Memorials give us the chance to sit and think about the First World War

On Nov. 8, 2018, just days before the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, known as the Great War, the University of Saskatchewan will be dedicating a memorial bench on the university campus.

By Bill Waiser

The bench installation will cap four years of activities initiated and sponsored by a university Great War Commemoration Committee (GWCC). But once the anniversary of the end of the war comes and goes, will the bench become just another artefact?

One hundred years ago, the University of Saskatchewan decided to recognize service in the war while the conflict was still underway. In 1916, the board of governors recommended that the names of all students, faculty and staff who enlisted be painted on ribbons along the corridors of the first and second floors of The College Building.

These ribbons were part of the original building fabric and predated the war. But they proved ideal for acknowledging the participation of nearly 300 people, mostly students, including future prime minister John Diefenbaker.

These individuals were given a place of honour at the University of Saskatchewan. But no explanation was ever offered as to why the names were there, and their significance was often not apparent to anyone visiting the building.

This omission was corrected with new signage at a re-dedication ceremony in August 2014, along with the addition of the names of those individuals who were missed during the original commemoration process.

Re-visiting war’s impact

Unlike other universities, Saskatchewan decided not just to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the war, but to re-visit and examine the impact of the war on the university and Saskatoon and the contribution of the university to the war effort.

The GWCC comprised a broad representative committee of students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and retirees, who took on the work.

The university hosted an Indigenous roundtable at which First Nations and Métis peoples were invited to share their memories of the war and what it meant to their home communities.

The only wrinkle was finding a place for the pipe ceremony, a sacred prayer, to set the right tone before the event.

There was also an antiques road show at which families brought in their Great War memorabilia, as if they were sacred treasures, to be assessed by experts in the field.

A series of lectures examined particular aspects of the war — with the emphasis on Saskatchewan’s involvement.

One of the speakers was Globe and Mail editorial artist and Saskatchewan graduate Brian Gable who spoke about cartooning during the First World War.

An online memorial

The GWCC also organized off-campus events.

Saskatoon’s Woodlawn Cemetery has a next-of-kin memorial lane, the only surviving one in Canada. With the support of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, families were encouraged to purchase an elm tree for their loved ones as both a personal and community memorial.

When the site was dedicated in 1923, 112 trees had been planted along the main road into the cemetery — to replicate France’s tree-lined avenues. The president of the Saskatoon Heritage Society led a walking tour of the site as part of the university’s commemorative program.

Nutana Collegiate, Saskatoon’s first public high school, also served as the venue for a special event. At the end of the war, the student body raised enough funds to commission paintings by some of Canada’s leading artists in memory of those who were lost during the war.

But there was a catch: the paintings were not to depict a war scene. Today, the paintings, worth several million dollars, hang in the school library. When a commemorative program was held there — to tell the story behind the paintings and seek funds for their restoration — the crowd, many of them alumni, filled the library and spilled out into the hall.

Recordings of these events have been deposited at the university archives as part of an ambitious online project to make publicly available the great wealth of university holdings related to the war.

The bench

The committee is now winding up its activities with the installation of a memorial bench, carved by a local stonemason. The dates, 1914-1918, and the words, “remember us” (the us also standing for the University of Saskatchewan) are inscribed along the back of the bench.

Between them is the silhouette of soldier, head bowed, standing in repose. The figure has historic significance; it was used in the student newspaper, The Sheaf, after the war.

The bench will join other campus memorials to the war and will be placed in the quad immediately north of the Memorial Union Building (commemorating the Second World War) and near the original student residences.

In 1928, the university dedicated memorial gates at the original campus entrance. The names of 67 war dead are engraved on a tablet there. There is also a memorial stone with a plaque dedicated to Saskatchewan men who served in the 46th Battalion. It was known as the suicide battalion because of its incredibly high casualty rate.

The question, though, is whether these memorials, including the new bench, will continue to resonate with the university population and the wider Saskatoon community once the centennial of the end of the war is marked.

They certainly have a place of prominence. Hundreds of people pass them everyday on their way about campus. But do these people ever pause to reflect on the meaning of these memorials and remember the commitment made a century ago to never forget?

As the relative of a soldier — a great uncle — memorialized on the Vimy Monument, I’ve visited the First World War battlefields. I’ve looked out upon a sea of maple leaf headstones in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium.

I’ve read the rows of names lining the inside walls of cemeteries — those with no known grave but believed to have died nearby. And I’ve attended the Menin Gate “last post” ceremony, held every evening in Ypres regardless of the weather.

This experience has made remembrance all the more meaningful, all the more necessary. It’s not something that should be limited to one day a year.

Just as the First World War demanded increasingly greater sacrifices, Canadians need to be continuously reminded to never forget. That’s the purpose behind the installation of a new memorial bench at U of S.

It is a place for people to take time to sit and think about the service and sacrifice and to remember. What better way to honour their memory?

The Conversation

Bill Waiser is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan.