Text and photos by Dean V. Roxby
The Canadian War Museum (CWM) was recently rated the Number One attraction to visit in Ottawa, and with good reason. A visit to the CWM is an educational and emotional experience.
As with any world class war museum, there are many pieces of equipment to be seen, such as rifles, tanks, aircraft, big guns, etc. They certainly have plenty of that, even one of Adolf Hitler’s personal staff cars, but there are many other displays that convey the horror of war.
Upon entering the main lobby, but prior to entering the exhibit hall, you will find Memorial Hall, housing the headstone of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War. The building is designed so that the headstone is illuminated by sunlight at exactly 11:00AM, each November 11th – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month that ended the Great War in 1917.
The exhibitions are divided into galleries, each featuring a period of time. The first gallery is Battleground: Wars on Our Soil, earliest times to 1885. There are dioramas and film features that do a good job of explaining the early history that shaped Canada.
Following this are galleries for the South African “Boer” War and First World Wars, The Second World War, and the Cold War and various peacekeeping duties that Canada has been involved in.
Within the First World War gallery is a photograph of a headstone marking the last soldier to be killed in WW1. Most history buffs know that WW1 ended on the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, hence the two minutes of silence observed at exactly 11:00 AM, Nov. 11th, Remembrance Day (in Canada). This headstone is of a Canadian soldier, Private George Lawrence Price, killed at 10:58 AM, two minutes before the cease-fire took effect. Consider what this display represents. Both sides must have known that peace was only minutes away, yet continued to fire right up to the end. Imagine how his family must have reacted when they first heard that the Great War was over, then later getting a telegram that Pte. Price had been killed on the final day. A headstone with a name and a death date a mere two minutes before Armistice means a lot more than mere casualty numbers.
Another exhibit seen later in the Second World War gallery was a handwritten letter from a young child to his father. Tragically, dad never had a chance to read it, as he was killed before the letter was delivered.
There are several reconstruction displays that allow you to walk through mock trenches and urban combat displays, as well as one depicting a landing craft coming ashore. By combining physical props, projected movies, photos covering an entire wall, and lighting and sound effects, the sensation is being in the midst of battle. One scene depicted the aftermath of the trench warfare that occurred around the Belgian town of Passendale (known at the time by the old Flemish spelling as Passchendaele). After continuous artillery barrages, the ground was completely barren and pulverized. When the rain came, the ground turned into an impassable muck. As you enter this exhibit, you first read the history of the battle of Passchendaele, and see two aerial photographs, one before the shelling, and one afterwards. The latter one shows only a pockmarked landscape, similar to lunar photos, but with far more craters. After viewing the photos and history, you then enter the main exhibit. The only way to travel over the muddy quagmire is on a wooden slat “boardwalk”, known as duckboards. The room is darkened, simulating dusk, and as you pass through on the duckboard, you are surrounded by a photo that adds to the effect. In the muck are various bits of battle debris, then out of the shadows appears a half-submerged torso, face down.
As well as the chronological galleries, there are several other halls and galleries. The Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour has a model of the National War Memorial designed by sculptor Vernon March. The National War Memorial is the large granite cenotaph very near the Parliament Buildings. Canada’s Unknown Soldier from the First World War was exhumed from the original burial spot in France, and re-buried at the base of the National War Memorial in 2000. The original headstone from France is now at the CWM, as mentioned above.
The layout of the museum is a bit of a maze, so it is well worth studying the map that is offered with your ticket. As you pass through the galleries it is quite easy to miss a section as the suggested route folds back and forth. There are numerous entrances and exits to the sub-sections, and it can be difficult to keep track of where you have and have not been. As well, there are often displays in the centre of a wide aisle, and it is natural to pass by on one side, and not see beyond the display to the other wall. This author very nearly missed seeing the Sopwith Snipe fuselage and Victoria Cross medal belonging to air ace William Barker VC.
Regeneration Hall is an odd section, looking more like a passage way or storage area. It is designed to look eastwards towards the Peace Tower (The CWM is about one kilometer west of the Parliament Buildings). In addition to the view of the Peace Tower, the Regeneration Hall houses a number of plaster models from sculptor Walter Allward, from the Vimy Ridge Memorial in France. As you pass through the Regeneration Hall, you will descend a staircase into the LeBreton Gallery.
The LeBreton gallery houses a very large collection of military vehicles, tanks, guns, and even a CF-101 Voodoo aircraft mounted on a tall pedestal. There is so much equipment that it has to be packed together rather tightly. A separate warehouse would be nice, in order to give such a fine collection a proper display. Among the many items are naval 1 pounder Vickers-Maxim guns, large field guns from both world wars, a cut-away Sherman tank as used for training student tank crews, and a Canadian made (by C.P.Rail’s Montréal shop) Valentine tank given to the USSR as aid during WW2. This tank was lost for 46 years after it fell through the ice. After being recovered, it was given to the museum by the government of the Ukraine.
In a passageway that returns from the lower level – LeBreton Gallery to the main level – is a collection of “nose art” from Canadian Halifax aircraft that were scrapped at the end of WW2. Fortunately, someone thought to save the artwork that often adorns combat aircraft. Too often, at the end of hostilities, there is a huge rush to scrap the now obsolete equipment. Only years later do we realize that there are very few examples left of machines that played such a vital role in our defence.
Besides the paid staff, there is an active volunteer group of veterans willing to answer questions and guide visitors. One such volunteer helped this author understand a diorama depicting the battle between the British and the French at the Plains of Abraham, and how it literally changed the future of Canada. He filled in other details such as the British musketeers loading two round balls at a time in their muzzleloaders, so that when they fired on the advancing French troops the effect was that much more dramatic.
The museum is open most days, except for Christmas day and one week in early January for annual maintenance. Adult admission is Can$13. A package price of Can$20 is available for the Museum of Civilization as well. Full information is listed on the website. www.warmuseum.ca
Canadian War Museum
1 Vimy Place
Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0M8
Local: (819) 776-7000
Toll free: (800) 555-5621
TTY for people with hearing disabilities: (819) 776-7003
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