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The story behind the smiling soldier

First World War monument was painstakingly produced

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On the northwest corner of the Manitoba legislature grounds stands a unique war memorial. Funded privately by the families of those who lost loved ones in the First World War, it features a smiling soldier and the names of more than 1,600 Winnipeggers.

The idea for such a monument came about in the autumn of 1920. At the time, calls for city council to get started on a permanent war memorial were getting louder but going nowhere. All Winnipeg had to show was a temporary structure at Portage and Main, a replica of a cenotaph that had recently been unveiled in London, England.

Frustrated, and perhaps anticipating what ended up being an eight-year run of infighting and indecision before the city's permanent cenotaph was finally unveiled, a group called the Winnipeg Soldiers' Relatives' Permanent Memorial Association was formed in October 1920 with the intention of creating its own monument.

The association's first general meeting took place on Nov. 3, 1920 at the offices of the Winnipeg Board of Trade on Main Street under the leadership of Thomas Russ Deacon, president of Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works and a former mayor. Deacon's son, Lester, was killed in action.

Though the initial roster of members was made up of the city's upper class, anyone who had lost a relative in the war was welcome to join. At its peak, the association had more than 1,500 members.

Fundraising was a private affair. Donations were accepted, but the association would not make these lists public. That way, the smallest donation from an impoverished war widow and the largest donation by a business tycoon could not be compared with each other.

The association decided construction would not start until it could find a prominent place in the city to place the monument, within 13 kilometres of Portage and Main. They also wanted to be confident they had a list of every person killed in action during the Great War who lived in the greater Winnipeg area at the time they enlisted.

The bulk of the names were obtained though an advertising campaign aimed at family members. Rounding off the list proved more difficult.

It is estimated as many as 60 per cent of those who enlisted were originally from Britain. Many were young, single men who came on their own, seeking a new life and adventure in the Canadian West. In some cases, it was just a couple of years later before they were drawn back by the call to fight for their homeland, leaving no wife or other family here. There were others who worked in the mining, forestry, railways or shipping industries and enlisted elsewhere in Canada.

The association canvassed schools, employers and churches and followed up leads throughout the world. It also spent $1,000 to have researchers in Ottawa go through thousands of files to make sure no one slipped through the cracks.

The campaign wrapped up on Nov. 1, 1921 with a two-day phone-in campaign. Nearly 1,600 names had been collected. An additional group of names was added the following year, bringing the total to 1,619. (A final group was added after the unveiling, bringing the final tally to 1,658.)

With a prominent location and a list of names, it was time to think about the monument itself.

The architect chosen for the project was John Nelson Semmens, who had been a colonel with the 78th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. The Toronto-born Semmens began his architecture career in the United States. While working for McKim, Mead & White in New York City, he was tasked with designing Winnipeg's Bank of Montreal Building at the southeast corner of Portage and Main. After that work was completed, he settled here and went on to design dozens of local buildings, including Wolseley School and the Civic Auditorium.

The artist selected was Marguerite Judd Taylor. She was born and trained in Paris, a student of French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle. While working in London, she met and married Canadian businessman Hilliard Taylor, and the couple settled in Winnipeg in 1904. Her sculptures can be seen around the world, from Reykjavik to London and Philadelphia to Prince Albert. Another local work of hers is the Chief Peguis Monument in Kildonan Park.

Taylor went to her London studio and spent six months creating the bronze figure that was cast by Burton and Co. of London in January 1923. At first, the depiction of a joyous soldier on a war monument may seem out of place, but she explained she wanted to capture "the time peace was declared; when the victorious soldier threw his rifle into his left hand and triumphantly whirled his tin hat in the air." She added: "I wanted to do a happy soldier so the bereaved wives and mothers would not be too much saddened when they looked at it."

The bronze tablets containing the names were produced by Henry Birks and Sons in Montreal. The Tyndall stone base was produced by Wyatt and Ireland of Winnipeg.

The monument was unveiled on Decoration Day, May 13, 1923. That year's Decoration Day parade was said to have been the largest ever seen in Winnipeg, and thousands jammed the legislature grounds for the occasion.

Justice Robert M. Dennistoun, a member of the association, spoke of the importance of the monument: "Whosoever in the future learns from this monument that 1,619 men and women of this place sacrificed their lives in the late war will have cause for astonishment. That a comparatively small community in Canada, thousands of miles from the battle-grounds, should mourn 1,619 dead, is in itself a fearful commentary on the hideousness of war and a warning to those who come after to strive with all of their might for the avoidance of a like fate in future."

The Winnipeg Soldiers' Relatives' Association held a Decoration Day ceremony at the monument each year. It usually consisted of a procession of soldiers marching from All Saints Church, a short eulogy, a hymn by the All Saints choir and the laying of flowers by, or on behalf of, relatives from around the world.

It was also the setting for numerous intimate ceremonies and family gatherings. On June 28, 1924, the Nursing Sisters of Canada held a service for those killed on the hospital ship Llandovery Castle six years earlier. On the morning of the start of the National Chapter of the Daughters of the Empire conference in Winnipeg, a wreath was laid before the meetings began.

As Remembrance Day grew in importance and members of the association died off, so did interest in the monument. The final official ceremony held there appears to have been Decoration Day 1956.

Over time, the monument's name began to change from the official "Soldiers' Relatives' Monument" to what had been a nickname, the "Next-of-Kin Monument."

It may have fallen out of favour. To me, though, it is one of the most meaningful war monuments in the city.

Christian Cassidy writes about local history on his blog,

West End Dumplings, at westenddumplings.blogspot.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2014 A8

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