Up Close and Personal with History – At The Canadian War Museum

Wow. What a place. The Canadian War Museum is truly something to see. I am very glad we finally had a chance to explore it (twice actually) before leaving Ottawa.

The massive collection of artifacts and striking (often emotional) portrayals of war tells the story of Canada’s involvement in many different military struggles – including those early in our country’s formative history, all the way up to more recent campaigns.

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The boys standing with museum guide Mr. Joe Brown who had served with the Canadian Navy in WWII patrolling the English Channel and fending off German bombers heading to England.

The museum manages to pull off the none-too-easy task of dealing with war in a balanced way – i.e. in such a way that does not romanticize it, nor trivialize it. They also show the unvarnished truth about war, as evidenced by some of the videos they display, a few of which I filmed portions of and have included at the bottom of this post.

Obviously the museum is different from your typical museum in that its core subject matter is something most of us abhor – war.

The notion of going to see a museum dedicated to “war” stirs mixed feelings. We want to honour and learn, pay tribute and appreciate, but we’d also rather turn away from certain aspects of war, such as the stark reminders of millions of lives lost or damaged.

Like almost everyone, I am philosophically opposed to war, yet I appreciate that there are times when sacrifice and resistance is required. In recent years I have grown to better appreciate the sacrifices that were made for our country, not only by our military in general, but also my own relatives, including my grandpa (whom I’ve written about before here) who had lost his leg during World War 1 and who barely survived, thanks in no small part to the famous poet John McCrae who was a field surgeon in the Canadian army.

John McCrae display at the Canadian War Museum:

Out of respect for my grandpa, and McCrae himself, I made sure to point out to our young boys that if it were not for McCrae performing a skillful emergency surgery, that it is theoretically possible that we would not be alive.

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John McCrae – soldier, surgeon, and poet.
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Write up on John McCrae
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The actual pistol carried by John McCrae – interesting thinking that the hands that held that gun operated on my mom’s dad, saving his life after an explosion mangled his leg.
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A picture of a field surgery kit – perhaps similar to the one used while operating on my grandfather – yikes!

Here is a clip of the surgery kit used during world war one:

Emotional Heaviness:

Obviously there is a certain heaviness to the Canadian War Museum. It is not a place where you leave feeling especially exuberant, nor should you. It is, however, a place where you gain a feeling of gratitude, not only for the sacrifice of lives lost, but also for life itself.

As you would expect, there is ample weaponry; there are swords, clubs, grenades and bayonets, and there are tanks and guns, and guns, and more guns.

Aside from the hardware of destruction however, there are also touching personal items that remind us of the human side of war – such as a small teddy bear that one Canadian soldier kept in his chest pocket as a reminder of his little daughter back home while he fought and ultimately died in the muddy and murderous trenches of northern France. (See picture of teddy bear and the letter that his 7-year-old son mailed him, which he never got to read).

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The teddy-bear, sent to a father (soldier) from his daughter in Canada, which was found on him when he died in the trenches during WWI. Behind that is a letter sent to him from his seven-year old son – a letter he never received, and which choked up this father/blogger who has sons of similar age.

For good reason, the museum focuses considerably on the two World Wars.
Somehow, over a thirty year span, starting not quite 100 years ago, we entered into a period of worldwide struggle that would result in over 85 million deaths (when you factor in civilian deaths in the Soviet Union and China). This I find hard to grasp. Approximately 30 million people were killed in WWI and 55 million in WWII. This story needs to be told and retold.

(While feeling the heaviness of war at the museum I thought of two excellent and highly moving books on war: Three Day Road by Canadian Joseph Boyden, and Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks).

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A bottle that would hold the “rum-ration” allowing for liquid courage and the necessary numbing effect, both before and after battles.


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Canadians paid a steep sacrifice for a young, far away country during WWI.
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The Canadian sacrifice during WWI

History up Close – Billy Bishop

It was fascinating to see components of the actual airplane flown by the legendary flying ace Billy Bishop, including his windshield, propeller, one of his guns, and his medallions.

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The windshield of Billy Bishop’s airplane he first used to officially establish himself as a flying ace – note the bullet hole that missed but nearly killed him during one of his dogfights.
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The windshield, propeller, and the gun from Billy Bishop’s airplane.
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The medals won by Canadian Ace Billy Bishop – including the Victoria Cross for valour (the highest honour) on the far left.
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Close-up of the Victoria Cross Won by Billy Bishop

Hitler’s Car and World War II:

Even though it is hard to imagine a more heinous person, nor a better example of how charismatic and egomaniacal “leaders” can lead people to ruin – from a historical perspective it was nonetheless interesting to see the car (although there may have been more than one) that Hitler actually used during parades throughout Europe during WWII.

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Hitler’s Car – Captured at the end of WWII by Americans and Transported to Canada
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Notice the handle at the top that Hitler would hold on to while standing in the passenger side during political / military parades
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Canada Enters the Frey
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The costly results of a poorly supported assault.

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The Canadian contribution during WWII – much too large, but thankfully a pittance compared to the world-wide total of lives lost.

Heavy Equipment and Playing Soldier:

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Attttttteeeeeennnnnnntion!
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Finley posing with a WW1 helmet worn by Canadians – the halo effect is fitting, but purely coincidental.
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UN Peace Keeping Vehicle

The War of 1812:

In addition to detailing the World Wars and other smaller international wars, the Museum has exhibits on the ancient struggle between France and England for control of Canada (and North America).

This being 2012, it is the bicentennial of the war of 1812 and so the museum has a very thought provoking large-scale exhibit on the war that involved the British, the Americans, the Canadians and various north American native tribes. It is fascinating to see the different perspectives on this two-hundred year old struggle that was obviously defining for Canada’s continued existence.

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A Canadian Officer’s Uniform During the War of 1812

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Alistair the American and Fin the Canadian – Dress up 1812 Style

Here is a brief clip from the First World War which gives an indication of the grim reality of war:

A clip from a Nazi propaganda film shown during the war throughout Europe showing Canadian and British troops killed or captured after the disaster at Dieppe.

Footage from inside a transporter boat as the Allied troops land on D-Day:

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