War Trophies of Canada Intro

Here is a brief contextual look at First World War trophies* in Canada:

As the November 1918 armistice brought peace to a devastated Europe, a flood of captured German equipment poured into the victorious nations, with Allied governments depositing field guns, howitzers, trench mortars, and machine guns in communities. More than a dozen major shipments of war trophies on merchant vessels formed the basis of the Canadian collection. Canada received more than a thousand large artifacts, including a very few tanks and a wider range of aircraft, and literally thousands of machine guns. A Commission on War Records and Trophies had helped select pieces overseas, and organized touring exhibits across the country to show Canadians the weapons of the imperial German forces. The trophies piled up in and around storage sheds around the CNE grounds, Toronto, and in Ottawa at the Dominion Archives (Sussex drive where the War Museum was located until 2005) and at Lansdowne Park. Montreal, Quebec City and Halifax might have had a few pieces intended for further distribution as well. The Commission, chaired by philanthropist and banker Sir B.E. Walker, with Dominion Archivist of Canada, Colonel Arthur Doughty, overseeing much of the work, was charged with distributing these items across Canada.

A chain of documentation linked some pieces to “the sharp end” of brutal combat on the Western Front, while many other pieces had all provenance (up to and including capture info painted on the barrels) wiped clean. The work of the tiny staff of the Commission was daunting. Conflicting claims had to be evaluated, and some horse-wrangling over awarding trophies ensued. Parts were sometimes swapped to build complete units from damaged components. Committee members took considerable effort to try to allocate trophies in a fair manner. This was mostly based on enlistments into the Canadian Expeditionary Force, with communities that contributed more of their men receiving “better” allotments. Concentration centers (big cities) received a range of pieces. The commission also tried, when convenient, to link communities to trophies their local battalion or unit had captured. Lastly, a comprehensive set of items was kept aside for provincial war museums and a planned-for National War Museum, and 11 “Victory Loan Guns” were distributed to communities who had raised greater than expected amounts for the 1919 War Bonds drive.  Spare parts, including gun barrels, were not as well documented.  In all roughly 1050 Guns, howitzers and field guns were dispersed.**  Records also note the allocation of about 2,500 Machine guns, usually MG 08s and MG 08/15s.

The guns arrived by rail to communities from 1920-1925, and were initially greeted with interest and fanfare. Soon they became another piece of the local scenery, and by the 1930s, condition reports (also in the WTC files) revealed that guns across the country were deteriorating and becoming dangerous. Many cannon wheels were made of wood, and once this deteriorated heavy guns became unstable. Rust and rot and damage made the trophies eye-sores, and when a new global conflict demanded sacrifices on the home front, communities offered up their trophies for sale as scrap to contribute to the war effort. Larger cities used their own smelters/scrap firms to cut pieces down. Malak Karsh, Yousuf’s brother, photographed the “old guns” lying around Ottawa that would be melted down. (An album at Library and Archives Canada documents rare pieces, such as Morser 210s and an 88mm AA gun) Based on the records, it seems likely decisions by “Local Salvage Committees” were arbitrary and based on a lack of local knowledge about the pieces. Possibly the Commission had failed to really inform communities about relevant particulars available in their own records. There are examples of communities opting to scrap Vimy Ridge relics while keeping guns with no known details. The degraded condition might have sometimes played a role in selection, but all too often metal content could have been found without destroying pieces of military heritage. More puzzling, a range of antique smoothbore cannon and carronades (not part of the government request) were offered up.  Most unfortunate was the decision to scrap most of the Ottawa pieces.  These were the cream of the collection, held back for a special national commemorative project that did not materialize.

After the Second World War, no similar mass-distribution effort spread the Third Reich’s heavy equipment*** across the country. In the years after 1945, the war trophies continued to be forgotten, and many more disappeared to scrap piles, being disposed of officially by municipalities or unofficially. Private collectors, museums, and other local interests looking to enhance their own memorial efforts were more positive causes for artifacts migrating from their original sites.  Today, with the centenary of the Canada’s participation in the First World War, it is time to take stock of what has survived, hunt down illusive artifacts, and try to establish the historical value of these pieces.  The last veterans of the CEF’s remarkable effort on the Western Front are gone, but these pieces are a direct link to the events.  AWM image, imperial war museum stencilled on barrel

*Note on Sources: Jonathan Vance’s 1995 article “Tangible Demonstrations of a Great Victory” in Material Culture Review, and Bill Smy’s intro to Harold Skaarup’s War Trophies are the two best published sources about the war trophies program, along with the Commissions’ own report, available at Library and Archives Canada. Vance links the fate of trophies to evolving public memory about the First World War, while Smy reproduces the report and has an in-depth analysis of the Commission’s efforts and the Scrap drives. Recently, I was made aware of Edward Soye’s 2009 M.A. dissertation (Royal Military College of Canada) entitled Canadian War Trophies: Arthur Doughty and German Aircraft Allocated to Canada after the First World War. Soye offers the most detailed treatment about the origins and evolution of the War Trophies Commission, and Doughty’s important role. He traces the history of the trophy collection of German aircraft. Some of the best online information (beyond obvious wiki articles) is found at landships.org, which has an extensive collection of articles about various weapons.

**This is considerably more than the totals usually stated.  Having transcribed the entire War trophies ledger (minus MGs) to an excel spreadsheet, I believe this is a more accurate number than less than 600 artillery pieces (including trench mortars) usually quoted.  I believe the figure could be even higher, as occasional references to spare parts, carriages, and even gun tubes could indicate there were many more held in reserve.

***The Second World War project of military authorities and especially the First Canadian War Museum Collection Team (Commanded by Farley Mowat, whose memorable experiences are detailed in My Father’s Son) was a more limited selection of a few artillery and fighting vehicles intended for the War Museum and large military installations. Many of these wound up at the Canadian Armament Research and Development Establishment, Valcartier, before several wound up going down the intended path to the CWM.

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5 thoughts on “War Trophies of Canada Intro

  1. You state that the .25 cm schwerer minenwerfer (damaged) is the one captured by the 102 Bn at Vimy on April 9, 1917. I think this is wrong as the War Trophies ledger states that #1846 is the one captured by the 102nd on that date and that it is now in Tavistock, Ontario in front of the Branch 518 Legion. I have looked at this one.
    The 102nd War Diary mentions one Minenwerfer captured.

    (Wayne Stairs)

    • Greetings Wayne, nice to hear from you. You are correct about 1846, which was captured by the 102nd at Vimy, and shipped to Tavistock, arriving there 20 Sep. 1920 on the Grand Trunk Railway. And the WD does indeed only mention one minenwerfer captured 9 April, 1917. However, the ledger does also note that no. 1524, also a 25cm minenwerfer, was also captured by the 102nd, same date, and shipped to Knowlton QC, 30 May, 1921 by CPR. My recollection is that we found the serial on the heavily damaged barrel assembly, but I will confirm this.

      • Yes. A friend who volunteers at the Brome County Historical Society Museum at Knowlton got back to me with a photo. I’ve now seen both mortars a few years ago and those two serials check out. Without other evidence, I’d say that’s 2 impressive Vimy captures for the 102nd. Possibly the WD notes only 1 25cm because the other was a wreck.

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