First World War legacy: Commemorations of lives lost are 'all around you'

Across Canada, memorial statues, halls, buildings and plaques have honoured soldiers who served or lost their lives in the First World War, but with the passage of time, the ways to remember them are changing.

Memorial statues, halls, buildings and plaques honoured soldiers, but ways to remember are changing

Commemorations of lives lost in the First World War are scattered across Canada, including at Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto, where archivist Harold Averill says there was 'no question' there would be a memorial of some kind. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

After Private Teddy Maines was killed in France in 1917, the residents of his home village of Blyth in southwestern Ontario thought they had to do something to commemorate the terrible losses the First World War was wreaking.

Maines was far from the only soldier from the Blyth area to die in the conflict that began 100 years ago this summer, but the death of the 21-year-old and other local men on European battlefields helped galvanize his community to build a memorial hall that still stands nearly a century later as a vibrant landmark on the main street.

The Blyth Memorial Community Hall north of London, Ont., is now home to the Blyth Festival theatre, which focuses on Canadian plays. (Submitted by Brock and Janis Vodden)

Maines's death "rocked the whole community back on its heels because people thought it was just going to be a walkthrough," says Janis Vodden, a Blyth resident who, with her husband Brock, has developed a repository of local history.

"They thought the Brits were everything and they were sure they could easily win any war, so that was a big shock."

There were many more shocks to come, of course, from a war that ultimately took the lives of more than 16 million people — including 60,000 Canadians, the most Canadian lives lost in any conflict until then or ever since.

"As the other horrors kept rolling in, other boys losing their arms or others losing their lives, then the Women's Institute began to think we could have a memorial hall here," says Vodden.

The women of Blyth wanted a little something more than the commemorative statues that were rising up here and there across the country, and in that they were not alone.

Long, sad lists

In the years immediately following the First World War, halls, statues, memorial stadiums, libraries and auditoriums rose to commemorate those who served, and those who died.

Brass plaques went up in churches or stores like the T. Eaton Co., displaying long and sad lists of lives left on the battlefields of Europe.

The battle at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, a bloody Canadian victory that came with high casualties and has become a defining moment for the country, gave its name to streets in communities from Bible Hill, N.S. to Kent, B.C.

Valour Road in Winnipeg's West End, renamed from Pine Street, commemorates three soldiers who lived on the street's same block and who were all awarded the Victoria Cross.

First World War commemoration is "absolutely fascinating because it literally is all around you if you know a little, if you have a name to hang onto," says Laura Brandon, a historian of art and war at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

"I think the interesting thing about memorials is that they're absolutely everywhere, but you have to look for them because 100 years later, the freshness of why they are there has passed with the memory of the living people who would have constructed them."

More than 6,000 memorials

Making any sort of complete count now of those memorials is a daunting task. One national database lists 6,696 on its website, and invites Canadians to log the details of sites that may be missing.

Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto was completed in 1924. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
On the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, which lost more than 600 students, faculty and staff to First World War action, Soldiers' Tower rose as a memorial.

The imposing stone structure still imposes itself on campus life, with students passing under its arches and bells frequently ringing from its carillon. It even has its own Facebook page

"When you have a community that's so deeply embedded in the war effort for four years, and with the number of deaths at the University of Toronto and the trauma it caused, the war caused, and the dislocation it caused on campus, I think there was no question that there would be a memorial of some kind," says archivist Harold Averill.

In Carman, Man., in the Pembina Valley southwest of Winnipeg, a $1-million renovation is underway at the hall that was built as a memorial to the local men who served in the war, including the 83 who died at Vimy and Mons.

Memorial Hall in Carman, Man., was built to honour area residents who served in the military during the First World War, including 83 who died in the battles at Mons and Vimy Ridge. (Submitted by Cheryl Young)
​Carman Mayor Bob Mitchell has led students on visits through the red brick and limestone hall that now serves as municipal office space.

"They seem to get a kick out of the old building and the history, and then of course lots of them, as they read the list of people who lost their lives, recognize relatives," Mitchell says.

"They ask a lot of questions about the war. I think … the First World War is a long ways away and they seem to have very little knowledge. They ask why there was a war."

Set the standard

The fact that halls like Carman's can provoke such a question, along with the other physical monuments that we still see, seem like something of a touchstone for how this particular war is remembered in Canada.

Soldiers had fought and been lost in earlier conflicts, whether in the War of 1812, or the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, but their memories were not embedded in the physical landscape of the country in the same way.

"The First World War sets a completely new standard, a new expectation, simply because of the unbelievably high numbers that enlisted and were killed, which was like nothing else that had happened before," says Brandon.

"It's because it was such a huge, cataclysmic event. The First World War set the model, the paradigm, whatever you want to call it, the structure which Second World War commemoration got added into."

But as much as halls and towers and statues remain as physical memorials of the losses from the First World War, some of these commemorations are clearly changing, and not always with the sensitivity some would like.

Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., courted much controversy and outrage when its stone, Tudor-style memorial library building was levelled in 2011 to make way for an arts centre.

At other times, though, the change has led to a new home or form for the commemoration.

Plaques once displayed at Eaton's Toronto stores and now on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa commemorate the department store's 578 employees killed while serving during the First World War and the Second World War. (Submitted by the Canadian War Museum)
With the closing of some of the churches or businesses that had those brass plaques listing all those names of lives lost, it left a quandary over what to do about some of these physical items. (In the case of the T. Eaton Co., two of its big brass plaques, once on display in its Toronto stores, ended up in the war museum in Ottawa.)

"As cities evolve and develop, the buildings go away and the spot that perfectly suited that kind of memorial doesn't exist anymore, so what do you do?" asks Brandon.

"It's a huge challenge because it's not that people don't want to remember but that the way in which things were remembered is harder to fit in … with the fabric of people's lives today."

New ways, however, are emerging.

Through a project led by actor R.H. Thomson, names of Canadian soldiers have been projected onto the National War Memorial in Ottawa and other sites.

Thomson and lighting designer Martin Conboy are launching a similar initiative, The World Remembers, which will see the names of millions of soldiers who died in the First World War projected onto public buildings and schools around the world between 2014 and 2018. The names will also be shown on a website, mobile devices and public displays in some countries.

A model shows the winning design by British sculptor Vernon March in the 1926 competition for Canada's First World War memorial in Ottawa. Twenty-two uniformed figures pass through an arch bearing the allegorical figures of Peace and Freedom. (Submitted by the Canadian War Museum)
A photography show at the National Gallery includes what Brandon describes as a "kind of wallpapered wall and it's the name of everybody who died in the First World War." A Twitter account set up by Ottawa Citizen tweets soldiers' names, too.

The remembrance is still there, "but its form is changing in response to media changes and the way we live our lives," says Brandon.

Back in Blyth, the memorial community hall is now home to a thriving theatre and will be undergoing a $500,000 renovation.

Vodden thinks the community effort to build the hall, and raise the $25,000 needed (a considerable sum in those days), fostered a volunteer spirit that still thrives.

"Almost every person in the village did without to build the hall, and everybody brought their talents, whatever they were, to the fundraisings and so on," she says.

"And now any project that rises in the village, we don't have as much trouble as a lot of places do in getting volunteers. We're a small village of avid volunteers and I think it's a result of the hall."


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