Lest we forget: The stories behind Ontario's First World War memorials

In the 1920s and ’30s, communities across Ontario determined to build memorials — but not everyone agreed on how best to honour wartime sacrifice
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Nov 11, 2019
Armistice memorial ceremony at the Old City Hall cenotaph in Toronto on November 17, 1929. (Photo by Albert Pearson. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 7304.)

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Every November 11, Ontarians gather at their local war memorials to reflect on the sacrifices made by their community members during wartime. Many of these monuments were erected during the 1920s and 1930s as a response to the First World War; how they came to be — and the kinds of discussions and disagreements they generated — provide insight into how that era viewed the concept of remembrance.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War, there was a strong public desire to memorialize both the victory and those who had given their lives to secure it. “Rather than graciously accepting victory and celebrating instead the return to peace,” historian Jonathan Vance notes in his book Death So Noble, “Canadians were determined to enjoy their day in the sun by trumpeting their triumph at every occasion. After four years of tragedy, it was difficult to resist the temptation to gloat.”

Then-minister of militia and defence Sam Hughes suggested that the federal government should provide communities with war memorials identical in every respect except for size, which would vary depending on the percentage of the population that had been sent overseas. His reasoning was that the communities with the largest memorials would see a boost in civic pride, while those with the smallest would be confronted by a reminder of how little they’d sacrificed for the war effort. (The idea went nowhere.)

“While we may hope that our best war memorials will appear in the years to come,” architect Herbert E. Moore noted while addressing his professional peers in Toronto in 1919, “it is to be doubted if the average war memorial project in this country can be delayed beyond the present time, when the interest is on the crest of the wave and the immediate production is demanded.” Ontario architects, artists, and sculptors formed a number of committees that created advisory circulars and guidelines for artistically sound monuments, but their efforts faded within a few years.

The work was largely taken on by local committees, usually consisting of elected officials, prominent residents, labour officials, veteran representatives, and members of service organizations such as the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and the Rotary Club. One of the crucial decisions they had to make involved what form a war memorial should take: Should it be a solemn monument that would stand as a lasting tribute, or a much-needed facility, such as a hospital or public meeting space, that would serve the needs of the living while honouring the dead?

Newspaper letter pages published views from both sides. “Cold stone monuments may be erected on our prominent streets to commemorate the departed,” a letter printed in the Orangeville Banner in January 1919 observed, “but they do not perpetuate the spirit of those who volunteered, served, sacrificed, and died for home and country.” In a May 1919 letter to the Bolton Enterprise, though, former army chaplain F.M. Bellsmith argued that, while the memorial purpose of a hospital or community hall would be forgotten in time, “a monument in an open space where the people come and go is conspicuous; and it will not let itself be forgotten.”

Once the type of memorial had been decided upon, there was the question of what it should look like. Some contracts went to individual sculptors, such as Walter Allward, whose work graces memorials in Brantford, Peterborough, and Stratford, as well as the national monument in Vimy. Many were awarded to companies that specialized in mass-producing tombstones and other stone markers. (It was rumoured that, in some communities, such companies would donate money to fundraising efforts if their representatives were placed on memorial committees.) Popular subjects included soldiers holding their rifles in the air, figures symbolizing civilization, and winged angels of victory.

Shelburne’s experience illustrates the complex process involved in creating a war memorial. Discussions about building a cenotaph or hospital began in early 1919. Two years later, Dufferin County implemented a tax to provide funds for a memorial in Shelburne and similar projects in Grand Valley and Orangeville. Local businessmen, farmers, and representatives from the town and surrounding area formed a memorial committee and solicited community suggestions, which were discussed at a public meeting in August 1921. Proposals from the floor ranged from a gymnasium to a 74-foot-tall obelisk that would be placed on a hill east of town.

After several months of discussion, the committee presented a plan to town council that involved purchasing land for a memorial park. After council rejected that plan, a new committee formed, reviewed several sites, and returned to the first plan. Council conducted a public plebiscite in May 1922 to approve either a park or ornamental gates for the town cemetery. The gates won by a landslide, but the results angered the local branch of the Great War Veterans’ Association. A week later, it unanimously voted to reject the gates and agreed to urge the town to build a memorial behind the town hall. Additional sites were proposed but then rejected by the veterans. In the end, the town-hall site won: the memorial was unveiled in June 1923. (While community divisions could run deep, at least no Ontario projects met the fate of the memorial in Saint-Hillaire, Quebec, which was blown up during the summer of 1922 by a resident upset that the names of the dead were not inscribed on it.)

Sometimes ambition was thwarted by financial or other realities. In June 1919, Windsor mayor E. Blake Winter proposed an “international subway” under the Detroit River for all forms of traffic as a joint Canadian-American war memorial. (There was some suggestion that this idea might have sprung as much from Winter’s dissatisfaction with the cross-border ferry service as from a genuine urge to memorialize.) The vision was downgraded to a community hall, then to an elaborate cenotaph, then to a simple 20-foot high cenotaph, which was unveiled in 1924. In Brantford, a decade of inadequate fundraising meant that, when the Brant County War Memorial was dedicated in 1933, it was missing three bronze figures. The monument remained incomplete until seven bronze statues representing all branches of the Canadian services were added in 1992.

Whatever path they took to completion, the cenotaphs and war memorials across the province were intended to honour the dead and the values they fought for — and to inspire hope for the future. “To look at them as artistic objects is to miss their point,” Vance observes. “Rather, they were intended to express the feeling of local communities towards the war they commemorated. Indeed, it is the naïve sculpture, amateur construction, and often melodramatic images that make these memorials so appealing and so evocative of local sensibilities.”

Sources: The History of Shelburne by John Rose (Shelburne: self-published, 1973); The Girls by Rebecca Sisler (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Company, 1972); Death So Noble by Jonathan F. Vance (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997); the May 2, 1919, edition of the Bolton Enterprise; the June 25, 1919, edition of the Border Cities Star; the Fall 2015 edition of Canadian Issues; the October 1919 edition of Construction; and the January 2, 1919, edition of the Orangeville Banner.

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