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Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec/Fonds Conrad Poirier/BAnQ Vieux-Montréal (P48,S1,P1542)
150 Years of Military History in Downtown Montreal
by Diane Joly
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In Montreal at the turn of the 20th Century, multiple visions of Canada co-existed. Some citizens, mainly Anglophones, viewed Canada as a colony with a duty to contribute to the prestige of Great Britain. Others, mostly Francophones, saw it as an autonomous power within the British Empire. In the middle were the moderates, who wanted the two groups to get along and live together in harmony. Dorchester Square and Place du Canada are home to several commemorative monuments that illustrate those visions and, collectively, show how the site originally symbolized British power, but gradually came to reflect contemporary Canada and Montreal.1
Origins of the site
In 1795, burial of corpses was prohibited within the fortifications of Montreal, so the Parish of Notre-Dame purchased land outside the city walls to use as a graveyard. Montreal’s dead were buried there until a new cemetery was opened on Côte-des-Neiges in 1854. Removal of the bodies from the original graveyard began, but serious public health concerns were raised, including fears of a cholera epidemic. The exhumations were stopped and the rest of the bodies were left in place; 10,000 of them still lie beneath downtown Montreal. In 1871, to beautify the area and encourage healthy recreation, the city fathers decided to create a public park on the site, to be named Dominion Square in honour of the 1867 Confederation of Canada.
The City decided to build the park within the same boundaries as the former cemetery. That explains the unique shape of the space: two rectangles, slightly offset, separated by René-Lévesque Boulevard. The ground is sloped, and the streets along its edges are irregular. Today, the northern section is called Dorchester Square; the southern section is Place du Canada.
From the time the park was opened, it has been associated with the military. The Fusiliers de Victoria brass band played concerts there. In addition, many military parades were held downtown, and all of them passed through the square. The idea of commemorating military heroes and victories was thus consistent with the identity of the site. In all, there are four elements commemorating military history at this location.
Guns from the Battle of Sebastopol
The Crimean War (1854–1856) was largely a struggle for influence between the major European powers of the time. The 39th Regiment of Foot, a British unit that had served in Crimea, was posted directly from there to Montreal, where it arrived in triumph in July 1856. To honour her soldiers’ bravery, Queen Victoria presented the regiments that had fought in the war with guns seized during the conflict. Two guns were first displayed publicly in Old Montreal near the British troops’ quarters, then moved to Dominion Square in the late-1870s, 1889, or 1892 (according to various sources).2
These artifacts, which were captured during the Battle of Sebastopol in Ukraine, are real artillery pieces consisting of a barrel and a base. The original wooden base was later replaced by a concrete replica. The guns are made of a bronze alloy and other metals. They were the first objects to be placed in the square.
Their materials, their old-fashioned design, and the eagles of the Tsar of Imperial Russia inscribed on the barrels link these guns to the past. As an example of 19th Century weapons of war, they evoke the stark reality of the battlefield during the conflicts of that time. These guns are also a reminder of Canada’s former colonial status.
At the turn of the 20th Century, the guns of Sebastopol were a magnet for American tourists, who would see them as they exited the new Windsor Station. The tourists were keen to photograph the weapons, since it was rumoured in the United States that they had been used to repulse the American invasion.3
The impact of the Crimean War
Even though Canada played no role in the Crimean War, it affected Canadian military history in two ways. First, it provided the impetus for the modernization of the Canadian Army Reserve. When British troops posted in Canada were sent to the front, the government of the United Canadas had to call for 5,000 volunteers. The response exceeded that number, and from 1855 on, the Canadian militia, which until then had been conscripted and heavily influenced by politics, was reformed, becoming a single, official, voluntary organization.4
In addition, that conflict was the first to be reported in the newspapers. Dispatches described a number of acts of bravery, but those involved remained anonymous, since it was mostly British officers who received distinctions. In 1856, Queen Victoria changed that by issuing a royal decree creating the highest distinction of the armed forces of Britain and the Commonwealth: the Victoria Cross, to be awarded in recognition of acts of valour in the face of the enemy in time of war. The Queen stipulated that the distinction must be awarded without regard to the recipient’s rank, religion, ethnic origin, or social status. The decoration, in the form of a cross with a crimson ribbon, bears the royal crown and the inscription “For Valour.” Recipients have the right to use the letters “VC” after their name. Since its creation, 93 Canadian military personnel have been awarded this honour—some while living and some posthumously.5
The Monument to the Heroes of the Boer War
The monument to the heroes of the Boer War was unveiled on 24 May 1907. That conflict was Canada’s first military intervention of the 20th Century. The decision to participate in Great Britain’s war against the Boers in South Africa seems to have been a reasoned decision. Britain wanted to defend the Uitlanders, British subjects living in the Boer colonies in South Africa. In October 1899, the Boers initiated hostilities by invading Natal and the Cape of Good Hope, which were in British territory.6
Library and Archives Canada/C-000171
The Lord Strathcona’s Horse
In Canada, not all members of the political class were in favour of sending troops to Africa. Many felt that the real motivation behind the conflict was control of South Africa’s diamond and gold deposits. At first, Sir Wilfrid Laurier opposed Canadian involvement, but he was attentive to public opinion. He had taken stock of support for the war, and once it was declared, Ottawa quickly announced that Canada would participate.
© Musée McCord, Image MP-1977.76.75/Alfred Walter Roper
In 1900, as the controversy divided the country, a rich businessman, diplomat, and philanthropist, Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, offered to raise a cavalry regiment at his own expense. The members of the new unit were recruited in Canada, but they became part of the British Army. The Lord Strathcona’s Horse recruited on the Prairies among cowboys, settlers, and mounted police officers. The recruits had to be unmarried, skilled horsemen, and used to ‘roughing it.’ Throughout the conflict, Lord Strathcona continued to make generous donations of equipment, including binoculars (which were essential for pathfinders), lassos, blankets, and boots.7
The regiment arrived in Cape Town in April 1900. The British Army took advantage of the members’ outdoor experience by using them as pathfinders. Their remarkable work contributed to the success of the British troops. When they passed through England on their way home at the end of the war, King Edward VII gave back the regimental colours. Shortly afterwards, once they were back in Canada, the cavalrymen were demobilized. The Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) (LdSH[RC]) was stood back up, and is now part of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, garrisoned at CFB Edmonton.
Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal was the driving force behind the monument to the heroes of the Boer War. Because Lord Strathcona was McGill University’s biggest donor, the university’s rector, an enthusiastic imperialist, tried to flatter him by proposing that a statue be erected in his honour. But Lord Strathcona refused, saying that it was more important to remember the soldiers killed in the war, and that another committee had already been formed for that project. In the end, the two committees merged and collaborated to produce a highly original monument honouring the war heroes’ memory and Lord Strathcona’s contribution.
Despite the differing views on the origin of the conflict, a united crowd attended the unveiling of the statue on Empire Day (the Queen’s birthday). Before an estimated 28,000 people, including 3,000 soldiers, the rector of McGill University gave a speech that glorified the British Empire and Anglophones. His message was so unsubtle that the next speaker, the Mayor of Montreal, made a point of stating that all Canadians had a place in the Empire. He also reminded the audience that French Canadians had fought in the war.8
The nine-metre-high monument created by the artist Charles G. Hill and erected in 1906, cost $30,000. It is the only equestrian monument in Montreal, and one of only a few in Canada. It is a life-size bronze statue of a rearing horse and a young cavalryman leading it by the reins. There is a rolled-up blanket attached to the saddle. In the soldier’s other hand, he holds a pair of binoculars, indicating his role as a pathfinder during the conflict.
The lower part of the monument is classical in design, with decorative elements, and resembles that of a typical cenotaph. At the four corners, the names of the Canadian regiments that participated in the conflict are inscribed: Royal Canadian Artillery, Canadian Montreal Rifles, Royal Canadian Infantry, and Strathcona Horse. An inscription on the west side of the monument reads as follows: “To commemorate the heroic devotion of the Canadians who fell in the South African war and the valour of their comrades.” The east side of the monument bears the inscription “In grateful recognition of the patriotism and public spirit shown by Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal in raising and equipping a regiment of horse for service in South Africa as an evidence of his sympathy with the cause of imperial unity.” On the south side is a list of the battles in which Canadian troops participated. Two hauts-reliefs depict heroic episodes: on the west side of the monument, the Battle of Paardeberg, where the Boers surrendered to the Canadian infantry, and on the east side, the Battle of Komati River–Belfast, where the Canadian artillery seized the enemy’s rifles. Lastly, on the north side of the monument there is a medallion of Lord Strathcona with his coat of arms.
In the early-20th Century, it was the most photographed statue in Montreal. Today, its dated style and its English-only inscriptions imprison the work in the past.
In the years that followed, a commemorative ceremony with a military parade was held every February. According to a newspaper article in Montreal’s municipal archives, the ceremony was still taking place in 1958, but not the annual military parade, because the veterans were too old. So, beginning in 1919, two military commemorations were held in Montreal each year, and that seems to have continued until the last veterans had died.
Following the Armistice in 1918, an international commission was created to ensure a decent burial for the deceased soldiers. The commission decided that no bodies were to be repatriated; European cemeteries became the field of honour. Because the bodies of the fallen were not sent home to be buried in Canadian soil, monuments were erected across the country, in every city or town that had lost some of its citizens, to commemorate the heroism of Canadian soldiers. In Montreal, it was decided to build a cenotaph dedicated to the men and women of the city, no matter what their origins.
This sober monument, which stands in Place du Canada, has three superimposed sections. The section above the base is ringed with a bas-relief of a garland of flowers that extends around the four sides of the monument. On the front surface of the upper section, a cross in bas-relief divides the English and French inscriptions: “To the glory of God and the memory of the immortal dead who brought us honour and peace”/“À la gloire de Dieu au souvenir des morts immortels à qui nous devons l’honneur et la paix.” They are followed by the dates 1914–1918, 1939–1945 and 1950–1953. At the rear, sculpted in the monument’s granite, is a sword with a wreath laid over it, indicating that the cenotaph is dedicated to the soldiers who died in combat. This classical monument is extremely simple. Its scale represents the immensity of the soldiers’ sacrifice, while the purity of the forms evokes the void left by so many who did not return home. The cenotaph’s unadorned style stands out from its Victorian surroundings; it signalled the end of the eclectic architecture typical of late-19th- and early-20th-Century Montreal. On 11 November 1924, veterans and bereaved families—more than 50,000 Montrealers and several thousand other people—attended the unveiling of the cenotaph. That day, a new protocol was introduced: when the guns were fired, the entire city of Montreal, including horse-drawn carriages, automobiles, streetcars, trains, factories, offices and passersby, stopped for two minutes to remember the fallen soldiers. The presence in the crowd of soldiers wearing Belgian, British and Italian uniforms testified to the universal nature of the ceremony.9
Cenotaphs were among the first monuments erected in memory of contemporary soldiers. They did not become a widespread phenomenon until the end of the First World War, although a few earlier examples exist, such as the one in Dorchester Square.
Later, the symbolism of the cenotaph inspired other commemorative activities held by various communities in Montreal. For example, Ukrainians gathered at the cenotaph in 1993 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Great Famine in Ukraine; in 1988, Belgians celebrated the 157th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. The Polish community celebrated their country’s independence in 1991, as did the Greek community for a number of years.10
Return of the soldiers to Montreal
During the First World War, Montrealers were made aware of the realities of the conflict through newspaper reports, rationing, and the visibility of mourning family members and injured soldiers in public places. Many veterans came home physically and mentally damaged.
For Francophones, the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal (SSJBM) was the most important organization in Montreal and in French Canada. As many of its members returned home from the front, it introduced activities to help soldiers and their families, such as the Guignolée du Soldat charity drive to raise funds for conscripts and the war-wounded.11
After the war ended, the SSJBM opened its doors to returning soldiers twice a week. The organization was worried about what would happen to them. Many of the demobilized were unable to resume their former jobs, and others were plagued by psychological problems, which today are recognized as due in part to post-traumatic stress. To meet their needs, the SSJBM launched some original projects that are little known today, including a ‘home away from home’ for French-Canadian veterans.
A French-Canadian Hearth
In 1919, the SSJBM wanted to create a gathering place with a room arranged and decorated for the exclusive use of veterans, “A homelike setting that would be open to soldiers so that they could have an opportunity to relax, talk with civilians, and re-adapt to the French-Canadian way of thinking” [translation]. The President invited the society’s members to come and spend their evenings with the soldiers. He asked bookstores to donate engravings of Canadian scenes; the Archambault music store provided a piano, a gramophone and records; and the Viau cookie factory contributed its products.
In order to “…give the compatriots an opportunity to relax, while taking a trip back in time, to better appreciate the good, old French-Canadian values” [translation], the SSJBM organized a French-Canadian night to “reawaken our compatriots’ love of our traditions” [translation]. This old-fashioned evening, carefully researched to ensure authenticity, was one of the first events held in Montreal to initiate French Canadians to their cultural heritage through song, dance, and folktales, as well as a display of antique furniture and tools.
However, despite the society’s efforts, the project was largely unsuccessful, and the correspondence in the archives sheds light upon why. The members frequently admitted that they were overwhelmed by the veterans’ tears and their indifference to their environment. They were unable to form a bond with them and were asking for help. But the board members had no training for that kind of work, and the initiative was soon abandoned.
Honouring the living
The needs of the soldiers remained a matter of serious concern for the SSJBM. In June 1925, following the inauguration of the cenotaph and the impressive ceremony honouring the heroes the previous autumn, the SSJBM decided that its float in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parade would pay tribute to the veterans. The society also invited the veterans to march with its members; it was the first time that non-members had played a significant role in the parade. The event was well attended, and veterans from other cities also wanted to march. In 1928, French, Belgian, and Italian veterans in Montreal joined the French-Canadian delegation. For the first time, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day was representative of the multicultural nature of Montreal.
Artillery piece from the Second World War
© 1942, La Presse, No. 31975, Le monde en images, CCDMD
In 1922, a gun captured during the First World War was installed in what is now Place du Canada, but it remained there for less than 20 years: in 1941, it was collected as part of a Second World War metal drive. In 1962, an artillery piece used in the Second World War was put in place near the cenotaph to commemorate the service of Montreal’s gunners. At the time, it was thought better to leave it outdoors rather than put it in a museum. As the project leaders noted, “The gun now in the square brings a touch of real drama, to recall the service of Montrealers, and to do so not in tablet or monument, but with an authentic piece of history.”12
Together, Dorchester Square and Place du Canada contain eight monuments, four of which commemorate Canada’s military history. By chance, a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, co–Prime Minister of the United Canadas (Canada West), stands in Place du Canada, and in Dorchester Square is that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian Prime Minister who sent troops to fight the Boers in 1903. As Opposition Leader in 1914, Laurier supported the war effort, but vehemently opposed conscription. Together, the two monuments represent more than 150 years of military history: from the wars of Empire to those of Canada, and the ideologies that shaped the Canada we know today.
Diane Joly is a heritage consultant and historian (Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, 1976–1978). In the course of her research, she sometimes comes across interesting facts from military history, which she collects for publication. The information in this article was gathered as part of a heritage assessment of public art she conducted in downtown Montreal in 2008, and from a Ph.D. thesis she defended in 2012.
- This history of the site and the monuments on it are based on two studies: Jonathan Cha, Étude historique des formes paysagères du square Dorchester et de la place du Canada, Service de la mise en valeur du territoire et du patrimoine, Ville de Montréal, 2008; and Diane Joly, Étude patrimoniale, art public, Square Dorchester et Place du Canada, Service de la mise en valeur du territoire et du patrimoine, Ville de Montréal, 2008.
- Press clipping file, municipal archives. Dossier 3020, No. 13: “CANON, Le (monument).”
- E. Andrew Collard, “The Russian guns,” in The Gazette, 15 October 1983, p. B-2.
- Roch Legault, “Les officiers de milice francophones (1760–1862): à l’œuvre et à l’épreuve,” in Cap-aux-Diamants: la revue d’histoire du Québec, No. 43, 1995, pp. 28–31.
- Carl Lochnan, “Victoria Cross,” in Historica Canada, 7 June 2007 (last edited: 29 May 2015), electronic resource: http://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca, consulted in August 2016.
- John MacFarlane and Ministère de la Défense nationale. “La longue marche de l’Afrique du Sud: en mémoire des Canadiens français qui ont participé à la première intervention militaire du Canada au XXe siècle,” in Mens: revue d’histoire intellectuelle de l’Amérique française, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2007, pp. 197–240. Summary in English at http://www.erudit.org/revue/mensaf/2007/v7/n2/1024124ar.pdf.
- Alexander Reford, “Smith, Donald Alexander, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, 1998, electronic resource: www.biographi.ca, consulted in August 2016; and “Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians),” in Canadian Army, 23 June 2016, electronic resource: www.army-armee.forces.gc.ca, consulted in August 2016.
- “Large crowds witnessed unveiling of the Strathcona and Soldier’s Monument,” in The Montreal Daily Star, 25 May 1907, p. 17.
- “Governor-General Unveils Cenotaph to Glorious Dead,” in The Montreal Daily Star, 11 November 1923, p. 1.
- Dossier de la Ville de Montréal, Cénotaphe, preserved at the Direction du développement culturel.
- This information is in the society’s archives. Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec, Fonds Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Montréal (P82), centre de Montréal: https://archivesdemontreal.ica-atom.org/cenotaphe-1914-1918-au-carre-dominion-193. (The title of the fonds is in French only.)
- “Gun Unveiled Here,” in The Gazette, 15 October 1962, pp. 30-31, and https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=Fr8DH2VBP9sC&dat=19621015&printsec=frontpage&hl=fr.