We received this photograph recently and immediately loved it. It’s not immediately apparent from the image, but this artillery gun is very large! The woman pictured is actually standing in between the two arms of the gun carriage, which gives an idea of the size of the artillery pieces used in the Great War.
The inscription on the back of the photograph reads “A captured German Machine Gun in the exhibition grounds at Toronto”. The inscription is significant for two reasons; firstly, the writer did not know the difference between a machine gun and an artillery gun, which points to how little information Canadians at home really had about how the war was fought in Europe. Until the appearance of Official War photographers in 1916, most press photos were taken from far behind the lines, and even official photos presented a highly controlled view of the war.
Secondly, the gun in the photograph is one of the several thousand “war trophies” brought back to Canada by the CEF at the end of the war. These trophies, machine guns, artillery pieces, and other captured objects, were displayed across the country in 1919 as part of an official tour organized by the Union MP Newton Rowell, a former Liberal who had broken with the party over Conscription in 1917. After stops in the prairies, the trophies were shown at the Canadian National Exhibition, where this photo was taken.
War trophies have been collected by individual soldiers for as long as there has been organised war. Soldiers of the First World War were no different and sent home thousands of collected objects to their families, many of which were then donated to museums and now form our material record of the war. On the official side, Canada’s Dominion Archivist, Arthur G. Doughty began putting in place a formal policy for collecting war trophies in 1916, and by 1918 the country had the pick of trophies that the Canadian Corps had taken during the 100 Days. (For more on Doughty and the official policy on war trophies, here is Jonathan Vance’s article “Tangible Demonstrations of a Great Victory: War Trophies in Canada” )
The trophies that were collected officially could be requested by towns in Canada, and many were installed in public spaces as commemorative reminders of the war. One hundred years later, some have been vandalised, or stolen, and they are often incongruous to their surroundings. The scrap drives of the Second World War also took their toll; artillery pieces like these contained far too much precious steel to be left alone, and hundreds were melted down to produce weaponry for those fighting the next war. We don’t know what happened to the gun in our photo, but whatever its fate, it travelled a long way.