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 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.

The New World War One Memorial in Washington, DC

Earlier this year, the US World War One Centennial Commission announced the selection of its design for the new World War One memorial in Washington, DC. The plan, entitled “The Weight of Sacrifice,” consists of a low 137 foot wall covered in soldier’s quotations and relief sculptures, as well as a free-standing bronze (the “Wheels of Humanity”) and the pre-existing statue of General John Pershing that already stood on the site, the current Pershing Square.


It’s got to be tough to be a memorial designer in today’s world. Be grand without being too grandiose (the World War Two memorial went a little overboard on that one). Be solemn without being mournful (that might suggest that somewhere in the past, mistakes were made, and this is a memorial not a history lesson). Be inclusive (Sandra Pershing on the memory of her grandfather-in-law: “He valued the service of all: African-Americans, women, countless immigrants who wore our country’s uniform, the volunteer ambulance drivers, the support staffs, the nurses”) without being so inclusive as to suggest the existence of dissenting voices.

“The Weight of Sacrifice,” by architect Joe Weishaar and sculptor Sabin Howard, sits in the somewhat-benighted middle ground between all those demands. There’s the low wall that seems de rigeur post-Maya Lin, but also both free-standing and relief figurative sculpture. There’s nothing to unsettle the visitor, but also nothing too overtly celebratory.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people it’s not going to impress. Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott lambasted all the finalists in a column right before the selection was announced:

Something has clearly gone wrong not just in the design competition, but also more fundamentally in the language of memorialization prevalent today. It is, in a word, exhausted. The same cliches keep recurring, including the weird numerological connection between the number of dead and some architectural or landscape element; the confusion of virtues to be honored (honor, heroism, diversity, national pride, family, sacrifice); and a tendency to the extremes of clutter on the one hand and barrenness on the other.

He’s a little softer on the final design talking to PBS NewsHour after the announcement (“The best thing about this design is the simplicity of it and the fact the designer has been sensitive to the existing parks’ sense of an oasis in the city”), but not by much.

Honestly, it seems like a hard row to hoe. In the US, at least, there’s no way back after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Memorials are supposed to emote in their very structure now. On the other hand, just what to emote, and how, is never very clear. Needless to say, there are those insisting that the formal language of the turn of the century is all we have ever needed for this, thank-you-very-much. It’s worth remembering, though, that the first round of memorials for World War One broke with that tradition in many ways too. The Cenotaph in Whitehall was wildly unusual, a temporary plinth with none of the appropriate symbolism for a war memorial. Lutyen’s Thiepval Memorial broke new ground too. So did the idea of stadiums and halls as war memorials in their own right.

In the meantime, I suppose everyone will keep muddling through. More than thirty years and far too many wars after the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the time might be ripe for a new language of commemoration

Counting Teeth

In his memoir of travels in Namibia, Peter Midgley writes that “Where Parisian flâneurs provide direction simply by conjuring up the name of a rue, Namibians use their monuments as points of reference.”

There are statues at the one end of Independence Avenue and statues at the other end. And in between there are monuments and statues in Zoo Park and other places. Namibia has more statues and monuments per capita than any other place in the world. There are South African colonial statues, German colonial statues and memorials and, since independence, an increasing number of new statues to honour the heroes of the Struggle. “At the kudu statue, turn left,” the people of Windhoek say, “Head along Independence Avenue until you see Curt von François in front of the town hall …” And so on. Heaven forbid that a landmark should move. What chaos could ensue!

Midgley’s trip into Namibian history and his Namibian past certainly demonstrates that there is no shortage of memory to commemorate. From the cross marking Bartolomeu Dias’ landfall at Dias Point in 1487 to the battlefields of the War of Independence, Midgley’s trip traces the impressions history has left across the Namibian landscape.

Toronto certainly isn’t a place where memorials make an impression – a colleague who moved to the city recently commented that Torontonians always give directions in terms of cardinal directions, not landmarks. In fact, I have a hard time imagining people here ever using memorials (as opposed to buildings, like the CN Tower) as a proxy for locations. There’s no shortage of history here, really, but I suppose it’s not a pervasively present history. In Toronto, contra Faulkner, the past really is past.

The Eternal Letter and Monumental Inscriptions

Paul Shaw’s new book, The Eternal Letter: Two Millennia of the Classical Roman Capital, is a gorgeous, lavishly illustrated study of imperial Roman capital letters (as seen, most influentially, on Trajan’s Column) and their use in modern typography. You’d recognize them today, mostly likely, through Carol Twombly’s typeface Trajan, which has become massively overexposed via movie posters (an appendix to The Eternal Letter counts 450 examples between 1991 and 2011).

A lot of the typographic subtlety here is beyond me, but The Eternal Letter also includes a very interesting interview with John Everett Benson and his son Nick, letter carvers and owners of the John Stevens Shop. The Stevens Shop (whose work I mentioned here) are the preeminent letter carvers for official and semi-official American monuments these days: the interview is illustrated with examples from their work on the Four Freedoms monument in New York City, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the National World War II Memorial, among others.

Putting the samples up close to each other is interesting, because it reveals some the differences in how they’ve lettered the various monuments.

The lettercarving for the National World War II Memorial is very Roman, but not – as I wouldn’t have realized until being exposed to an entire book on Roman capitals – entirely based on the imperial model. Though it has the lengthy, bracketed serifs (that’s type language for serifs that have a curve, not a hard edge, where they connect with the letter itself) of the imperial style, the variation in the thickness of stroke is far less than in the letters on Trajan’s Column. Its a hefty design for a hefty edifice.

The inscription at Four Freedoms park is far more modern, relatively hard-edged and crisp. Christopher Calderhead interviewed Nick Benson about it in an issue of Letter Arts Review (check your library; mine had it via EBSCOhost), and included specimens of the full alphabet. There, Benson described the need for a style that would resonate with both Roosevelt’s era and Kahn’s design for the monument itself: “Looking at the wall, I wanted to have a big block of modernist text, similar to the use of Futura in the 1930s or 40s. I wanted to get some of that flavor in there. The monument is so architecturally pure. I thought a modernist approach would work well.”

Still, looking closely, you can see the slight splay at the end of each stroke that distinguishes Benson’s letterforms from those that are strictly geometric. To Calderhead, he says “I injected my own John Stevens Shop style into it. I added a very slight splay to the strokes. It’s ridiculously subtle.” More evocatively, he told the New Yorker that it was “a little bit of evidence of the human hand—a very subtle sweep of a stroke.”

The Bensons’ discussion of their work on the MLK Memorial in The Eternal Letter is fascinating, combining the artistic and the contextual issues surrounding their work there. The alphabet they designed for that project, which is reproduced in the book, is a humanist sans serif letter that is freer, more flexible, and less restrained than either other design.

This is John Everett:

The Martin Luther King alphabet, a sans serif letter somewhere between the Greco-Roman stone graffiti models and such modern work as Hans Meier’s Syntax or Carol Twombly’s Lithos was drawn to meet very specific needs …
The American black community was the client for this job, and had no desire for traditional Latin, continental, or Anglo-Saxon letterform. Furthermore, just when the MLK job was maturing, a strong and intelligent criticism of tribal African and “Black” poster-style letterforms appeared in the press. We had first considered this avenue, but the criticism linked it to slavery. In that precise time frame, it was thus unacceptable …
Nick and I both love the early, Greco-Roman, sans serif capitals. Many were carved directly into bronze or copper plates. In stone they have the dynamism of graffiti, with the glorious Greek skeletons overlaid by the barbaric aspirations of early Rome.

And this is Nick:

The sans serif form I chose for the MLK Memorial also had much to do with its architectural style. It is certainly considered contemporary design, with nods to the classical world. The Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation liked the idea of the lettering having some contemporary overtones.

The whole discussion, and the rest of the book, is fascinating, even for someone who has to do a lot of squinting at samples and flipping to glossaries to keep up with the discussion.

Counting Poppies

There’s an apocryphal saying of Josef Stalin’s that a single death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. Its a pithy way of putting the difficulty of memorializing vast tragedies, when the number of dead and the enormity of the event makes it hard to even conceptualize the loss. I’ve gone on from time to time on this blog about abstraction in memorialization, leaning on James E. Young (read The Texture of Memory, if you haven’t) and Vincent Scully. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that I was struck by what looks to be a beautiful and powerful installation planned for the Tower of London this year.

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (a good summary at the BBC, but io9 seems to have the best photograph) will plant 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat of the Tower, one for each British or imperial military fatality during the war. (It’s a little unclear exactly the basis for the count; some sites say the deaths run through to 1921). As a visual reflection of the enormity of loss, it looks pretty effective, joining a long tradition of enumerations of loss (like Vietnam Veterans Memorial) and, presumably before long, a long tradition of ambiguities about who’s in and who’s out in those reflections.

The beauty of mute enumerations is that they show, rather than tell. With Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the presence will demand interpretation, not provide it (though I’m sure there will be plenty of helpful contextualization on hand). But, by amping up the installation with a number of such precision, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red will also invite some awkward questions about who sacrificed. We can assume from the description that civilian casualties won’t be included, either from the home front (whether killed by enemy action or war-related accidents) or from voluntary agencies like the Red Cross in France. Nor will it necessarily include non-Commonwealth contributors to the British imperial war effort, like the Chinese Labour Corps (1,900 of whom died and are commemorated at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetary at Noyelles-sur-Mer). I desperately hope that the number does include the dead of the South African Native Labour Contingent, considering the circumstances under which they fought their war.

Probably the most pointed commentary on the boundaries of loss is sort-of a war memorial itself. Chris Burden’s The Other War Memorial (1991) features copper plates engraved with 3 million names, representing the approximate number of Vietnamese war dead during the Vietnam War (rather than an accurate list, Burden computer-mixed-and-matched personal names and surnames from Vietnamese telephone books – as I said, it’s only sort-of a memorial).

Burden’s Other War Memorial was only the latest in a series of war-related
installations involving enumeration. In 1979, he matched up 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matchsticks to represent the Soviet tank arsenal in The Reason for the Neutron Bomb. In 1987, he hung 625 miniature submarines from a gallery ceiling for All the Submarines of the United States of America. Neither artwork stated what they were about – mute enumerations show, rather than tell – but their enumerations were emotionally and argumentatively charged.

I’m impressed by the first looks I’ve seen of Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, but I do wish they hadn’t done such a specific count, and just filled the moat instead. Then it could have articulated that loss often seems immeasurable, no matter the precise numbers.

Interaction and Meaning in the Canadian Holocaust Monument

Work and moving house seems to have killed The Devil of History stone dead, temporarily, but I felt like I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment on the plans that have been unveiled for Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, near the Canadian War Museum.

The six finalist teams have released their plans (summaries from the Globe & Mail here, and links to excerpts of their presentations here). There’s a lot of top international talent here, including the ridiculously omnipresent Daniel Libeskind with photographer Edward Burtynsky, and David Adjaye (National Museum of African American History) with Ron Arad (Ground Zero memorial). Aside from Libeskind’s design, which I loathe on the basis that it repeats the same motifs he uses everywhere, I don’t actually have strong feelings about any of the designs. They all seem like measured, well considered plans for a memorial that has to walk a fine line between universality and specificity.

(Some context for my rage against Libeskind. He’s clearly a very talented architect, but his work really never responds to the local context. Commentators are sure to note that his “journey through a star” evokes his Jewish Museum in Berlin, but that also means that it evokes his Dresden Museum of Military History and the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. I’ve softened on the challenges of actually using the space in his expansion for the Royal Ontario Museum, but I still think the “air shafts” at IWM North are the most ridiculous waste of space I’ve ever seen in a museum.)

What struck me as interesting about the designs is that they all call for the viewer not to be a viewer, but a traveler or experiencer. Libeskind’s “journey through a star,” Adjaye’s twenty-two narrow paths to walk, and all the other designs call for the visitor to move into the monument and become surrounded by it. Unlike earlier generations of memorial, or even plaza-spaces like the US National World War Two memorial, they are not objects to be considered from a distance. Nor are they contemplative spaces where the visitor can enter and sit, but without engaging with the design. Instead, the proposed designs push to disrupt the separation between visitor and symbol, both with space and in several cases with audio-visual elements.

That’s an interesting trend, I think, and one that puts a new twist on the need to offer meaning without a level of conviction that becomes exclusionary. Putting the onus of the experience on the visitor means you get the vagueness of abstraction without the collapse of intent into neutrality. This also means that I probably have to give up the idea of an “age of memorial irony.” It seems we’re not quite so flummoxed by the problem of war and atrocity that we’ve given up trying to understand it.