Canada’s First World War Memorials

For Canada, the golden age of the war memorial was brief. Before the start of the twentieth century there were few wars the British colonial state was interested in memorializing. After the First World War, which planted memorials in so many Canadian communities, it was easy enough to chisel new names and battles into existing monuments. There are exceptions, of course, that prove the rule – like the monument to veterans of the Battle of York sculpted by Walter Allward and completed in 1907 – but the First World War begat the lion’s share of Canadian memorials.

Remembered in Bronze and Stone is Alan Livingstone MacLeod’s love letter to those monuments. A lyrical catalog of as many of the two-hundred-odd First World War memorials with statues of soldiers as MacLeod could visit, Remembered in Bronze and Stone describes the great and the prosaic statues alike. Who knew, for example, that about a hundred Canadian communities chose to commission statues in Cararra marble to be carved, assembly-line style, by sculptors in Italy who had never even seen a Canadian soldier? Or that Emanuel Hahn’s bronze for Westville, Nova Scotia, was reproduced nine times (once in bronze, eight times in granite) by Hahn’s employer, the Thomson Monument Company, and copied nine times by the anonymous carvers from Cararra.

Hahn himself is an interesting figure. Born in Germany, he emigrated to Canada in 1888 at age seven. After an education in Germany, he was Allward’s assistant for a time before becoming chief designer for the Thomson Monument Company in 1919. He lost the commission for the City of Winnipeg war memorial because of his German birth. His sculptures show a range of emotions, from sombre (the Westville bronze, Tommy in Greatcoat in Lindsay, ON and Moncton, NB) to determined (Summerside, PEI and Saint-Lambert, QC) allegorical-heroic (Oil Springs, ON and Malvern Collegiate, Toronto).

I think it’s fair to say that many of the local memorials are not aesthetic triumphs, though MacLeod certainly documents plenty of fine work. But it’s interesting to see just how widely soldier sculptures varied from those carved by Allward for Vimy Ridge and cast by Vernon March for the national cenotaph in Ottawa.


The First World War in British Memory

For Remembrance Day this year, the Canadian non-profit Vimy Foundation commissioned an Ipsos poll on the First World War whose most interesting question, at least for me, was about the number of soldier deaths suffered by the Canadian, American, Belgian, British, French, and German armies – with answers from online panels in all six countries. You can see the results, including average error, on page 17 of the poll.

Unsurprisingly, everyone was wildly inaccurate all the way, with the average error ranging from 299,286 for the French to 487,980 for the United States – relative to actual casualty numbers between 40,936 (for Belgium) and 1,397,800 (for Germany). I doubt I would have done any better without any cues for scale or relative order.

The official summary highlights a few interesting observations:

Respondents in the US, UK and France came closest to correctly guessing their own country’s World War One soldier deaths. US respondents also came closest to correctly guessing the numbers for Canada and Belgium, while those in France were nearest the mark for Germany. Each country over-estimated Canadian deaths – including Canadians by nearly 3-times. French respondents’ guesses were, on average, the most accurate.

Converting the results from absolute numbers to percentage error, though, makes some other facts jump out.


Deaths Respondents
Canada United States Belgium Great Britain France Germany Average
Canada 237% 107% 211% 266% 220% 241% 213%
United States 229% 201% 229% 237% 312% 289% 250%
Belgium 456% 278% 520% 659% 440% 447% 466%
Great Britain 59% 42% 58% 119% 54% 65% 66%
France 42% 30% 40% 47% 65% 60% 47%
Germany 41% 31% 52% 57% 73% 60% 53%
Average 130% 80.5% 135% 162% 130% 132%
More than anything else, what respondents missed was that European powers were an order of magnitude more involved in the war than Canada and the US (and that Belgium was, relatively speaking, a tiny country). Respondents in every country – with one exception – overestimated the North American and Belgian losses and underestimated the French, German, and British losses.

Beyond that, the accuracy of the French guess in absolute terms turn out to have rested on the fact that French and German deaths constituted three-quarters of the total deaths being estimated – the French guesses were the least accurate of any nation for US deaths and subpar for Canadian deaths too. In fact, if you look at the average error as a matter of percentages, it’s the Americans who come out best. I sure didn’t see that coming.

Last, but hardly least, only one country bucks the trend when it comes to under- or over-estimating a country’s deaths.The average British guess for that country’s losses is one of three cases where the nation’s guess of its own losses is closest of the six, but it’s the only one that breaks the common pattern.Where every other nation under-guesses British soldier deaths the British over-estimate their own by twenty per cent. I wouldn’t read too much into any of these numbers, but there’s got to be something interesting going on where the French and German’s underestimate their national losses by 35–40% and the British overestimate their by 20%.

Indigenizing a Biography

9780887558245_300_450_90One of Canada’s modern Indigenous war heroes, the First World War sniper Francis Pegahmagabow has already been the subject of several biographies and the inspiration for  a novel, Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden. Now a new book by one of Pegahmagabow’s descendants offers a new perspective on the man’s life and world.

Sounding Thunder: The Stories of Frances Pegahmagabow by Brian D. McInnes collects a series of stories told to McInnes by two of Pegahmagabow’s children, as well as by Anishinaabe (or, as McInnes prefers in the book, Nishnaabe) elders in the Georgian Bay area where Pegahmagabow lived after the war. Some of the stories are traditional legends. Others are about Pegahmagabow or the community in which he lived. Though only a few deal with his war experiences per se, the stories in Sounding Thunder add to our knowledge of Pegahmagabow’s life and times.

As importantly, though, they also challenge the traditional perspective on how to discuss that life. Instead of writing a biography which integrates the stories into the narrative, McInnes chooses to present each of the stories on its own and in its entirety. Only after presenting the story does he provide a chapter that contextualizes it and connects it with Pegahmagabow’s history. The stories are also printed in Ojibwe, with an interlinear English translation and discussion that makes it clear that the English can only approximate the nuances of the original text (which originated themselves in oral tellings).

That decision was, at least for me, instructive and illuminating. It highlighted the Indigenous origins of the knowledge about Pegahmagabow, its preservation by his children Duncan and Marie, and the way that its presentation as biographical evidence is an explicit choice (and not the only one) in presentation. McInnes’s writing and his translations of the stories tell the non-Ojibwe-speaking reader quite a lot a lot about Pegahmagabow and his home in the community of Wasauksing. So, in a different way, does McInnes’s decision that Anishnaabe storytelling should be the focus and not the substructure of his book.


The Last Steps

Active History has a pre-Remembrance Day blog post by Claire L. Halstead on The Last Steps, a recently unveiled First World War memorial on the Halifax waterfront.

The memorial takes the shape of an arch and stands on the city’s harbour front; a gangplank purposefully leads the observer’s eye up the pier, through the arch, and right out to sea. Footprints (cast from an authentic soldier’s boot) burnt into the wooden pier conjure up impressions of souls from long ago. In this, Nancy Keating, the Nova Scotia artist who designed the memorial, succeeds in imparting on the observer the haunting emotion the memorial is intended to convey. The memorial stands as a testament to the last steps soldiers took in Halifax before departing for the Great War.

One of Halstead’s comments about the memorial is that there’s a tension over its location. Despite its title and its positioning, The Last Steps is actually about a kilometer away from where Canadian soldiers who departed through Halifax actually embarked. Instead of being at Pier 2, the memorial is at Pier 21 close to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and on a far more traveled part of the waterfront.

Two questions which Halstead poses are a) “is it acceptable to sacrifice an essence of historical accuracy to ensure public engagement?” and b) whether the spatial distortion in The Last Steps‘s location could be “reconciled by expanding the scope of the memorial to include and emphasise Halifax’s contribution to the war in addition to the men who departed from it.”

I wonder whether the fact Halstead even poses the question is connected to the fact that The Last Steps is a mimetic memorial whose footprints, gangplank, and arch are built to look like an artifact of the era rather than a modern allusion. We know that the map is never the territory and that even “on this spot” markers make concessions to traffic and construction. The National War Memorial in Ottawa stands on a spot hallowed by nothing in particular from the war it commemorates, apart from proximity to Parliament. Not every question about a memorial’s location has to do with its style, as another post on Active History demonstrates, but in this case I feel like the memorial’s look has to be a factor.

Watching the Soviets off the Canadian Coast

David Zimmerman’s new book on the Royal Canadian Navy, Maritime Command Pacific, discusses the navy’s anxieties about the presence of Soviet trawlers or merchant ships off the Canadian Pacific coast. Maritime Command Pacific presumed that Soviet ships were undertaking intelligence activities to monitor Canadian naval and maritime air forces, military radio transmissions, and underwater cables. In wartime, they suspected the Soviet fishing fleet would be cut submarine cables, jam radio communications, lay mines, land secret agents, raid isolated shore targets, support Soviet submarine and aircraft operations, or even scuttle ships to block Canadian ports. As a result, planning for home defense in British Columbia included guards for as many as 3,000 captured Soviet seamen, and naval operations included the close surveillance of Soviet fishing vessels in the Canadian area of operations (which extended beyond Canadian territorial waters).

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref. Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

HMCS New Glasgow at sea, 1956. Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / ecopy. LAC Ref.
Archival reference no. R112-6097-7-E.

The small size of the Canadian fleet meant that surveillance of the Soviet commercial fleet was thin at best. An example of a more involved operation was the tracing of the Soviet trawler SRT 4454. First spotted by American patrol aircraft on June 8, 1962, SRT 4454 was shadowed  over the course of two weeks first by a Canadian Neptune patrol airplane, then by the frigate Stettler, again by Canadian aircraft, and finally by the frigates New Glasgow and Jonquiere. The after action analysis of the operation included the observation that no seagulls followed the ship when it was streaming its trawl, unusual if fish were being caught; reports from the Department of Fisheries and the Pacific Oceanographic Group that the waters SRT 4454 was “fishing” were too deep to catch much of anything; and radar contact by the Neptune with what might have been a submarine nearby. Maritime Command Pacific’s final conclusion was that SRT 4454 might have been planting “underwater navigation fixing aides,” possibly in conjunction with a submerged submarine.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman’s book concludes in 1965, just as the Soviet fishing presence in the eastern Pacific was massively expanding (Carmel Finley’s Pacific Fisheries project has been documenting that expansion here, here, and here). The book also leaves open the question “was the Soviet fishing fleet engaged in spying or other nefarious activities?”

I’ve been looking for anyone writing about this for a while. During the Cold War, the idea that Soviet fishing vessels – as opposed to the intelligence-collecting ships that were built on trawler hulls but openly acknowledged as naval vessels – were heavily engaged in espionage or clandestine operations was widespread. The most dramatic that I’ve ever seen is in the semi-fictional future history World War 3, edited by Shelford Bidwell, in which two Soviet factory ships (the fish-processing mother ships of the Soviet fishing fleet) lay mines in the Dover Straits through concealed ports beneath the waterline.

Twenty-four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I’ve yet to see any new specifics, despite the range of other disclosures about Soviet military and intelligence activities. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security, but the gap is starting to look like no one has any good stories to tell – or that the stories remain so relevant to current events that they are staying deeply buried to protect sources and methods. Without any direct evidence, the best argument that the Soviets were probably using the fishing fleet for intelligence activities is that NATO nations were doing the same themselves. The US, British, and Norwegians all both 1) operated covert or clandestine intelligence-gathering ships which were disguised as civilian trawlers or merchant ships and 2) collected intelligence by placing agents on genuine civilian trawlers or cargo ships or having their crews collect information themselves.

Whether or not Soviet civilian vessels really did threaten the Canadian Pacific coast, the fear had at least one major consequence. The need for a military presence, no matter how minimal, along the less populated northern British Columbian coast was one of the reasons for creating the Canadian Rangers as a unpaid, almost unarmed (the only weapon issued was the Second World War-vintage Lee-Enfield rifle), volunteer reserve to protect the coast. The Rangers, who not only still exist but have become a significant part of Canadian military policy in the north.

Source Notes: Maritime Command Pacific: The Royal Canadian Navy’s West Coast Fleet in the Early Cold War (UBC Press, 2015) discusses Canadian surveillance of Soviet ships on Pacific coast. American clandestine intelligence-gathering ships are covered in Jeffrey Richelson’s article “Task Force 157: The US Navy’s Secret Intelligence Service 1966–77” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 11 no. 1); more overt intelligence-gathering is in Wyman H. Packard’s A Century of Naval Intelligence. British use of trawlers is the topic of Richard J. Aldrich and Mason Redfearn’s “The Perfect Cover: British Intelligence, the Soviet Fleet and Distant Water Trawler Operations, 1963–1974” (Intelligence and National Security, vol. 12 no. 3)

TERCOM, System and Symbol: Part Two

Back to Part One

GPS was only one among many guidance technologies that saw their first use in the first Gulf War. One of the others was Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM), the guidance system behind a trio of American cruise missiles: the sea-launched Tomahawk, Air-Launched Cruise Missile, and ground-launched Gryphon. As Ingrid Burrington reported for the Atlantic earlier this year, GPS provoked some strong feelings that included an axe-wielding attack by peace protesters. TERCOM attracted some of the same attention.

None of the three cruise missile systems were uncontroversial, though the Gryphon attracted the lion’s share of the protests in the European countries where it was to be based (just google “Euromissiles crisis” or “Greenham Common” for a sample). In Canada, US flying tests of the ALCM over northern Alberta as a proxy for the terrain of Siberia led to substantial public protests. Some went beyond vigils, marches, and speeches. Two Greenpeace members climbed the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to unfurl a banner saying “No cruise, Greenpeace.” An art student, Peter Grayson, threw red ink on a copy of the Canadian constitution on display at the National Archives. In Prince George, BC, an ALCM was burned in effigy, near Wandering River, Alberta, Greenpeace launched a net carried by balloons during one test as a “cruise catcher.”

Canadian involvement with cruise missile development was also the spark for an act of violent protest reminiscent of the Kjoller-Lumsdaine “Harriet Tubman-Sarah Connor Brigade” attack on GPS.

Direct Action in Rexdale
One of the companies building guidance packages for cruise missiles was Litton Systems Canada, the local subsidiary of Litton Industries. On the night of October 14, 1982, the Etobicoke Police Department received a telephone call reporting that there was a blue van filled with explosives parked outside the Litton Systems factory in Rexdale, Toronto. The van, which was filled with 250 kg of dynamite stolen from the British Columbia Highways Ministry earlier that year, was the work of Direct Action, a radical British Columbia group who had already blown up four power transformers on Vancouver Island to protest BC Hydro’s development there. Three of what became known as the “Squamish Five” after their arrest – Brent Taylor, Juliet Belmas, and Ann Brit Hansen – drove out to Toronto to carry out the bombing.

Embed from Getty Images

Their target, Litton Industries’ Plant no. 402, had already been the site of protests against Litton’s cruise missile production contract. Direct Action took pains to avoid any casualties from their bombing. They placed an orange box with two sticks of dynamite and a warning on the van’s hood, then phoned in a warning message to the police. Despite their precautions, the bomb in the van detonated early, putting nine people in hospital. In their post-bombing communiqué, the group apologized for the injuries before going on to condemn Canadian complicity in the nuclear arms race.

Embed from Getty Images

Direct Action’s members soon moved on to other activities, firebombing a series of stories in the Red Hot Video pornography chain and planning the robbery of a Brinks armored car, before they were captured by the RCMP in early 1983. Their attack on the Litton factory had effectively no effect on the work done there. John Clearwater, whose book on the subject documents the eighteen flight tests and the related protests in painstaking detail, reports:

the explosion did not stop cruise missile navigation systems production. In fact, the area in the factory, well insulated from shock and vibration, remained unharmed. The test pedestals on which the delicate instruments were calibrated remained mounted on their steel and concrete columns sunk far into the soil beneath the factory. After the blast, technicians simply rechecked the alignment of the test-beds with the stars and the earth’s axis to ensure the perfection of the TERCOM navigation instruments. Production was not halted. (Just Dummies, page 102.)

Hansen’s own memoir reported that the factory’s work was disrupted for only two days.

Direct Action’s communiqué taking responsibility for the Litton Systems bombing rooted their opposition to the cruise missile in opposition to nuclear war, as “the ultimate expression of the negative characteristics of Western Civilization,” whose “roots lie deep in centuries of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, class domination, and all others forms of violence and oppression that have scarred human history.” They condemned the cruise missile as one of set of weapons “designed for offensive first-strike use” (including the Pershing II, Trident, and neutron bomb), as well as Canadian involvement in US nuclear weapons production: not just Litton’s work on the cruise missile, but also launchers for Lance missiles by Hawker-Siddeley, hull cylinder torpedo tubes for Polaris, Poseidon, and Trident by Vickers, cranes to load Trident missiles by Heeds Inernational, and one component of the MX missile. In the context of Direct Action’s critique, neither inertial navigation nor terrain contour matching was of much specific interest.

Forward to Part Three

A Different Kind of War Art

The most famous art from the First World War comes from the avant-garde styles of the era: expressionists like George Grosz, Vorticists like C.R.W. Nevinson and Wyndham Lewis, or surrealists like Paul Nash. But war art reflected pretty much every art tradition out there, including some stemming from far away from the battlefields of Europe.

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta has a teepee door from the Kainai (or Blood) tribe on display in which triangular figures are seen running amidst what are clearly shell explosion. Some of them clearly wear the German spiked pickelhaube helmet, others stand behind a cannon. Though the artist is unknown, the door bears the date 1917.

As it happens, Glenbow Museum AF 3649-B (viewable here) is only one of many pieces of war art painted after the First World War by men from the Blackfoot confederacy, a First Nation that inhabits present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. L. James Dempsey’s extensive catalog of Blackfoot pictographs, Blackfoot War Art: Pictographs of the Reservation Period, 1880–2000, has numerous examples of the art form being used to depict wartime experiences.

The First World War works that Dempsey catalogs come in a variety of forms. They include a calfskin robe with the exploits of Mike Mountain Horse in the 191st Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the anonymous tent door at the Glenbow, Nick King’s capture of four pickelhaubed Germans – painted on Eagle Ribs’ war lodge after the Second World War, and George Strangling Wolf’s capture of three enemy guns – on a canvas teepee liner now at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Second World War veterans similarly depicted their exploits when they returned home. Clarence McHugh, or Black Bull, counted coup for surviving heavy bombing raids in England and dangerous patrols in France; Mark Wolf Leg, whose exploits included the capture of four Germans, depicted them both on the Three Suns war lodge and a miniature shield.

Blackhawk pictographs from of the World War are, Dempsey explains, only one example of how the tradition of pictographic war art, continued after the decline of warfare on the plains in the late nineteenth century, changed to accommodate more recent experiences. My favorite example, and one that’s quintessentially Canadian, has to be the use of National Film Board logos to mark participation in documentary films on a robe painted by Pete Standing Alone.