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University and The Military Museums of Calgary commemorate 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Exhibit of artifacts, letters and diaries from the battlefield tell personal stories of the First World War
April 7, 2017
University of Calgary staff at The Military Museums, archivist Jason Nisenson, left, head librarian Jerremie Clyde and Founders' Gallery curator Lindsey Sharman, examine the personal photo albums of Maj.-Gen David Watson, which are housed in the Library and Archives. Photo by Dave Brown

University of Calgary staff at The Military Museums, archivist Jason Nisenson, left, head librarian Jerremie Clyde and Founders' Gallery curator Lindsey Sharman, examine the personal photo albums of Maj.-Gen David Watson, which are housed in the Library and Archives. Photo by Dave Brown, Libraries and Cultural Resources

Entries from the diary of Maj.-Gen. David Watson, including his personal account of the first day of battle at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. David Watson Collection, University of Calgary Library and Archives, The Military Museums

Entries from the diary of Maj.-Gen. David Watson, including his personal account of the first day of battle at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. David Watson Collection, University of Calgary Library and Archives, The Military Museums. 

First page of a letter written by Canadian soldier Frederick Gerald MacLellan to his mother on April 10, 1917. MacLellan Collection, University of Calgary Library and Archives, The Military Museums of Calgary

First page of a letter written by Canadian soldier Frederick Gerald MacLellan to his mother on April 10, 1917. MacLellan Collection, University of Calgary Library and Archives, The Military Museums of Calgary

“One of the most momentous days in Canadian military history… The 4th Canadian Division occupied the left flank of this… attack and we had to take Vimy Ridge and Hill 145. It began at 5:30 a.m. and the bombardment was something terrific…We got through…the Black line objective and then found Germans were coming out of tunnels and dugouts behind us, which made a most difficult task.”

 — April 9, 1917 entry in the diary of Maj.-Gen. David Watson, commander of the Fourth Canadian Division — From the collections of the University of Calgary Library and Archives, The Military Museums of Calgary.

One hundred years ago this Sunday, the first wave of Canadian soldiers swarmed the countryside at Vimy Ridge in northern France. There were nearly 20,000 of them to start, each bearing upwards of 30 kilograms worth of weapons and supplies, not to mention the extra weight of the mud coating their uniforms and equipment. That was the beginning of a pivotal battle in the First World War. It resulted in the capture of Vimy Ridge, but at the cost of 3,600 Canadian lives. Seven thousand more were wounded.

War Stories 1917 opens Sunday at The Military Museums (TMM) to mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and to pay tribute to other key battles of that year, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.  

"We are pleased that this exhibit is a joint effort between all seven regimental galleries at The Military Museums and the University of Calgary's Library and Archives and the Founder's Gallery," says retired colonel Doug Stinson, director of The Military Museums.

War diaries, letters from soldiers to their loved ones, trench maps, helmets and medical supply kits are among the personal artifacts going on display. War Stories 1917 also includes gas masks, uniforms, medals and badges, a belt buckle with a bullet hole, and a backpack damaged by shrapnel.

“The University of Calgary is honoured to collaborate on this exhibition as we share the stories, the triumphs and the heartbreak of the battles of 1917,” says Tom Hickerson, vice-provost (Libraries and Cultural Resources). “Educational programming and public exhibitions such as War Stories 1917 help us ensure that this period in history and the sacrifices of so many will never be forgotten.”

One notable item on display is a diary containing an April 9, 1917 entry written by Maj.-Gen. David Watson, who led the Fourth Canadian Division into battle at Vimy Ridge. His diaries are housed in the Library and Archives and included in the university's digital collections.

Also on display is a letter from Frederick Gerald MacLellan, who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and wrote to his mother on April 10, 1917:

“You will know, of course, by the time this arrives that we made a substantial advance, which commenced yesterday April 9th and are still going. Of course we had some casualties but took a great many prisoners.”

The letter was signed, “Your Loving Son, Gerald.” MacLellan took part in several battles in addition to Vimy Ridge. In January 1919, he returned home to his family in New Brunswick.

War Stories 1917 artifacts include the Pattison Victoria Cross, the highest military honour for bravery bestowed upon Canadian John George Pattison, and a Red Ensign flag flown at Vimy, on loan from the Imperial War Museum in England. 

To help bring the stories to life, the university’s Founders’ Gallery is featuring works by contemporary artists including portrayals of the battles of 1917 and representations of Indigenous participation in the war. Jason Baerg illuminates the service of Mike Mountain Horse with a contemporary interpretation of Indigenous storytelling and record-keeping. Photographer Dianne Bos uses pin-hole photography to capture the 1917 battlefields as they appear today. Adrian Stimson of the Siksika Nation has developed a series of performances based on his research in the Library and Archives.

Artifacts in War Stories 1917 come from the TMM’s collections, the University of Calgary’s Library and Archives, private collections, the Glenbow Museum, Canadian War Museum, Canadian Museum of Flight and the Imperial War Museum. 

On Sunday, April 9, TMM is hosting a day for the public to explore the displays and take part in activities throughout the facility.

This initiative is made possible by the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaboration between Calgary Foundation, Community Foundations of Canada, the Government of Canada, and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast.