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.

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

Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania

The first two chapters of Hillary L. Chute’s new study of comics as “visual witness” to wars and atrocities are a brief but informative tour of the history of narrative visual depictions of wartime trauma. After beginning with Callot and Goya, Chute describes the development of the form in fits and starts from the nineteenth century to the 1960s. Her story includes the work of cartoonist Winsor McCay, best known for his surreal comic series Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland. An early experimenter with animated films, McCay created an animated documentary of the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915. The Sinking of the Lusitania is about nine minutes long, including intertitles and an interesting live action introduction that explains how McCay drew the cel animation of the film.

I’m hardly the right person to judge the craftsmanship of McCay’s animation, but I’d second Chute’s judgement that his renderings are “detailed, proportional, and realistic.” McCay carefully balances the desire to horrify with the need not to alienate the viewer. His “long shots” of people jumping from the deck of the ship into the sea are still pretty powerful in the grainy versions you can see on YouTube.

I was already familiar with many of the images that Chute discusses, from the Miseries of War to Maus, but The Sinking of the Lusitania was new to me. It’s an interesting precursor to Second World War animated films like Victory Through Air Power.

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.