Viewing of Witness – Fields of Battle Through Canadian Eyes Exhibition
Arras, France, Friday, April 7, 2017
One hundred years ago on Sunday, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps went into battle together for the first time.
Their objective was Vimy Ridge.
It was 5:30 in the morning.
All at once, 863 field guns and howitzers, 120 mortars and numerous mines fired.
As historian Tim Cook, who is here with us tonight and who just toured the exhibit with me, writes in his new book on Vimy Ridge, “Soldiers were struck by the unholy roar.”
Lieutenant E.L.M Burns remembered:
“The noise of the barrage dominated all other impressions: imagine the loudest clap of thunder you ever heard, multiplied by two, and prolonged indefinitely.”
That is a striking description, and yet, few photographs exist to give us a visual image of what the war was like for soldiers.
Instead, we rely on paintings and drawings by war artists and artist-soldiers such as those displayed in this exhibit. We also rely on Walter Allward’s Vimy monument, which conveys such a sombre feeling of sacrifice and loss.
This outstanding art collection helps us to understand what it was like to be there—not just on the battlefield, but in the factories, shipyards and training grounds back in Canada.
These images depict ruins, horses, weapons and villages. There are portraits of individuals, of the wounded carried from the desolation of battle, and of the abject destruction of warfare.
These artists gave expression in pigment, pencil, ink and other materials to what sometimes couldn’t be expressed in words.
It is not a perfect reflection, however. We are spared the most gruesome scenes that surely occurred. There are no images of shell shock, or the intense fear soldiers must have felt.
Sometimes we see only what we want to see, or what others want us to see.
Just as the story of Vimy is a mirror that, over time, has evolved to reflect Canada back to itself, these artists and soldiers used art to reflect their concerns and experiences of war.
This is our Canadian delegation’s first event since arriving in France today, and we are very pleased to begin these days of commemoration with this soldiers’-eye view of the war.
Like art, remembrance is an act of the imagination, and these paintings help us with the important act of imagining, and perhaps of empathizing.
In seeing these powerful works of art I am struck by how Canada and France, and in particular Arras, have points of commonality forged in the fire of battle.
The Canadians of a century ago went to war, in no small part, to help liberate France, and they had a special connection to the people of Arras, whose city was on the front lines.
Canadians were here 100 years ago to fight at France’s side; we are here 100 years later to reaffirm our friendship.
It’s a privilege to serve as commander-in-chief of Canada. In the past century, Canadian troops have consistently demonstrated valour and dedication, following the example of their predecessors at Vimy. Let us honour those who served so bravely in that battle and remember why, following the war, the world pledged to “never again” engage in such destruction.
I would like to thank the Museum of Fine Arts, the City of Arras and the Canadian War Museum for organizing this exhibit.
And I thank you all for attending, for honouring our veterans and for helping us to remember their sacrifices.