Remembrance Day Pictures + Canada’s Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France
Remembrance Day in pictures: 22 rare images showing the terror, humanity of Canada at war
Remembrance Day Pictures
Vimy Ridge Memorial
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial is a memorial site in France dedicated to the memory of Canadian Expeditionary Force members killed during the First World War.
Remembrance Day Pictures
For Remembrance Day, the National Post’s Tristin Hopper dove deep into the war images held by both the Canadian War Museum and Library and Archives Canada. Below, a gallery of 22 images showing the sides of war that don’t usually make it into the average cenotaph ceremony: Terror, boredom, dark humour and the anguish of returning to life after the war is over.
This is a scene that has been a feature of almost every Canadian armed conflict — and it has never ceased to annoy the average soldier. This is a group of Canadian senators who have come to tour Canadian positions along the Western front during the First World War. If they were like most politicians of the age who did this sort of thing, they likely arrived with a request to see something “interesting” near the front lines. The war correspondent Philip Gibbs captured the disgusted reaction of one British colonel when two MPs asked for a thrilling tour of the front lines. “Do they think this war is a peep-show for politicians? Do they want me to arrange a massacre to make a London holiday?”
This is three men from the Royal Canadian Regiment during the Korean War. It’s notable because all of them are exhibiting some iteration of the “thousand yard stare.” The term was first popularized during the First World War and refers to the dazed look on men emerging from the psychological stress of battle. It is not known what particular event spurred the stare in these three men, but they already appear to be dissociating from the trauma of what they’ve seen.
This image from the Korean War shows three Canadian soldiers posing next to a skull possibly posted alongside the road as a joke. Death inevitably becomes so normalized in a war zone that virtually every armed conflict since the invention of photography has featured an image like this soldiers posing around a skull. In the stalemate of the First World War, soldiers became so accustomed to a landscape of corpses that one story emerged from the British lines of a decomposing arm that had sprung out of the walls of a trench (which often served as impromptu graves). From then on, soldiers passing the arm all made it a point to jokingly shake its hand.
Entitled Freeze, this painting by Korean War veteran Ted Zuber depicts the soldier’s worst nightmare of being caught out in the open. A star shell has suddenly illuminated the battlefield, forcing a column of Canadians to stand perfectly still and pray they won’t suddenly hear the rattle of gunfire that could wipe out the whole unit.
In the First World War, Canada suffered roughly three soldiers wounded for every one killed. Every time you go into a small Canadian town and see a cenotaph with 10 names on it, you have to imagine that back in the 1920s, the town would have featured 30 more men with missing limbs, missing eyes or worse. Manitoba soldier Christian Curley, for one, returned home after having lost all four limbs at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Government posters often depicted war injuries as superficial; an arm in a sling, a bandage over the forehead. But the drawing on the right depicts a Second World War-era pedicle graft, a particularly gruesome-looking procedure first pioneered on badly burned First World War soldiers.
The typical Canadian veteran never told his friends and family about what he had been asked to do overseas. Bomber veterans privately harboured vivid memories of seeing German cities vaporize under their Lancasters. And whether due to discretion or trauma, even decorated soldiers often did not talk about the violence they had been forced to use in defence of themselves or comrades. On the left, a sketch from the Second World War of the self-defence techniques taught to Canadian soldiers. On the right, a custom-made First World War trench club that would have been used in close-quarter trench combat, often in low light.
Remembrance Day is typically full of words like “bravery,” “sacrifice” and “selflessness.” And it’s true; Canada did consistently flock to the colours with a sense of duty and patriotism that doesn’t really exist with the same intensity anymore. What is less remembered is just how much societal pressure there was on Canada’s young men to enlist, particularly during the First World War. Government posters openly questioned the manhood of anybody who wasn’t in uniform. Women, in turn, were guilt-tripped for having the gall to be seen with a husband or sweetheart who was still a civilian. In the U.K., the shaming of male civilians reached its apex with the White Feather Brigades, groups of young women who would roam public areas pinning white “coward” feathers to able-bodied men in civilian clothes.
This is the face of the man who has personally shot and killed more people than any other Canadian in history. A Canadian sniper and scout, Cpl. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was credited with just under 400 kills. And then, when the war was over he had to gather up his medals and come back to his pre-war life on a reserve near Parry Sound, Ont. This photo shows him posing with his medals in 1945. Pegahmagabow became a chief and an early campaigner for Aboriginal rights, but fellow Anishnaabe remembered him as a somewhat difficult man who seemed permanently altered by his experiences in Europe.
The most horrifying events in Canadian military history often featured more dark humour than is generally acknowledged. Among allied armies, a body riddled by bullets was jauntily referred to as being “ventilated.” This particular cartoon is by Bruce Bairnsfather, a British artist who had served in the opening months of the First World War before being hospitalized with shell shock. In it, a soldier sits before the exploded ruins of a brick wall, the surrounding fields strewn with dead animals. “At present we are staying at a farm,” reads his cheery letter.
War is boring. It’s interminable sentry duty in a town whose name you can’t pronounce. It’s days spent in the hold of a ship as an invasion timeline is repeatedly pushed back. It’s playing endless hands of gin rummy while waiting for the signal to run to your fighter plane. Those parts of war rarely make it into the stories that veterans tell classrooms, but it’s the focus of this painting showing a machine gun post near Doha, Qatar during the Persian Gulf War. The artist is again Ted Zuber, who was selected as the official war artist for Canada’s contribution to Operation Desert Storm.
At the last count in 2014, Canada was still home to 75,900 living veterans of the Second World War. With an average age of 19, they would have been 16 when war was declared, and 22 when it ended. War movies often show soldiers being portrayed by hard-bitten older men. In reality, some profoundly young people were sent to win wars for Canada. The youth of the soldiers is particularly noticeable in these two photos. On the left is two soldiers grinning over a captured Nazi flag in France. The photo on the right is from the Korean War, and shows Pte. John Lewis, who was photographed just after surviving the devastating Chinese counterattack through North Korea. Lewis had seen a particularly traumatic side of the war. Soldiers had believed the conflict was almost over when they were suddenly forced into retreat by overwhelming numbers of Chinese troops. At the Battle of Kapyong in April, 1951, a force of only 700 Canadian soldiers fended off 5,000 Chinese attackers.
Canadians at home had only the barest idea of what a world war was like. Newspaper readers heard of “major operations” that had sustained “heavy losses”— but what does that look like? The wives and parents of soldiers had not seen the images now so familiar to Canadians: The muddy devastation of Passchendaele, the pebbled beaches of Dieppe, the sandy beaches of Juno. The closest they could come was sanitized public exhibits. On the left, a Second World War-era diorama of a crashed German fighter plane exhibited in the tony Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount. On the right, a 1916 exhibit at the Canadian National Exhibition in which visitors were invited to tour model trenches while dressed in their weekend finery.
One of the intangible legacies of the First World War was what it did to global optimism. Before 1914, Canada had been a roller coaster of boomtowns, gold rushes, railways. Then, within only four years, 61,000 men were dead, 50,000 more had succumbed to influenza and the streets were filled with mourning widows and the disabled. Canada had started the 20th century seeing themselves as the invincible masters of their own destiny. By 1918, very few could feel they had any control over their lives. These two images illustrate the chilling gap between the sensibilities of the pre and postwar world. On the left, the cheery image of a soldier on a recruitment poster. On the right, the dark, gloomy portrait of Victoria Cross winner Filip Konowal.
This is Nazi leader Adolf Hitler visiting the Canadian Vimy Ridge memorial following the Fall of France. Hitler had quite a few French monuments to the Great War torn down, but he took a particular shine to the Canadian memorial. This photo, in fact, was released to the press to allay rumours that German troops had damaged the memorial. The gleaming newness of the monument shows just how quickly Canada was expected to fight two world wars. Across the country, cenotaphs and memorials had only just been installed before it became time to start chiseling new names into them. The National War Memorial in Ottawa, for instance, was dedicated in May, 1939 — less than four months before Canada was once again at war with Germany.
There are few photos of actual combat in Canadian photo archives. For obvious reasons, the Canadian Armed Forces didn’t worry itself with getting good pictures when bullets were flying. But this photo captures the terrifying “rubber meets the road” moment that would have haunted the thoughts of any Canadian servicemen shipping off to war. It depicts a Japanese fighter — possibly on a kamikaze mission — swooping in to attack HMCS Uganda. The deck gunner in the foreground knows that if he doesn’t hit the aircraft first, some or all of his crewmates may not survive the next 30 seconds. HMCS Uganda survived the war undamaged, but was in the same task force as other vessels that were struck and badly damaged by kamikaze attacks.
This is the cold accounting of what a Canadian combat death looks like. These are from the documents for Joseph Brant, a Second World War enlistee with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. This sheet staidly catalogues the milestones of Brant’s career; when he went on leave, when he embarked for France, when he was awarded the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal. And them, scrawled at the end, the entry for August 19, 1942, “presumed killed.”