100 years after Vimy Ridge: UVic exhibit tells of sacrifices

When local history buffs hear the name Archie Wills, memories of his years as a Victoria city councillor and managing editor of the Victoria Daily Times usually spring to mind.

What many might not realize, however, is that Wills was editor of another newspaper — The O’Pip (Observation Post), a troop journal he started with two battalion pals during the First World War to boost morale.

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The Victoria native, who was also known for popularizing Cadborosaurus, the mythical sea serpent, enlisted with the 58th Battery, Canadian Forces Artillery in 1916.

His story is one of many featured at VictoriaToVimy.ca, University of Victoria Libraries’ new virtual exhibit about the sacrifices ordinary Canadians made on the front lines and home front during the First World War.

The free online resource, activated in advance of this year’s 100th anniversary of the Battle for Vimy Ridge in France, features more than 3,700 digitized selections from UVic’s archival collections. Visitors can access letters, diaries, postcards, scrapbooks, audio recordings and artifacts recalling wartime experiences by those who lived them. The project is the only one of its kind implemented at a Canadian university.

Wills, who wasn’t in Vimy but served in many battles after completing his training in Witley, England, was an avid photographer, which proved useful as a historical record.

“Archie was quite a character,” said Lara Wilson, director of special collections and university archivist. “We have photos of Archie’s [England-bound] troop steamship leaving Victoria Harbour in May of 1916. Even though they were heading into something grim, it was almost celebratory, with this huge crowd and the Empress in the background. All these young men were going to war and many were not going to come back.”

The project chronicles the experiences of men and women from across Canada, including Victorians Joseph Clearihue, UVic’s first chancellor, and Theodore Monk.

It also features London-born Victoria resident Merlin Huth’s story of how he had booked passage to Canada in 1912 on the Titanic before changing his plans. Circumstances beyond his control prompted Huth to board another liner. After joining the military in 1914, Huth was wounded in battle and taken to Egypt, where he patrolled the desert by camel.

“I don’t think we can grasp the profound impact the First World War had on individuals and society,” Wilson said.

The project is supported by a grant from the federal Department of Canadian Heritage. Planning started two years ago. “The scope of it actually goes back many years because we had been acquiring archival materials for decades because Victoria is a military town and military history is taught here,” Wilson said.

“My predecessor [Christopher Petter] was involved in early digitization projects so we built on that and selected this technological platform to make it as accessible as possible for people.”

Input and archival material from soldiers’ descendants who continue to live in Victoria, including members of the Clearihue and Destrube families, proved invaluable. Wilson cites the scrapbooks of Ottawa-born Florence Westman as an example of useful home-front stories provided by descendants that add a rich dimension to the multi-media experience.

“She collected clippings, socialized with soldiers in the area and she can stand in for every woman who lost a brother or lost a friend and had to say goodbye and had to fill their lives,” she said. “They’d cope by making scrapbooks.”

Wilson said the university library and archives are open to the public and available as a research and teaching resource for the community.

The public can learn more at a launch event and open house being held Wednesday, April 12 from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.

The event, in rooms A003, A005 and A025 at the Mearns Centre for Learning in UVic’s McPherson Library, will include readings from archives, followed by a reception.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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