In Honour of Remembrance Day


The Vimy Ridge Memorial to the missing Canadian war dead of the First World War in France. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, December 2011.

Many Canadian schoolchildren memorize Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. Most ceremonies on this day include a recitation. I had a go of reciting it from memory in honour of this year’s Remembrance Day, and I believe I only replaced “sleep” with “rest”. I also seem to reflexively say “amidst” instead of “amid”. I am certain that “amidst” remains a word, despite what spell check tells me. Regardless of my vocabulary choices, this poem remains a really evocative part of the collective memory of Canadians. 

Hundreds of thousands of Canadian men and women served in the armed forces and medical divisions during the Great War. 


Sister “Whimsey”, a Knitting Nurse

All right, I was going to work on finishing a post (now a two, possibly three part entry) on interpreting motorcars from the 1920s at Fort Edmonton Park, but I was distracted by the Flickr page of Library and Archives Canada. Specifically, a photograph spotted in the Alice Isaacson set, which is composed of photographs taken of Canadians (by a Canadian, I presume?) in France at the end of the First World War. I have already tweeted several fascinating images of the effects of from that collection – the shell of a downed Zeppelin, a view of an airplane above the Place de la Bastille, ca. 1918, taken from the cockpit of another airplane, and this interesting photograph of people gathered around what appears to be a motorcar that has driven into a shell hole in the middle of a street.

However, this image in particular caught my attention:

Nursing sister Catherine Wymbs, No. 6 Canadian General Hospital, Troyes, France. MIKAN 1965681
Nursing sister Catherine Wymbs, No. 6 Canadian General Hospital, Troyes, France.
MIKAN 1965681. Courtesy of the Library and Archives Canada Flickr page, original entry here.

Now, as I have mentioned on numerous occasions before, one of the roles I had the opportunity to play last year at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum, was that of a nurse, a veteran of the Great War. I created a composite character, whom I called Nancy Sparrow. The bird last name may be a thinly veiled allusion to another famous nurse who lived several generations prior to this particular war, as well as a tip of the hat to the nickname for Canadian nurses during the war, the “bluebirds”. Canadian nurses, unlike British or French ones, were not volunteers, and despite the wimple (the head scarf) were not Catholic nuns, but paid officers in the Canadian military, often beginning with the rank of Lieutenant (though they were addressed as “Sister”). (Incidentally, always pronounced “Left-tenant” in Canada, not “loo-tenant”, which is the logical and American way of pronouncing the title.) These ladies were highly trained professionals and, in a rarity for their era, had equal pay to men of equivalent rank. Unlike nurses from other countries, too, they were officially officers, and so could attend officer’s socials. Canadians also had the nicest uniforms (a lovely blue, hence the nickname “Bluebirds”, not the odd grey you see Lady Sybil wearing in Series Two of Downton Abbey.) But I may be biased. That uniform is quite smart.

(The First World War costumes on 1920s street, just as an interesting side note, were purchased at auction in Calgary, and are in fact largely extra’s outfits from Paul Gross’ movie Passchendaele. With only a handful of exceptions, the other outfits at Fort Edmonton are made by a very dedicated costumer and her team.)

One of the tricky things for me as an interpreter wearing that uniform and professing to be living in 1920 was explaining, well, why I was still in uniform now that the war was over and I was “home”. It was quite easy if I were running a program – giving a speech for a Chautauqua exposition on the Importance of Cleanliness in Our Modern Age, or calling to order a meeting of a society of nurses. Then, I would be expected to don the uniform because I was functioning in an official capacity. It was trickier if I had to, say, cover another interpreter for lunch and stay at Mellon Farm in uniform. Then, if I were living there, I would be expected to change into my own clothes (my mother is a modern day nurse, and I can assure you she changes out of her scrubs as soon as she gets home). I often had the excuse that I was making a house call, and that worked quite well. Many Canadian nurses weren’t demobbed until 1921, and the man who lived next to Mellon Farm, historically, was a demobilized soldier, and there were several hospitals in Edmonton in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, simply because the war officially ends does not mean that there are no sick or injured to care for.

Often, I found myself knitting while in uniform. (I didn’t have many wounded to care for, surprisingly, as an interpreter.) It is a perfect activity to do if there aren’t too many visitors present; it gives me something to do with my hands so I don’t fidget, and is an excellent conversation starter when visitors spot me. I am not the kind of costumed interpreter to lie in wait and metaphorically pounce on visitors when they come into the room. I much prefer to be going about my day and have them stumble across me in the middle of an activity – it feels far more “authentic”, less forced of an interaction… and of course you have a ready made conversation starter: what are you doing? What are you making?

Socks are excellent things to knit. Many people are also surprised to learn that they are also associated with the First World War. In the twenty-first century, when most people picture knitters they still picture elderly ladies with crocheted shawls, spectacles, and at least one cat in the vicinity. Knitting, however, is becoming more and more popular among the youth – at least, you’ll see me knitting on the bus, and I have spotted people in cafés doing it as well. If you don’t believe me that it’s becoming a hip and trendy thing for the youth of today, check out the blogs of the Yarn Harlot and others. But during the war, having a good pair of clean, warm and dry socks could make all the difference for a soldier – it could prevent trench foot, which men were prone to get in the muddy conditions if they didn’t remove their boots for days on end. In essence, it is gangrene of the foot. Gangrene of anything isn’t pleasant. Don’t do a Google image search. It’s nasty.

"Our Boys Need Sox." American Red Cross Poster, 1914-1918. Library of Congress.
“Our Boys Need Sox.” American Red Cross Poster, 1914-1918. Library of Congress, via the Ghosts of 1914 blog.

One of the things women and little girls were urged to do on the home front was “Knit Your Bit”. Socks were particularly favoured because, contrary to modern assumptions, they were considered beginner’s projects. (Honestly, I find knitting on the round, particularly with circular needles, far easier for beginner knitters to learn. They can survive only knowing one stitch – knitting – and can properly master it before having to switch to purling. Furthermore, the part that beginner knitters seem to have most trouble with? Switching when you reach the end of the row. Knitting on the round means no row switching. Also, turning the heel can be incredibly easy depending on the pattern you use. End parenthesis.) Socks could be made even simpler by forgetting about turning the heel and making a simple knitted tube, closed at one end: an amputation sleeve, sadly also needed. Don’t believe me? You can view and download sewing and knitting patterns from the First World War here. The American Red Cross and other organizations circulated such documents so volunteer knitters on the home front could produce standardized garments which were much needed in the military hospitals.

What do I mean to say with this long and rambling post? Don’t be surprised if a nurse in full uniform sits down to knit a sock or two. (Usually two are required.) Knitting remained popular well past the war – a whole generation of women had grown up encouraged to knit in class and may have found that they enjoyed having something, practical or intricate, drop off their needles in their idle moments. Your knitting project could save someone’s life, or limb.

The Statues of Vimy: at the Ridge and in the Museum

I have been oddly silent for the past few weeks, as most grad students tend to be at this time of year. I have been buried beneath a pile of books, peering at microfilm, or lugging texts about. Occasionally I have eaten and slept.

One of my current research projects involves a comparison of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France and the “original” plasters of those statues by Walter Allward at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Here are a few of my reference photographs, taken by myself this past December.

Evidence of Bombardments near the Vimy Memorial

I would like to begin by showing this first image, involving greenery without any glimpse of marble, is from the Memorial Forest that surrounds this monument. In fact, the land all around it is legally Canadian soil. You may notice that it looks quite strange; those are scars from bombardments that occurred on this site during the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917 as well as failed military manoeuvres before and after the Canadians took the ridge in April of that year. When they began work on the site in 1922, it took them two and a half years to remove the majority of the dangerous unexploded bombs, shells, and undiscovered bodies, but even today visitors are not permitted to walk beneath the trees because it was impossible to remove everything.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

Here is the memorial itself. The two pylons were meant to represent Canada and France, and the sacrifices they made during the war. The base and the pylons are covered with allegorical figures representing such things as Charity, Peace, Knowledge, the Spirit of Sacrifice, etc. However, the most prominent of these figures is set aside from the rest. She is the one featured in two of these photographs: Canada Bereft, mourning her fallen sons. She overlooks the Douai Plain. Visiting the site, you can immediately grasp the strategic value of commanding the ridge. However, in this case, Canada looks out over a landscape in mourning.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

Vimy Ridge Memorial

I will, of course, go on at length in my research paper on the intended symbolism of the architect of the monument, Walter Allward. I hope that you can get a sense of the scale from these photographs (taken in amazingly opportune lighting due to the weather: bright sunlight directly above, but with storm clouds in the distance). From the fourth photograph in particular, I feel that one can get a sense of the importance of place for this site; it would not have nearly the same effect, say, in downtown Toronto. The monument is dependent upon its location upon the highest point of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for which so many Canadians and others gave their lives.

I will also be examining the Allward plasters, which were used to construct these massive marble statues; the latter are more than twice the size of real human beings, giving them a grave, intimidating status. Seventeen of the twenty plasters are on display in Regeneration Hall, a specially constructed room at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Most notably, the plaster for Canada Bereft is absent. Instead, the figure of Hope takes pride of place, though many of the other figures stand shoulder to shoulder in a line, relatively equal and approachable.


Regeneration HallThese plaster casts of the original clay statues sculpted by Allward himself were used as a reference tool for the Italian carvers at Vimy Ridge. They are covered in small pencil markings and even pegs, used to double the ratio from life-size to larger than life in the final product. They were never intended for display but make for a quite interesting one regardless.

I am struggling to compare these two spaces and displays of the “same” sculptures. The Vimy Memorial in France is designed around the landscape, as a testament to the sacrifice that occurred in that locale. Regeneration Hall was designed to house these sculptures, and contains its own, modified symbolism. It is a lofty room, almost reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals in atmosphere, though the asymmetrical walls are constructed of rough metal. An eerie, artificial sound of wind (recorded in the room before windows were put in, capturing a fluke of design) permeates the hall. At one end, there is a tall, triangular window facing East, towards Parliament Hill. If one stands on the loft, facing the allegorical figure of Hope, one can barely make out the Peace Tower, but only if one stands in precisely the right spot: a metaphor for the straight and narrow path that one must not deviate from to achieve peace.

Walk the knife edge of peace. Should you waver, war will ensue.

In design, these two spaces and displays are quite different. However, how have the memorialisation and symbolism of the Allward statues changed in this new space? These are the ideas that I am currently grappling with. There may in fact be more continuity than I had originally believed. Breaking with tradition of the time, Allward seemed to have designed his memorial at Vimy not to commemorate the great victory that occurred there, but to memorialise the dead and give the living a sense of hope.