A unique reminder of Central Alberta’s First World War history is returning to its Penhold home.
As part of the ceremony surrounding the dedication of the town’s new war memorial on Nov. 5, a curtain that once hung in a local hall and now in the Canadian War Museum’s collection, will be unveiled.
Painstakingly created and hand painted by a pair of Red Deer war veterans in 1920, the huge drop curtain features a view of the bomb-ravaged remains of the cathedral in the town of Albert in France. A damaged statue of the Virgin Mary leaning precariously out into space was an oft-commented on and iconic scene passed by thousands of troops heading off to battle.
According to the lore of the day, if the Virgin ever fell the war would end. It did finally topple in March 1918, but eight more months of bloodshed followed until the Nov. 11 Armistice.
The four-by-12-metre curtain hung in the Penhold Memorial Hall built commissioned by the local Women’s Institute to honour the town’s veterans and its fallen soldiers and opened in 1919.
Taken down in the 1960s, the curtain was put away and forgotten for 40 years. It was rediscovered in 2004 during hall renovations.
A local businessman, Stewart Ford, took it upon himself to ensure the curtain was not lost again. It was donated to the Canadian War Museum in 2006 and remains part of its extensive collection.
“We’ve been working with professional restoration individuals here at the museum to have it cleaned and restored to its original beauty,” said Yasmine Mingay, War Museum public affairs director.
“And we hope to travel it out to Penhold in October to for display for several months.”
The curtain will then be returned to the museum’s collection. Whether it one day goes on display at the country’s popular museum in Ottawa remains to be seen.
Mingay said the museum seeks to tell the country’s stories.
“(The curtain) certainly tells us quite a bit about the history and the interest and the story behind Penhold.”
As part of the restoration work, a hanging system will be devised to show off the curtain to its best.
The image of Albert was likely chosen, says a brief history provided by the War Museum, because many of the soldiers from Central Alberta served in the area of the Somme, where huge battles were fought during the war and tens of thousands of soldiers killed and many more wounded.
Many of those who enlisted from Central Alberta would have marched through Albert on their way to the front.
The men who created the curtain, Arthur England and Harold Haste ran a painting and decorating business together and had both served in the war. Haste was badly wounded and spent several months in hospital in 1918 before returning home.
Penhold Mayor Dennis Cooper said the curtain is a piece of local history on many levels.
Besides its connection to the First World War, the back of it is signed by early townsfolk and even some of the theatre troupe members that once performed in the hall.
“It has local graffiti on the back too. There’s another whole history behind the curtain,” he said.
Forgotten in a shed behind an old projection room in the hall, the curtain survived a fire before it was rediscovered.
Cooper said the return of the curtain will be one of the highlights of a ceremony to dedicate the town’s first cenotaph inside the Penhold Multiplex.
About three metres high the granite monument will be topped by the bust of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance.
Cooper said the evening ceremony overseen by the local Royal Canadian Legion branch will be followed by a gala with retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie, who commanded Sector Sarajevo as part of the United Nations Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, and has since become an author and commentator.
Other dignitaries and families of some of the pioneers whose names appear on the back of the curtain will also be invited.