Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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The Vimy Trap

The mission of the Vimy Foundation is to preserve and promote Canada’s First World War legacy as symbolized with the victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a milestone where Canada came of age and was then recognized on the world stage. … Inspired by the heroic victory of the Canadian Forces at Vimy Ridge, the Vimy Foundation believes that the key to a successful future lies in knowing one’s past, and that the remarkable story of Vimy should be shared with young people from across the country. (Vimy Foundation website)

Ball cap fronts feature an image of the Vimy Memorial and ‘VIMY’ ‘1917’, while the Royal Canadian Legion Poppy silhouette is embroidered onto the brim. ‘BIRTH OF A NATION’ has been incorporated onto the right side while the Royal Canadian Legion logo and the colours representing the four Canadian Divisions who fought together for the first time complete the design. (Royal Canadian Legion Poppy Store)

Two odd motifs to mark the centenary of Vimy Ridge. Can a country be born or come of age by its men being slaughtered in a faraway land? Can swag keep that country alive?

In The Vimy Trap or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War, Ian McKay and Jamie Swift ask some bold and uncomfortable questions about WW1 and Canada’s role in it. Continue reading

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – T Eaton Company Memorial Plaque, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

Happy Boxing Day … a day for shopping or giving. Eaton’s department store embodied both during WW1. The Eaton family and company contributed to the war effort in many ways: it delivered on military contracts at cost and John Eaton gave $100,000 to outfit a mobile unit known as the Eaton’s Machine Gun Battery, to name two examples. The company also paid the wages of its employees who enlisted … full pay for married men, half pay for single men. Over 3000 employees enlisted, of whom 315 died. Each enlisting employee’s photo was displayed in the store. 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. 


Art at the Service of War

Monday Monuments and Memorials started as a way to ensure regular posts on this blog. My reading habits can make the timing of book reviews haphazard, but I can count on a weekly photo. I take an expansive view of what belongs – war art fits as much as cenotaphs and other tributes to the war and those who participated.

References to the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) keep cropping up for various paintings and sculptures around Ottawa. You know me … I’m off to learn more.

Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art, and the Great War, the 1984 published version of Maria Tippett’s thesis, is a scholarly analysis of the people and politics of the CWMF. She examines the making of the art as well as the CWMF administration. The artwork that illustrates her points is reproduced in the book. (Unfortunately they’re in black and white, but colour reproductions can be found online for the most part … some on this very site).

The CWMF was set up in London in November 1916 by newspaper baron Max Aitken (he was later Lord Beaverbrook), with a view to immortalizing the Canadian contribution to the war. Art would be used for propaganda in the short term and for an historical record in the long term. Photos and cinema of the time were not long-lasting, so could not be fully relied on for the job.

The cost to the Canadian government was little. Artists who were hired received an officer’s rank and pay, but the CWMF was almost entirely paid for by private funds. Over 100 painters and sculptors were associated with the CWMF.

Mostly British artists were engaged. Many were also commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee (later the British Pictorial Propaganda Committee) – Bone, Orpen, Nash, Nevinson, Kennington, Lewis, Rothenstein and John, amongst others. (Overlap was inevitable: Beaverbrook eventually headed the British Department of Information.) The CWMF also gave opportunities to Canadian artists – like Cullen, Jackson, Lismer, MacDonald, Milne and Varley – albeit only from the Anglophone male art communities in Toronto and Montreal. The home front program engaged some women, including Carlyle, May, Loring and Wyle. The CWMF also acquired historical paintings of significance to Canada.

The CWMF gave “an unprecedented and wide-ranging number of artists an opportunity to express their war experiences in bronze, watercolour, and oil at a time when it might have been considered frivolous to do so.” (p 4)

The ultimate collection is the largest visual record of the war.

Immediately following the war, highlights of the collection formed popular exhibits in London, New York, Montreal and Toronto. Then disinterest:

While the CWMF collection was being broken up and Canada’s Golgotha hidden away, war monuments and trophies were being erected across the country. Every city and most towns had at least one ‘Lest We Forget’ monument; every service club a trophy of war. The new Parliament Buildings had a Peace Tower with a carillon and a Memorial Chamber with Books of Remembrance. These works – cenotaphs, memorial sculptures, war trophies … embodied an idea rather than the artistic expression of an event. Unlike most of the works of the CWMF, they could possess any meaning the viewer wished to give them: sacrifice, waste, sorrow, pride, even redemption. (p 103)

The plan was always to hand the collection over to the Canadian government. Beaverbrook’s vision was to house it in a dedicated war memorial building in Ottawa. That was never realised. Instead the collection was transferred to the National Gallery of Canada and mostly kept in storage. Eight large canvases were sent to hang in the new Senate Chamber, where they remain today:

  • Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, Edgar Bundy
  • A Mobile Veterinary Unit in France, Algernon Talmage
  • Railway Construction in France, Leonard Richmond
  • Arras, the Dead City, James Kerr-Lawson
  • On Leave, Claire Atwood
  • The Cloth Hall, Ypres, James Kerr-Lawson
  • The Watch on the Rhine (The Last Phase), William Rothenstein
  • Returning to the Reconquered Land, George Clausen

Eventually the National Gallery transferred the collection (except the historical paintings and paintings by David Milne) to the Canadian War Museum. Again, most remain in storage, although more are on view since the new museum building opened in 2005. They form the core of special exhibits from time to time. Interest in the collection seems to increase on significant anniversaries or when Canadians are once again at war. I will examine some of these exhibits in a later post.