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The Study of Local War Memorials and Engaging with Community History

Image 9 November

By Jane Harkness

The first time I gave the war memorial in my hometown any real attention was as a teenager who had just been accepted into the Vimy Foundation’s Beaverbrook Vimy Prize in 2016. We had been given an assignment to pick a solider from our hometown who died in Belgium or France during the First World War. I didn’t have any relatives from my town who had fought in the First World War, so I turned to the town’s war memorial instead. I knew the memorial existed, that it was located at the centre of the town’s park just off of the main street, that it was a cenotaph with a large sword embedded in the base of the memorial that was carved to look like rugged stone, and that it included the names of the people from the town who had died in the war, but generally it was blurred into the background of daily town life.

I grew up in Virden, Manitoba, a typical prairie farming town with a population of around 3,000 people. During the First World War, the town had approximately 1,500 people, over 200 enlisted for military service, and 70 did not survive and are named on the war memorial. I picked Lorne Edgar Carscadden from the list of names because I recognized the surname from a business in town. I researched his service file from Library and Archives Canada, I found photos of him in the town’s museum, and I visited a one-room schoolhouse named after him. At the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where his name is listed among those with no known graves, I presented his biography and a tribute for him. This was a deeply moving experience. I realized I had learned so much about Lorne, that all 11,285 names on the Vimy Memorial were people with their own lives and stories that could be lost to time, and that there were so many people listed on the war memorial in Virden that I needed to learn about.

This event sparked a passion for memory and commemoration studies, local wartime history, and my town’s war memorial. In 2017 I researched and compiled profiles on all the people listed on the town’s war memorial from the First and Second World Wars and I’m currently finishing my master’s in history where my topic is about Virden’s war memorial.

War memorials are a great source to understand a community’s history and people during times of war and can be researched in a number of different ways. A very common study is researching a soldier listed on the war memorial, like I did in 2016. Alternatively, just visiting a war memorial and looking at its different symbols and quotes gives an idea of how a community experienced the war. Through my own research I’ve learned a lot about studying war memorials and the unique approach to sources this history requires. For the most part, these sources are not kept in large formal archives or have digitized versions available online, but instead are scattered across the community. The key is knowing where to look.

Local museums have a wealth of information and knowledge about their community’s history. At my own local museum, I was able to find photographs, memorial crosses, letters, and artifacts from the soldiers on the cenotaph as well as photos and pamphlets from the cenotaph’s unveiling service and several artifacts from the town’s experiences in the World Wars.

Local newspapers were the main source of information about everything happening in the community and a good portion of the paper was dedicated to local life. During the World Wars they documented communal wartime initiatives, local battalions being raised, letters home from local soldiers on the front lines, and tributes to the war dead. After the war, war memorials were often discussed in the town newspaper. These newspapers can be found in various places. Some newspapers will still have the original copies, while other copies are at local museums or libraries, and some may even be located in town offices, municipal archives, or provincial archives.

Other places have their own unique records and artifacts relating to local wartime history. Legions are often full of sources such as unit histories, photographs, plaques, and donated artifacts. For those that wish to know more about a community’s experience of the war or efforts to build a war memorial, churches and clubs have their own records that include their participation and town and municipal offices often have council minutes that reveal information about the town’s experiences during this time.

Other great sources of local information are community and municipal history books. These books were written by passionate community members and are filled with information on the community’s history and the people who lived there. These books can be found in local museums and libraries and often include details about war memorials, the community’s wartime experience, and soldiers’ lives and families.

There are also some amazing digital sources available to learn about local war memorials, two of which are Manitoban. The Manitoba Historical Society has profiles (http://mb1870.org/mhs-map/search?go=t&string1=military&st-name=Monument&submit=Search) on all the war memorials in the province. These pages include photos of the memorials, where they’re located, and a list of all the people on the memorial and their names, occupations, service, ranks, birth dates, and death dates. Recently, they also cross referenced all these lists of names and have included hyperlinks to all other memorials each person is included in.

The Manitoba provincial government also put out a publication in 2014 entitled War Memorials in Manitoba: An Artistic Legacy (https://www.gov.mb.ca/chc/hrb/internal_reports/war_memorials.html) which is available for free on their website. It examines war memorial design, construction, types of war memorials in Manitoba, stories from various locations in Manitoba during the First World War, learning materials for teaching about war memorials, and an inventory of all war memorials in Manitoba compiled in 1996.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include two wonderful national tools for learning about local soldiers. Library and Archives Canada’s digitized collection of service files (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/transparency/atippr/Pages/Access-information-military-files.aspx) from the First and Second World Wars have been indispensable sources for learning about the individuals on the war memorial. Additionally, Veterans Affairs Canada’s Canadian Virtual War Memorial (https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial) provides useful information and often includes photographs.

All of these sources have been incredibly helpful in researching my town’s war memorial and the people listed on it. Studying memorials and the war dead, especially in your own community, is such a rewarding experience that allows you to create personal connections with your community, its past and present members, and its history. War memorials are public commemorative objects that were built for the public to engage with and to ensure that the war dead were not forgotten over time. More than a century after the First World War all we can do is honour their wishes. By taking the time to visit these war memorials and engage with them, we can keep local commemoration alive in our own communities.