Mary Riter Hamilton, Canada’s First Unofficial War Artist

It has been 90 years since Mary Riter Hamilton donated 180 of her oil paintings and dozens of her chalk, pastel and pencil drawings depicting the devastation in Europe after the First World War to the Public Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada). These works by Riter Hamilton are not light-hearted. The subject matter deals almost exclusively with the destruction of war. They depict muddy trenches and blighted landscapes, graves and cemeteries, churches and towns ripped apart from shelling.

Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater near Neuville St. Vaast.

Memorial for the Second Canadian Division in a Mine Crater near Neuville St. Vaast (MIKAN 2836007)

Mary Riter Hamilton was born in 1873 in Teeswater, Ontario and grew up in Clearwater, Manitoba where her family moved to farm. She married Charles W. Hamilton at the age of 18 and by the age of 23 was widowed. It was soon before the death of her husband that Mary began attending art classes in Toronto. Recognizing her talent, most of her European-trained teachers urged her to further her studies in Paris. Mary studied first in Germany then moved to Paris where she lived and studied for the next eight years. Mary returned to Manitoba for a year in 1906 then again for eight years in 1911. During these years, Mary’s work was exhibited in galleries in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.

The Sadness of the Somme

The Sadness of the Somme (MIKAN 2835991)

Always wanting to return to Europe, it was in 1919 while Mary was living and working on Canada’s west coast, that she was offered a commission by the Amputation Club of British Columbia to provide art work for The Gold Stripe, a veteran’s magazine. Mary left immediately, “ … to paint the scenes where so many of our gallant Canadians have fought and died.” For three years, Riter Hamilton worked tirelessly in post-war France and Belgium, painting battlefields including Vimy Ridge and the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. Conditions were harsh. She lived in make-shift shelters while enduring foul weather and meagre rations. She returned to Canada physically and emotionally spent. Refusing to sell her paintings, Riter Hamilton donated her work to the Public Archives of Canada. She died, poor and visually impaired, in 1954.

As the centenary of the First World War approaches, these works take on a renewed poignancy. Mary Riter Hamilton was never an official ‘war artist’ yet through her courage and talent and indomitable dedication, the sombre beauty and mournful tone of her collection serve as an enduring account of the ravages of war.

Trenches on the Somme

Trenches on the Somme (MIKAN 2894917)

To learn more about Mary Riter Hamilton, to view more of her work, or to see what materials are contained in the LAC collection, visit:

Looking for your Newfoundland Ancestors Who Served in the First World War?

Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire when the First World War broke out. At the time, there was no formal military presence in Newfoundland, but the Government of Newfoundland went on a recruiting drive to provide a force for British service. Many Newfoundlanders also joined the war effort by joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in Canada.

After Newfoundland joined confederation in 1949, the personnel records for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and the Newfoundland Forestry Corps were transferred to the Government of Canada as these individuals became eligible for veterans’ benefits. Later, the files were microfilmed by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and FamilySearch. The originals remain in LAC’s holdings.

Searching for Newfoundland service files

If you aren’t sure in which service your ancestor served or where he joined, you will need to look at both the CEF records using the Canadian soldiers of the First World War: 1914-1918 database for people from Newfoundland who enlisted in other parts of Canada and the general Archives Search for people who enlisted in Newfoundland regiments. For the latter group, enter the surname of the person, “Newfoundland” and RG38 in the keyword search. The results page will identify which microfilm reel you will need to order to consult the service record.

Meanwhile, the microfilms can be consulted onsite at LAC, through the Family History Centre or in the Newfoundland Provincial Archives at The Rooms in St. John’s. The latter has digitized some of the service files and these can be found in the Newfoundland Regiment and the Great War database.

LAC is presently digitizing all of the remaining 640,000 service files of the men and women who served in the First World War with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The digitized service records will be made available on the website as they become available, but access restrictions may be in effect at times. Learn more about the digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Service Files by consulting the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Step back in time: Library and Archives Canada helps the National Gallery of Canada recreate a First World War exhibition experience

When Canadian troops joined the action on the western front, there were no official military photographers. The front line was unsafe for commercial photographers, and officers and men were not allowed to use personal cameras. As a result, there are no official photographic records of Canadian participation in early battles, such as the Second Battle of Ypres, in April 1915.

The Canadian War Records Office, established in January 1916, immediately recognized the importance of photography, both for keeping a lasting documentary record of the war and for boosting morale. The first official Canadian war photographer was appointed in April 1916. That same year, the first of several immensely popular exhibitions of official Canadian war photographs was unveiled at the Grafton Galleries, in central London.

Princess Christian among others viewing images at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, Grafton Galleries, London, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394829)

Princess Christian among others viewing images at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, Grafton Galleries, London, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394829)

Today, Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) holdings include most of the negatives created by Canada’s official war photographers, preserved in their original glass plate format. These are some of the most poignant, horrifying, and yet compelling images in LAC’s photography collection.

The Great War, the Persuasive Power of Photography, a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, curated by Ann Thomas, incorporates many of these negatives in the near-exact recreation of one entire room from the second Grafton Galleries exhibition, held in 1917. The room, which is designed to put the modern viewer in the shoes of a viewer from 1917, features a dramatic to-scale reproduction of a photograph of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, called the largest photograph ever made during its time. It also includes a cropped version of this photograph of Canadian troops after the battle.

Canadian troops en route to destination for a rest period after taking part in the capture of Vimy Ridge (MIKAN 3521924)

Canadian troops en route to destination for a rest period after taking part in the capture of Vimy Ridge (MIKAN 3521924)

View from inside the Grafton Galleries, London, at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394834)

View from inside the Grafton Galleries, London, at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures, July 1917 (MIKAN 3394834)

Canada’s official war photographers:

  • Captain Henry Edward Knobel (April 1916 to August 1916)
  • William Ivor Castle (August 1916 to June 1917)
  • William Rider-Rider (June 1917 to December 1918)

See other images reproduced for the room or visit the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada from June 27 to November 16, 2014.

Library and Archives Canada to Digitize 640,000 First World War Service Files

As part of the commemoration of the centennial of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) announced in its News section that it is undertaking the digitization of 640,000 personnel service files of the First World War’s Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) members with a view to ensuring the long-term preservation of these frail paper documents.

Transferred to LAC about 20 years ago, CEF service files represent LAC’s most heavily consulted collection. A victim of its own success, the high number of transactions to which the collection has been subjected is putting strains on the mostly paper-based documents and is hastening their deterioration.

Many readers who have had the opportunity to hold these precious historical documents in their hands in recent years will certainly remember how some of the sheets are beginning to crumble. If LAC does not undertake action to preserve these files now, they are at risk. Once lost, they are lost forever.

To be able to perform this important undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the service files. The first quarter, beginning with the letter A through D, will be closed as of March 2014 and will be available on-line as of Summer 2014.

While 75% of the collections will always be open, LAC will not be able to accept requests to consult documents in person, nor take orders for copies for a period of up to 4 months on the portion of the collection being digitized.

The files to be digitized will complement the approximately 13,500 service files and the more than 620,000 attestation papers already available on LAC’s website. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the 640,000 newly digitized service files from the comfort of their own home and will no longer have to pay reprography fees.

LAC is pleased to contribute to the Commemorative Initiatives of the Government of Canada to honour the contributions and sacrifices made by Canadian men and women during the First World War. We wish to recognize Public Works and Government Services Canada’s support in this endeavour.

LAC appreciates your understanding and patience during the course of this extensive project.

For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914–1918)

Aboriginal peoples have a long tradition of military service in Canada dating back several centuries. Although not legally required to participate in the war, an estimated 4,000 Status Indians, and an unrecorded number of Métis and Inuit enlisted voluntarily and served with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Almost all of the young men on many reserves enlisted for service. For example, approximately half of the eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia volunteered for overseas duty. In other provinces, the number was even higher. In the small Saskatchewan community of File Hills, nearly all of the eligible men signed up to fight.

Postcard image of Aboriginal men from File Hills, Saskatchewan, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force

A number of Aboriginal men who served in the CEF became snipers or scouts. Private Henry Norwest, a Métis from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, was one of the most famous snipers. Another proficient sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Parry Island Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Three-time recipient of the British Military Medal and two bars, Corporal Pegahmagabow was the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier of the First World War. Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, enlisted only three days after the Germans declared war on August 4, 1914. He died from poisonous gas during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915. Another Aboriginal man who served in the war was Olympic runner Tom Longboat, also from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve.

Aboriginal women also made great sacrifices and played significant roles working behind the battle scenes. Nurse Edith Anderson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, joined the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces, and worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France. Most of her work involved caring for patients who had been shot or gassed.

The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War is not known. It is estimated that at least 300 men were killed during battles or died from illness, such as tuberculosis.

Five Heritage Films on Canada at War now on YouTube

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has released the last set of heritage films on its YouTube channel. Easy to access, you can now enjoy the following short films:

You can see our previous announcements on Snapshots of Canadian Life, Scenic Canada, and Agriculture and Industry.

You can also find archived versions of the films on the Virtual Silver Screen page.

Hidden Treasures – Winnie the bear

Discovering hidden treasures in our institution’s vast collection of archival material is one of the exciting benefits of researching at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Recently, two previously undescribed photographs of the bear mascot Winnie, the famous Canadian inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, were found and made available online.

A reference technician from LAC was searching for First World War photographs taken in March 1915 of the 15th Canadian Battalion in the trenches of Neuve-Chapelle, France. The technician consulted the usual sources (online database, onsite Finding Aids, and contact cards from the Department of National Defence photographic collection) and found a description of a possible and unexpected item in the personal collection of Horace Brown.

The photographs from this collection were retrieved from storage; some of them were very small and difficult to view. One seemed to be of a soldier wearing a very odd hat. Further investigation with the aid of a lighted magnifying glass revealed the “soldier” was actually a bear cub and the curious headgear was its ears! A second image of the bear cub was also identified in the collection. A bit of sleuth work revealed that Horace Brown, a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, had been stationed at Salisbury Plain, England during October and November 1914, at the same time as Lieutenant Harry Colebourn with his mascot, Winnie.

Although many photographs exist of the famous bear in the Manitoba Archives and private collections, these were the first ones to be identified in LAC’s holdings. The images may now be viewed by all Winnie the bear (and Winnie-the-Pooh) fans here and here on our website.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear - Salisbury Plain.

Harry Colebourn with Winnie the bear – Salisbury Plain. (Source)

Battle of Vimy Ridge – April 9 to 12, 1917

For Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge brings to mind the joint effort of all of the Canadian units that fought together for the first time to achieve victory. In a way, it was our very first national military victory, and, as such, a tremendous source of pride.

In spring 1917, Allied Command tasked Canadians with the difficult mission of taking Vimy Ridge and driving back the Germans, who had controlled it almost continuously since the beginning of the First World War.

Barrage map [cartographic material]: [Vimy Ridge region, France]

Barrage map [cartographic material]: [Vimy Ridge region, France] (source)

The Canadian officers spent weeks developing their tactical attack down to the last detail. The soldiers rehearsed their attack behind the lines using a model to represent the battlefield so they would be familiar with the terrain where they would be fighting. The role of the artillery was also meticulously planned in preparation for its famous “creeping barrage,” an artillery bombardment that pressed forward against the enemy at a timed pace as a curtain of fire ahead of the advancing troops.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing into “No Man’s Land” through German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

29th Infantry Battalion advancing into “No Man’s Land” through German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (source)

The attack that ignited the Battle of Vimy Ridge was launched on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, at 5:30 a.m. Four Canadian divisions overran the German positions, with three achieving their primary objectives in less than an hour. The highly-trained men were able to advance rapidly, thanks to the formidably effective heavy artillery fire. Nevertheless, the Germans offered fierce resistance: it took four days of heavy combat for the Canadians to finally seize full control of the famed Vimy Ridge.

The battle claimed the lives of 3,598 Canadian soldiers, with over 7,000 more wounded.

(W.W. I – 1914-1918) As the Canadians advanced, parties of Huns left their dug-outs, only too glad to surrender – Vimy Ridge. April 1917.

(W.W. I – 1914-1918) As the Canadians advanced, parties of Huns left their dug-outs, only too glad to surrender – Vimy Ridge. April 1917. (source)

Visit our Flickr album for more photographs.

The Home Children (part three) — Harold Mornington

The second article in this series of three explains how to find information about one of the British home children, Edward Brignall, who served in the Canadian Armed Forces during the First World War. This third article looks at another home child, Harold Mornington, who served in the British Army in the Second World War.

As with Edward Brignall, the process begins with a search of our main online resource on Home Children. Entering the family name Mornington and the given name Harold into the database yields a single reference; it indicates that Harold was 14 years old when he left Liverpool on March 11, 1932 aboard the SS Montclare, and arrived in Halifax on March 19, 1932. He was part of the last group of 36 children sent to Canada by the Barnardo agency.

The passenger lists from 1925 to 1935 have been digitized and can be consulted online. The digital image of the list of passengers aboard the SS Montclare can be examined as well, which confirms the information found in the home children database. It also contains other information, such as the name and address of Harold’s mother, Mrs. Mornington, who lived at 16 Orlando Street, in Caldmore, Walsall, England. More information about Harold Mornington’s family history can be found by contacting the Barnardo’s Family History Service.

Beginning in the 1920s, immigration inspectors drafted Juvenile Inspection Reports when conducting periodic evaluations of children brought to Canada by different agencies. These files are available only on microfilm. A search on reel T-15424 shows that between 1932 and 1936, Harold Mornington worked for five different employers in the Ontario districts of Durham, Brant, Oxford and Hastings.

A reference found on the site of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals that sometime between 1936 and the beginning of the Second World War, Harold Mornington returned to England. He joined the British Army and died on May 23, 1941, while still a member of the Royal Artillery. He was the son of William Joseph and Elizabeth Mornington.

Lastly, Harold Mornington’s military service record is kept at The National Archives in the United Kingdom.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!