Remembering the Great War through historic sites on the home front.
Home-front historic sites offer glimpses of life during the Great War.
Most Canadians have at least heard of Vimy Ridge — that famous battle in France where, in April 1917, all four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time; where, over three days of fighting, 10,602 Canadian troops were wounded or killed in action; where, some argue, Canada came of age on the international stage.
Many thousands of Canadians have visited the Vimy Memorial in France since it opened in 1936. It’s the most famous of our overseas war memorials, and one of only two Canadian National Historic Sites found outside of Canada; the other marks the location of Beaumont-Hamel, France, where the Newfoundland Regiment was nearly wiped out on July 1, 1916, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
Both historic sites are reminders of the sacrifices made by citizens a century ago. Yet you do not have to travel to Europe to find evidence of that. Many Canadian cities and towns have local monuments dedicated to the war dead. And then there are the National Historic Sites that offer opportunities to explore the Great War in more depth.
As Canadians mark the end of the “war to end all wars,” here are some national historic sites on the home front that enrich and enhance our knowledge of the First World War.
Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital, was founded in 1749 by the British as a bulwark against the French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. Following the Seven Years’ War, it remained a centre for naval power, and, during the Great War, it was a key embarkation point for both soldiers and
matériel bound for the Western Front. Thousands of soldiers passed through this port on the way to the war. Too many of them would never see Canada again.
Visitors to Halifax can relive the experiences of Great War soldiers at Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, located atop Citadel Hill in the heart of the city.
The Citadel housed many soldiers in its barracks and also acted as a command centre and even a prison camp during the Great War. At the Army Museum Halifax Citadel, visitors can explore trench art, see artifacts from the two world wars, and tour a full-sized simulated trench. As well, a nurses’ tent offers a glimpse of front-line medicine. This Remembrance Day will feature a special memorial ceremony as well as a twenty-one-gun salute by the 1st Field Artillery Regiment.
Bethune House National Historic Site
In China, Norman Bethune is perhaps the most famous Canadian ever to have lived. Yet he remains somewhat unknown in his home country. The Gravenhurst, Ontario, native enlisted in 1914 with the No. 2 Field Ambulance and served as a stretcher bearer. Wounded by shrapnel in Belgium at the Second Battle of Ypres, he was eventually sent home, and by 1916, he had graduated with a medical degree.
Re-enlisting with the Royal Navy, Bethune headed back to the war, where he served as a medical officer. The conflict greatly influenced his later career; after witnessing so much carnage, Bethune dedicated his life to providing timely front-line care to the wounded.
Early in his medical career, Bethune helped to improve surgical tools and was an innovator in thoracic surgery. During this period, he increasingly favoured socialized medicine and eventually joined the Communist Party of Canada.
An advocate for workers and the oppressed, Bethune in 1936 volunteered with left-wing loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, where he pioneered the mobile blood transfusion unit.
Later in the 1930s, Bethune travelled to China to provide health care and aid to Communist revolutionary forces. He died from blood poisoning he contracted while operating on a Communist soldier. In 1973, the federal government purchased Bethune House, Bethune’s childhood home. The Victorian-era home features artifacts and images that help to paint a picture of this First World War veteran — today commemorated as a martyr and a hero in China.
Signal Hill National Historic Site
Signal Hill looms over St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador — both literally
First World War re-enactors with a 1913 Ford Model T at the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. The historic site commemorates the Great War with several exhibits.
Clockwise from top left: Aerial view of the Halifax Citadel; Signal Hill National Historic Site in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador; Bethune House National Historic Site in Gravenhurst, Ontario.