Alberta & the Great War
Until Jan. 13, 2019
Remembrance Day hours: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Special walk-through event with letter reading (by St. Albert Children’s Theatre alumnus Ethan Kidney) and viewing of short films on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 2:30 to 5 p.m.
Musée Héritage Museum (St. Albert Place, 5 St. Anne St.)
Visit www.muséehéritage.ca or call 780-459-1528 to learn more.
It was one century ago that the First World War – the war to end all wars, they called it – came to a close with the signing of the armistice. An exhibition from the Provincial Archives of Alberta has come to the Musée Héritage Museum at just the right moment to mark the exact historic moment with a surprisingly in-depth look back to the war years from a distinctly Albertan perspective.
Alberta & the Great War is a comprehensive overview of this province’s participation and concerns from 1914 to 1918 and beyond.
“We definitely wanted to have something here for Remembrance Day this year because this is the end of that commemoration period,” explained Joanne White, the curator at the museum.
The Armistice of Compiègne – the formal written agreement to end the war as signed by leaders of the countries in conflict – took effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Its terms stipulated that all hostilities were to stop, all German forces were to withdraw behind the Rhine, the surrender of all aircraft and warships, and the release of Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, plus eventual reparations to be made.
As a still-young province, Alberta had a population of slightly more than 495,000 people in 1916, approximately 50,000 (or 10 per cent of the total) of which enlisted. Of those 50,000, approximately 20,000 were wounded in battle and 6,000 lost their lives.
This exhibit is dedicated to how the First World War affected all Albertans on all fronts with historical memorabilia including photographs, letters and newspapers. It looks at the soldiers who went off to war, the people who stayed home, what happened here during the war years, and after the fighting stopped, too.
How Alberta showed up
According to the text panels, several infantry battalions were formed in Alberta, including the 31st, 49th, 50th, 51st, 56th and 63 Battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some of the Alberta battalions were absorbed into reserve battalions in England while the 31st, 49th and 50th Battalions were entered into the front lines in France and Belgium.
The Provincial Archives has the province’s largest holding of archives and artifacts on this subject. With exhibits such as this one, there is always room to fill out more detail.
Even though White complemented it with artifacts from the Musée’s own collection, she found herself wanting more pieces from across the province.
“Because this is about Alberta, I actually contacted a few regional museums to get some stories from other places. I thought it would be interesting,” she said. “We’re representing a few different places. As well, some of our collection actually was given to us from people from Bruderheim or other areas.”
Further records and pieces came in from the Red Deer Museum, the Fort Ostell Museum in Ponoka, and the Lacombe and District Historical Society.
One of the objects that has been pulled out for display is what White describes as a “chromed bomb,” though she was careful to note that it has absolutely been deactivated. It was brought back by famed aviator Wop May, the Edmonton flying ace who, on only his second day of aerial combat, faced down the feared Axis pilot Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the Red Baron. May kept the explosive as a souvenir and even had it chromed to keep it as a one-of-a-kind trophy. It is on loan from the Alberta Aviation Museum.
“We have a little bit about him but we weren’t getting heavily into individual stories,” she said, although the exhibit does also include detail about Alex Decoteau, the Cree track and field athlete, who served as an Edmonton Police officer (becoming the first Indigenous police officer in Canada) and soldier with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He perished during the Second Battle of Passchendaele.
There is a brief mention of Raymond Brutinel, the fascinating Frenchman who came to Canada and lived in St. Albert for several years. He was an industrialist and enterprising businessman who edited Edmonton-based Le Courrier de l’Ouest, the first French-language newspaper west of Winnipeg. He was also the person who created and commanded the Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade, the first fully mechanized unit of the British Empire. That brigade was credited with playing a major role in halting the German Spring Offensive of March 1918.
Brutinel was the focus of his own exhibit at the museum in 2014. Here, a machine-gunner’s helmet borrowed from another museum was likely worn by a soldier training at Brutinel’s camp.
“We’ve got people that may have crossed paths at different times from all the different communities, too. Once people got into the Canadian regiments, it was sort of a small world.”
Beyond them, there is a wall display that shows the names of the soldiers from St. Albert who lost their lives.
There are gas masks and nurse’s uniforms, not to mention samples from the reams of correspondence that were written back and forth between soldiers in Europe and their loved ones in Alberta. To enhance the weight of those letters, the museum is hosting a special event called Letters from the Front later this month. There will be a special walk-through event of the exhibit accompanied by reading of some of these letters by St. Albert Children’s Theatre alumnus Ethan Kidney. There will also be a series of short films viewed that day as well. It runs from 2:30 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 17.
All in all, White considers the exhibit to be a serious treatment of the ramifications and implications of war on people and on a populace.
“It’s very important. We’ve had different takes on some of the [aspects of]First World War. This being Alberta, it reflects some of the exhibits we did in 2014. It shows some of the impact on the whole world but outside of our community a little bit more.”