Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Bear That Went to War

Though it opened in May of 2005 somehow I had never made it to the new (well no longer new but as opposed to the former) Canadian War Museum.  I recall there was to-do about the original design but I do have to admit that Raymond Moriyama's building - rising as it does between the flat lands around LeBreton and the Ottawa River  - does make a rather spectacular statement.  I had not realized that the arrangement of the windows in the east facing fin spell out "Lest We Forget" and "N'oublions jamais"in Morris Code.

Originated in 1880 as a collection of artifacts from the wars fought on Canadian soil the CWM was eventually housed in the Cartier Square Drill Hall.  Officially established as a museum in 1942 it was moved to the Public Archives Building on Sussex Drive in 1967.  The growing collection finally found a new home in 2005 when Raymond Moriyama's building was dedicated on May 8, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The interior entrance space appears to be intended to give the impression of spaciousness but I found it mostly empty and cold.  By contracts the permanent exhibition areas seem cramped and confusing.  Laurent referred to it as being a bit like visiting an Ikea store - and he had a point.  Things seem overcrowded and several of the interactive exhibitions no longer appear to work.   Often items that could have been interesting if given more prominence were jammed into a corner or visually inaccessible.  A prim example was Hitler's parade car - rather than being able to walk around it or even having it on a turntable it was awkwardly position and lacked the dramatic impact that it could have had as a symbol of an oppressive dictatorship and the reason our boys were fighting in far-off Europe.  A very strange piece of curating!!!!!  Even the reconstruction of a World War I trench - though creating a claustrophobic and gloomy atmosphere - with a bit more imagination could have gone further in giving us a small taste of what the soldiers in that most doomed of wars faced.

That is not to say that the visit was not worthwhile - just that it could have been much more.  And as so often happens it was one tiny small exhibit that caught my eye and had me looking for the story behind the artifacts on display.

Lawrence Browning Rogers was born in Montreal in 1878 and after many attempts at a career turned to farming in the Cantons l'est.  He was to die in the second battle at Passchendaele in October of 1917.

In the spring of 1915 Lawrence Rogers, a farmer from East Farnham, enlisted with many other able-bodied men in the Canadian Mounted Calvary to serve for "King and Country" in the hostilities that had broken out in Europe.  After training in Valcartier his unit was shipped overseas and arrived in England in July of that year.  Lieut. Rogers was to serve as a medic in the trenches until his death on October 30, 1917.  Excerpts from letters he wrote home to his wife May reveal the hardships of training, the sea voyage, life in the trenches and the horrors of the wounded and dying.

This tiny tattered and battered teddy bear accompanied Lieut. Rogers on his journey from boot camp to the front and was with him when he died.  He was returned to the family and now has a place of honour at the Canadian War Museum.

His story was much like so many others but what attracted me to it was the remnants of a tiny teddy bear that had gone through all those experiences with him.  As he was leaving for Europe his 10 year old daughter Aileen gave him the teddy to remind him of home, his family and her.  He carried it with him everywhere and it was found along with his wedding ring and letters amongst his personal effects when he died and as was the custom of the time they were sent back to his family.

The tattered teddy,  dirty and missing his back legs, could perhaps be thought to represent so many of the men and boys who returned from that "War to End All Wars" broken in body and often in spirit.  Men who likely had tiny reminders of home in their kit bags and letters such as the one from Rogers's seven year old son Howard that is on display along with the teddy bear.

The seven year old Howard recounts his holidays and other events in a world thousands of miles away from the mud and filthy of the trenches.  Perhaps his mother helped him write his letter but it still a rather fine piece of writing for a seven year old. 

I haven't been able to decipher the date on the letter but it sadly reached the front a few days after Roger's death at Passchendaele.  He didn't get to read young Howard's recounting of the day to day events in his little corner of the Empire that his father was defending.
Dear Daddy
We have been on holidays since the
3rd and I have played all the time
and have to go back to-morrow
morning. I went to the movies twice.
A little boy just came to the door
selling tickets for some movies at
5¢ but we would not take one.
I try my hardest at school to
come first.
I joined the Y.M.C.A.
and have been there twice at gym.
I haven't had a swim yet.
I will have to close as I am
burning up all the electric
More than anything else on display these three small things - a picture, a teddy and a letter - spoke to me of  the First World War and Canada's part in it.  And it brought to mind the moving and remarkable final sequence* of Richard Attenborough's Oh What A Lovely War

A more detailed account of Lieut. Rogers, his family and teddy can be found at A Bear at War.  It gives a very human face to the Great War and the men who fought in it and their families back home in Canada.

*This was not trick photography but a sequence filmed from a helicopter - each of the 100,000 crosses had to be inserted in hand-dug holes in the chalky soil of the South Downs.

12 May - 1364: Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland, is founded in Kraków.

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Debra She Who Seeks said...

We were at the new War Museum a couple of years ago and enjoyed it too. It's a huge place and there's almost too much to see on one visit. I visited the old War Museum many years ago and it was horribly overcrowded, so this is a big improvement. I remember seeing that wee bear too.


such a lovely and sad story.

lynette said...

So very sad. War is such a terrible waste.