project to document Canada’s participation in the war. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Noon Hour and the Blacksmith, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

It’s Labour Day in Canada and the US … a day to celebrate workers. In honour of Labour Day, here are two more of Florence Wyle’s sculptures of war workers on the home front … these ones taking a break from their hard labour.

Wyle and Frances Loring were commissioned by the War Memorial Funds Committee to do a series of sculptures of “girl war workers” as part of the project to document Canada’s participation in the war. After touring munitions plants, Wyle decided to include some male workers, too.

Now part of the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, these and some of the other bronzes from the Loring and Wyle commission are on display in the lobby of the Canadian War Museum until 2017. Some have been in storage for almost 100 years. I hope the War Museum keeps them on permanent display. 

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Art or Memorial? and Beyond the Battlefield

My quest to learn about war memorials and war art has taken me down a longer trail than expected – eight books in all – with some interesting twists along the way. I take an expansive view of what belongs in my Monday Monuments and Memorials feature – statues, cenotaphs, plaques, grave markers, sculptures, ephemera and many other remembrances of the war. My aim is to put them in better context. (Always with the caveat that my summary review cannot do justice to the full analysis in these books.) 

Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art

The crux of the issue is in the title of this book by Laura Brandon. She was in a good place see the role of the individuals, communities and government agencies – and the context of culture and politics – in the social construction of the memory of war. Until recently she was curator of the large collection of war art at the Canadian War Museum.

Beaverbrook started a war art program as propaganda and to commemorate the war. His vision of a memorial gallery to house the art didn’t come to fruition. Instead, local communities built statues and other memorials. They needed to forget the images of war.

Still, public opinions of the works evolve over time. Exhibits like A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War, in the context of new-found patriotism in commemorating the 50th anniversary of WW2, helped to make the art a locus of memory.

Brandon concludes that the official war art collection “has functioned as an under-recognized war memorial or ‘site of memory’ but that concern with the works as art has obscured their deeper, collective significance.” (p xiii)


Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars

Catherine Speck’s Beyond the Battlefield looks beyond official war art schemes to find “a womanly perspective on war and wartime.” (p 7) She introduces 62 women artists from Allied countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the prejudices that curtailed their working conditions and their oeuvres. Some have international reputations, others are more obscure. (I was introduced to many for the first time.) Together, they give visibility to women’s experience of the war.

Most of the women were not part of the official war art programs … they were subjected to the masculine idea that war artists needed personal experience of conditions at the front. And women would not be sent to the front. In Canada, some women artists were engaged to depict life on the home front. In Britain, the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum was tasked with documenting what women did during the war. So at least some of the official programs moved away from the battlefields. But the “home front” programs were not as well funded and the women were generally paid less than the men. Many artists (women and men) were expected to donate their work or accept meagre payment.

Speck’s chapters on WW1 look at women on the home front, behind the front and after the war. The home front art shows that “the stereotype that it was a place of inaction and ‘waiting’ is wholly inaccurate.” (p13) Behind the front, she challenges the perspective of a dichotomy of spaces, male-only front and female dominated home front. Women nurses and voluntary aides moved in an in-between space behind the front. Some of them were artists. Immediately after the war, some women artists ventured into the former war zones to paint the repairing landscape. Mary Riter Hamilton wrote of her time in France:

I feel it is very fortunate that I arrived before it is too late to get a real impression. The changes are taking place rapidly and even in the short time I have been here I can see a great change. In another few months there will be very little trace of the war. (p 97)

Speck provides brief biographies of the artists. The book is illustrated with colour reproductions of the art, but lacks information on where to find each piece. (The only clues are in the photo credits.) That will make it more challenging for me to seek out the works of the women artists of WW1 … Anna Airy, Claire Atwood, Martha Moffatt Bache, Cecilia Beaux, Anna Richards Brewster, Florence Carlyle, Evelyn Chapman, Edith Collier, Joyce Dennys, Olive Edis, Mary Riter Hamilton, Helen Hyde, Nellie Isaac, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Phyllis Keyes, Flora Lion, Beatrice Lithby, Frances Loring, Henrietta Mabel May, Dora Meeson Coates, Victoria Monkhouse, Olive Mudie-Cooke, Norah Neilson Gray, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Elizabeth Nourse, Jane Peterson, Margaret Preston, Isobel (Iso) Rae, Grace Ravlin, Helen Saunders, Grace Cossington Smith, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Olive Wood, Ursula Wood and Florence Wyle.


Mary Riter Hamilton’s post-war paintings are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. LAC features many of them online in Mary Riter Hamilton: Traces of War.

According to LAC, “Hamilton refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, choosing instead to donate the canvases to the National Archives (now part of Library and Archives Canada). She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.”

Maria Tippett tells a different story: “Unable to find a purchaser for her collection, she presented it to the National Archives of Canada in 1926.” (By a Lady, p 58)

Wouldn’t sell or couldn’t sell … which account rings true to you?

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A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War

It is logical that artists should be part of the organization of total war, whether to provide inspiration, information, or comment on the glory or the stupidity of war. (A.Y. Jackson, in Canvas of War, p 19)

War broke down old preconceptions, old inhibitions; it offered subject matter – death, mutilation, destruction – they had never dealt with before. They had to render the obscene tolerable, the ugly beautiful, create life out of death. Under the stress of this dance macabre, some painters created extraordinary and unforgettable works of art.  (A Terrible Beauty, p 15)

The Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) was established with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Now the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art of the Canadian War Museum, the ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.

Exhibits immediately following the war were popular, but interest quickly waned. Most of the works remain in storage, although more are on view in the new museum building that opened in 2005. Interest seems to increase on milestone anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war.

From time to time the paintings and sculpture form the core of special exhibits. A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War are catalogues from two major exhibits that dusted off some of the paintings and found different ways to make them relevant for new audiences. Both examined the war art programs from WW1 and WW2. I read the WW1 parts.

Temporary exhibits live on through catalogues. They are the next best thing for those who missed the main event, also engendering a hint of regret at not seeing the art in real life. 

A Terrible Beauty: The Art of Canada at War

A Terrible Beauty toured regional galleries across Canada from late 1977 to early 1980. Heather Robertson’s catalogue juxtaposes colour reproductions of the paintings (and a few sculptures) with an anthology of texts. The excerpts from letters, journals, memoirs, poems and the like are firsthand accounts by those who lived through the war, mostly on the front lines. (Not clear if the texts were part of the exhibit.) The selection of paintings shows CWMF work from the Western front and the home front.

Great concept, executed with varying success. At times, texts and paintings complement each other, giving greater context. At times, they are an odd and uncomfortable match – for example the account of a deserter shot at dawn opposite sculptures of munitions workers. Texts by the same author are scattered throughout the book, leaving readers to discover connections by chance.

Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945

Canvas of War, Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum was a blockbuster exhibit, on display at the Museum of Civilization in 2000 then touring to eight other Canadian cities from 2001 to 2004. It was billed as the biggest touring show of war art ever mounted in Canada.

The accompanying catalogue is by Dean F. Oliver and Laura Brandon. In addition to the colour reproductions, it includes two essays about WW1. Born in Battle gives a brief history of the Canadians in the war zone and on the home front, as the foundation of the nation-building mythology. The Face of Armageddon looks at the role of the artists and the CWMF in that mythology. The authors also say that the artists’ war experience was a “major building block” in the evolution of Canadian art, most notably the formation of the Group of Seven.

Short of a visit to the National Gallery, the Canadian War Museum or a special exhibit where the war art is on view, these books are worth a look. A bonus is seeing colour reproductions that were only in black and white in Art at the Service of War.