Museum exhibits chronicle war years
Events coincide with 100th anniversary of start of First World War
Saturday, Jun 21, 2014 06:00 am
It was Aug. 4, 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany. Canada, one of the strongest of the Commonwealth nations, was quick to help out.
St. Albert was right there with them. Alberta had a higher percentage of men enlist than any other, possibly owing to the fact that it had the largest cadet movement in the country. Many of the new recruits also had British heritage. There were many European-born French, Swiss and Belgians who went back to defend their former homelands too.
There were an estimated 13,000 enlisted personnel from the Edmonton area alone. While there were approximately 625 people in the town of St. Albert at the time, about one-tenth of them signed up for duty. More followed as soldiers were lost in Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, among other battle sites.
The Musée Héritage Museum is now commemorating the centennial anniversary of “the war to end all wars” by offering a series of exhibits that highlight St. Albert’s involvement, showing us a few glimpses of what it was like.
Two of these exhibits are currently on display. The first, Joining Up: Our Men and Women in the First World War, is a photographic display of the 61 young people who left for war.
“It’s about the boys from St. Albert that went overseas during the war,” explained curator Joanne White.
She added that there was also one sister who was a nurse.
“While there were a lot of people from St. Albert ultimately that had served in the war, this is focused on the first group that was living here at the time.”
She said that committing 61 people out of 625 was “pretty substantial” for a farming community. The absence of so many people meant extra work for the families left behind to work the land.
There is a photo and biographical plaque for each of those individuals. After conscription was introduced at the end of August 1917, another 17 locals signed up to be shipped off to the European fronts.
The exhibit also goes into some modest detail about those who returned from the war and tried to pick up their lives where they left off. In 1918, many veterans still had to look for work while the province was dealing with economic troubles. And the following year the Spanish flu epidemic decimated the province, killing more than 3,200 people.
The Home Front
The second exhibit, The Home Front, tells the other and often untold story of the war. There were people who had to stay behind to tend the farms and keep stores open for business. The exhibit looks at how local residents did what they could to support the war effort. It also looks at how people continued to live their lives, knowing that the war was raging on half a world away.
Losing so many men to the war effort meant that many women took to prominence in the town. In 1917, the United Farmers of Alberta created a female branch called the United Farm Women of Alberta. The St. Albert Women’s Institute was started to combine collective energies towards worthy community projects.
Interestingly, St. Albert’s Lucien Bouchard was the only MLA to vote against giving women the vote when that matter came to the legislature in 1916.
Among the unique and authentic photos, news clippings and artifacts presented in this part of the show, include promotional posters, a celebratory banner flag, and a pay book and a ration book. You can also see the attire that people wore during the same time frame. That includes the uniforms of a soldier and a nursing sister, featuring some very stiff cuffs.
“It feels like plastic. They’re so stiff, and probably quite uncomfortable,” White said.
There are also Arthur Poirier’s gaiters, garments that were worn on the lower legs for protection. His uniform tunic was recently discovered within the walls of Chevigny House as the building was undergoing restoration measures a few years ago. Unfortunately the tunic is in “terrible condition,” White said.