Vimy at 100: New war museum exhibition gives thanks for our memories

Detail from a photograph showing Canadian troops heading to the rear after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917. George Metcalf Archival Collection CWM 19920085-294 © Canadian War Museum

More than 10,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or injured in the four-day battle to capture Vimy Ridge. It was a bloody toll. But the four divisions of the Canadian Corps succeeded where so many others had failed. The soldiers changed the battlefield through the use of new tactics such as aerial spotting and a creeping artillery barrage. And they carved a place in our collective memories.

So how do we remember that battle and those heroes 100 years later? We do it with letters and posters and medals and wreaths and grave markers and stories.

Capturing those commemorations is a new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum called Vimy: Beyond the Battle, which will be on view until Nov. 12.

“(The exhibition) explores how Canadians have commemorated the battle over the past century, privately and collectively,” said curator Mélanie Morin-Pelletier, who is the war museum’s historian, war and society.

20th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, taking ammunition to forward guns during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917. George Metcalf Archival Collection CWM 19920044-848 O.1243
© Canadian War Museum

There are the usual pieces found in modern museum shows such as a panel of lights that turns on as people pass by … each light representing one of the 3,598 Canadians killed in the battle. It’s all part of the mix of building an exhibition that appeals to all-comers.

And there is a neat recreation of the constellations that would have been on view over the battlefield on April 12, 1917 by Chelsea, Quebec, artist Sarah Hatton. The work titled Vimy is part of a series of works called Detachment. Each star was originally a brass fastener taken off the personnel files of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force when the files were digitized.

And then there are the powerful personal pieces that honour the soldiers lost and those who came home.

The pictographs on this calfskin robe depict Cpl. Mike Mountain Horse’s First World War exploits. Mountain Horse was a soldier from the Kainai (Blood) reserve in Alberta. The robe features 12 wartime experiences selected by Mountain Horse, and painted in the Niisitapiikwan (Blackfoot) warrior tradition by Ambrose Two Chiefs. Mountain Horse arranged the experiences in order of their importance to him.
Esplanade Museum, Medicine Hat, Alberta.

You’ll find a calfskin hide that was made of the memories of Cpl. Mike Mountain Horse, a member of the Blackfoot nation. It displays the images of the battle in traditional pictographs. It is a powerful document finished after the war was over.

There are the hand-made crosses with the names of soldiers killed in battle and buried at the foot of the ridge by their colleagues. Few of these survive because the dead were later moved to the war cemeteries we are more familiar with.

There are paintings, including Capt. William Longstaff’s oil painting of the massive Vimy Memorial called Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, that greets a visitor to the exhibition.

And there are medals including the Victoria Cross handed out to Lt. Col. Thain Wendell McDowell for bravery during the Vimy battle. Four VCs were given to Canadians in the fight for Vimy. Throughout the exhibition are some of the plaster figures created by the sculptor Walter Allard. These would be come statues and would later be placed on the Vimy Monument in France. The museum has 17 of these figures.

The exhibition is one part of a major effort by the Canadian War Museum to mark the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge.

As well the museum has updated its permanent display of artifacts from the Vimy battlefield.

As you enter the section of Gallery 2 devoted to Vimy, you’ll see right away what looks to be a plywood planning map. This contour map was used by officers planning the attack on the ridge. This is one of the pieces that had been hidden in the museums collection that is now on public view. The museum has similar maps for Second World War battles including the ill-fated raid on the French port of Dieppe.

There are the usual weapons from the battle and more medal displayed. But spend some time looking at the photographs and films made from the battlefield at the time that are available on screen. These were gathered by the museum’s creative development specialist Marie-Louise Deruaz, who gathered the images and presided over the look of the exhibitions.

Pte. James Davidson of the 5th Battalion carried this small pre-war Canadian Red Ensign during his service on the Western Front, including at Vimy Ridge. The flag came from his home in Crescent Hill, Sask., and was given to him by his mother for good luck. After the war, Davidson brought the flag back to Canada. Canadian Red Ensign. Canadian War Museum 20040039-001.

For Tim Cook, museum historian and the author of the new book Vimy: The Battle and The Legend, one newly displayed artifact has a special poignancy. It’s a Red Ensign flag with a patch that includes the symbols of the Canadian provinces. That flag was carried up and down Vimy Ridge and through the rest of the war, by a young soldier from Saskatchewan, Pte. James Davidson. His mother gave the flag to him for luck.

“It is quite powerful. He fights all through the war with it. He survives, he goes home and, his kids told us, he kept it hidden except for Canada Day and Remembrance Day. It speaks to the older Canada and the flag itself,” Cook said.

At the same time as the museum has updated the Vimy display, they have added artifacts to the section of Gallery 2 on the air war. This update includes material collected from Canadian war aces. There is a propellor from a plane flown by Billy Bishop, the fuselage of a Sopwith Snipe flown by William Barker, Carleton Place native Roy Brown’s logbooks and medals and the Victoria Cross awarded to A.A. McLeod.

In addition to the exhibitions opening in the war museum itself, there are two other touring exhibitions. One is Witness: Fields of Battle Through Canadian Eyes. It features paintings by Canadian artists and includes works by A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and Frank Johnston, all of whom would be part of theGroup of Seven. It is on view in Arras, France, which is near Vimy, until June 18. The other show is Vimy: Battle. Memorial. Icon. It will travel the country. There are bookings already in Saskatchewan and two locations in Ontario.

The actual anniversary of the start of the Vimy battle is on Sunday and the museum is planning a host of events including a broadcast from the official ceremony in France. As well there will be a recreation of the battle with model soldiers and a replica of the battlefield and an evening performance of words and music.

For more information on the Vimy events including times and tickets, please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.