War flowers: Letters home from WWI on display at Canadian War Museum

A touching collection of wartime correspondence between a Canadian soldier and his young daughter has made its way to the Canadian War Museum.

Lt.-Col. George Stephen Cantlie sent daughter flowers plucked from battlefields of France

War Flowers is an exhibit showcasing wartime correspondence between a Canadian WWI soldier and his daughter. (Viveka Melki)

A touching collection of wartime correspondence from a Canadian soldier to his baby daughter has made its way to the Canadian War Museum as part of a multi-faceted installation that demonstrates humanity's ability to find beauty, even in history's ugliest hours.

Lt.-Col. George Stephen Cantlie was a Canadian officer in the First World War. He would send letters home to his family in Montreal, and inside each was a pressed flower he had picked for his one-year-old daughter Celia from the trenches and shell-torn battlefields of France. 

The multi-sensory exhibition, called War Flowers, was created by international documentary filmmaker Viveka Melki.

The installation includes multiple components, the combination of which Melki said she hopes elicits "a visceral experience" for visitors.   

Part of the exhibition focuses on Cantlie's letters and the flowers he mailed home, including daisies, daffodils and poppies. The century-old flowers kept their colours, but Melki said they needed the intervention of a botanist to help conserve their fragile forms.

Personal stories

The flowers are interwoven with the personal stories of 10 Canadians who were directly involved in the war, including accounts of the fighting at Vimy Ridge, working behind the lines for the Red Cross, and the post-war ravages of Spanish influenza. 

"I've been working with veterans for a long time, and the language and the words around conflict are always difficult. I'm trying to talk about the human nature in wartime," Melki said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Thursday.

Melki has also included an olfactory component. She commissioned a Quebec perfume expert to create a series of scents that are released with a push of a button. Each scent is attached to a notion such as eternal sleep, memory and devotion. 

Melki wants visitors to recall their own memories of family or home when they smell such scents as lemon or mustard.

"We, the artists, are touched by the emotion. The words are moving, stunning, important, relevant, and it's very emotional for people," Melki said.

The installation will be on display in Ottawa until Jan. 7 before travelling to Toronto. It moves on to the visitor centre at the Vimy Memorial in France next spring, then to Montreal next July.