CALGARY — The nightmarish conditions on the battlefields of the First World War were indelibly burned into the minds of soldiers who fought there and are now on display as part of a new art exhibit.
The exhibition Forging a Nation: Canada Goes to War is showing at the Military Museums of Calgary until March 7 and is scheduled to tour across the country this year. It features both trench art by soldiers and artwork done by civilians. Some of the pieces have never before been displayed in Canada.
“Learning to be an artist was very, very important, especially in the First World War and our earlier conflicts,” said Lindsey Sharman, the museum’s art curator. “Being able to get an accurate depiction of a landscape had very tactical importance.”
It’s been 100 years since the start of the First World War in 1914 and since the formation of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
One of the paintings on display, Second Battle of Ypres (Frezenberg), is dated 1915. It was painted by soldier William Barnes Wollen after the battle and depicts troops in a foxhole, a decimated battlefield and smoke burning in the distance.
“Being a soldier and going to war is not entirely comprised of these moments of battle and there was a lot of moments of boredom,” said Sharman, who noted that Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson created a book to help soldiers with their art.
“Jackson designed an instructional booklet that was issued to all of the soldiers, teaching them different sketching techniques. It was something to combat boredom and to bring some sort of normalcy to these groups.”
The exhibit also touches on works from the wars since that Canada has been involved in: the Second World War; the Korean war and, most recently, the conflict in Afghanistan.
“We’re looking at not just the beginning of the war but the entirety of those 100 years,” Sharman said.
Warrant Officer Jason Yardley, general manager of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry archives, said it’s a tremendously important exhibit.
“It gives us a chance to showcase the regiment’s history and it should create a large dialogue in terms of bringing to light one particular facet, which is the beginning of us remembering the beginnings of the Great War,” said Yardley.
He said many Canadians are focused on the current mission to Afghanistan, but he suggested it’s important to pay homage to those soldiers who served over the last 100 years.
“All of our forefathers, our brothers and sisters before us, have allowed us the freedoms that we have today and have allowed me to actually wear this uniform,” Yardley said. “As we all know, our veterans are departing us at a pretty alarming rate and I think the onus on us that are present today is to give a sense of our history and what is Canada. The only way we can do this is by having expositions like this and by engaging our veterans.”