Sculptors found inspiration in soldiers’ valour

In the decade after the end of the First World War, hundreds of monuments to the dead were erected in communities across Canada, many revealing a high level of artistry. In this excerpt from Alan MacLeod’s moving study of military statues from the period, two works by the British sculptors Joseph Whitehead and Sydney March are compared and contrasted — Whitehead’s figure of a triumphant soldier at Liverpool, N.S., and March’s rifle-wielding infantryman, who stands atop the cenotaph in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

 

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In the spring of 1915, an illustration in the British magazine Punch drew popular attention to the first great success of the Canadian Corps’ 1st Division, at the Second Battle of Ypres in April of that year. In the wake of Germany’s first use of poison gas as a weapon of war, it was the Canadians — at St. Julien and Kitchener’s Wood — who reversed initial enemy advances and eventually prevailed over the German army.

The illustration, by Bernard Partridge, depicted a jubilant Canadian soldier, British and Canadian flags in his left hand, rifle in his right, his cap raised high at the tip of his bayonet. The image, titled “Canada!”, was the seed of a groundswell that would eventually result in the Canadians being widely regarded as the best British fighting formation on the Western Front, the “shock troops” of the British Army.

No one knew it in 1915, but within a few years of the 1918 Armistice, the Partridge illustration would inspire several war-memorial sculptors and culminate in an array of monuments that parrot the Partridge cartoon.

One such exultant monument is to be found at Liverpool, N.S. His right hand holding helmet aloft, the left grasping his Lee-Enfield rifle, feet straddling battlefield debris, the bronze soldier of Liverpool is a study in the joy and relief of victory. He has come through the fire of battle — alive and victorious — and he is euphoric.

The Liverpool figure is the work of British sculptor Joseph Whitehead (1868-1951). Iterations of the same work grace British cenotaphs, too, at Stafford in the West Midlands and Truro in Cornwall. Apart from his war memorials, Whitehead is well regarded for a range of far-removed public monuments, from his Titanic Engineers monument at Southampton, to his bronze tribute to Father Damien at Molokai, Hawaii, to his effigy of Charles Kingsley, historian, novelist and close friend of Charles Darwin, at Bideford, Devon.

On the face of the Liverpool pedestal, there is a handsome bronze tablet featuring a bas-relief maple leaf and beaver. The panel lists the names of 40 Liverpool lads who died in the war of 1914-1918. Here, too, brothers are remembered, lamented and honoured. Stanley and Lawrence Annis, sons of Herbert and Clara Annis of Caledonia, Queens County, were aged 22 and 20 when they answered the call, young Lawrence in May 1915, older brother Stanley 10 months later in March 1916.

After enlisting at Montreal with the 42nd Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, in the spring of 1915, Lawrence Annis had by the late summer of the following year marched with the battalion from Ypres to the River Somme in northern France. The opening volleys in the Battle of Courcelette began Sept. 15, 1916, and went on for a week.

Lawrence would die within the first hours, his death-register card indicating simply “Killed in Action.” His body was not recovered and identified; he has no known grave. He is one of 11,285 Canadians killed in France for whom a visit to a grave is impossible; they are all remembered on Canada’s great national memorial at Vimy Ridge.

After enlisting in one Nova Scotia highland battalion, the 219th, Stanley Annis served at the Western Front with another, the 85th, Nova Scotia Highlanders. In August of 1918, the Canadian Corps embarked on its last great campaign of the war, the Hundred Days Offensive. By September of 1918, Stanley had survived two and a half years as an infantryman in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and he had been promoted to corporal. He had outlived his younger brother by almost two years. The Armistice was 70 days ahead.

On Sept. 2, Stanley’s luck ran out: While advancing along the Arras-Cambrai road with the platoon under his charge, Cpl. Annis was struck by enemy shrapnel and killed instantly. Stanley’s “final resting place” is a short distance from where he fell, in a British military cemetery, Dury Mill. Almost all the graves at Dury Mill — 324 of 336 — are Canadian, most of them men killed the same day, Sept. 2, 1918, the day the Canadians overran German defences along the Drocourt-Quéant line.

In all likelihood, a pilgrimage to the places their sons died would have been beyond the reach of the Annis parents. One conceives how significant Armistice Day ceremonies at the Liverpool war memorial might have been to Herbert and Clara, the Caledonia, N.S., father and mother who lost two sons in the charnel house of the Great War.

 

In the northeast corner of the legislature grounds, about midway between the striking British Columbia Parliament buildings and the just-as-imposing Empress Hotel in Victoria, there stands on a grand granite base an unusual bronze soldier.

The Victoria bronze is the work of Sydney March, whose name is emblazoned in large lettering along the right side of the base. March (1876-1967) was one of a remarkable family of eight siblings, every one of them a sculptor.

March produced a diverse array of public monuments, including at least two others in Canada: the United Empire Loyalist monument at Hamilton and, at Vancouver’s Stanley Park, the monument to Canada’s sixth Governor General, Lord Stanley of Preston, provider of hockey’s Stanley Cup.

When the Canadian government decided to commission a national war memorial in the national capital, it was to the March family, principally Sydney’s brother Vernon, that Ottawa awarded the commission. Vernon died shortly after the project commenced, but his siblings carried on without him. The monument features a great arch and 22 figures of men and women representing the military services contributing to Canada’s war effort from 1914 to 1918. Commenced in 1926, the project would take years to complete; it was finally dedicated by King George VI in 1939 as war clouds were again building in Europe.

Sydney March’s Victoria soldier takes a back seat to none of his other sculptures. The soldier is unique — in contrast to most of his stone and bronze comrades across the country, he is not handsome, he is not young, his face is one only a mother could love. He is a worn, weathered, ancient-looking infantryman wielding his Lee-Enfield, bayonet mounted, ready to deal with the enemy. Weather-beaten face notwithstanding, this is one of the finest war-monument soldiers in Canada.

Only a comparatively small number (fewer than a dozen) of soldier figures on Canadian war memorials are the work of American and British artists, but they include at least two — the Massey Rhind piper in New Glasgow, N.S., and Sydney March’s grizzled infantryman in Victoria — that can fairly be included in the first rank of Canada’s bronze and stone monumental soldiers. To appreciate who rivals Rhind and March, we must turn to homegrown gems — monuments designed by Canadian sculptors working in Canada in the decade following the Great War.

 

Remembered in Bronze and Stone: Canada’s Great War Memorial Statuary © Alan Livingstone MacLeod, 2016, Heritage House. heritagehouse.ca

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