Digging into our military history – and finding unsung heroes and unlikely treasures

The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery is shown firing a 60-gun salute in Ottawa last May 21 in celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The regiment’s home station is Canadian Forces Base Shilo.

By Joan Cohen

What’s the difference between the  Legion House Museum and Camp Hughes? Well one, you might say, collects history, the other has made it.   And what do they have in common?  They are, as historian and museum director  Bruce Tascona explains it, the two key focuses of the non-profit Military History Society of Manitoba Inc.  And for some very good reasons.

The museum is located on the second floor of the Norwood/St.Boniface branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. Its managers are eager to attract people with an interest in military history to join the MHSM – and the museum people say their interest does not have to be related to Manitoba’s military past: it could be the U.S. civil war, or some other subject. History buffs  are welcome to use the Museum’s  facilities to pursue their interest –  presumably at the same time bringing  their own vitality, their own special perspective on the world and their own knowledge to the Manitoba group.

The museum  is also looking for souvenirs and mementos connected with the world of the  military. The last of the First World War veterans died a few months ago, as Bruce points out, but the soldiers of that generation have descendents, who may well have family mementoes and souvenirs that their parents or  grandparents cherished. They’re likely worried that those treasures would one day end up in a garbage dump because there’ll be is no one left to treasure them.

That seems to be a miscalculation. Every time the museum has an event, people phone in to tell workers about old family souvenirs they are sheltering in their own homes: uniforms, medals, swords, equipment, photographs, books, letters.    “We got a call the other day,” Bruce recalls. “The son was in his 80s. He had a beautiful uniform belonging to his father; he’d always looked after it. He was overjoyed when he found there was a place for it at the museum and it would continue to be cared for.”

Then there was the letter from the 90-year-old British Columbia lady. Her father was with the Manitoba Dragoons a long century ago. She was custodian now of his mementoes, including a collection of his love-letters. Would it be appropriate to offer that to the museum?  “ I told her,” Bruce explained,  “somebody is going to walk in here and want to examine correspondence from that period.” A proud holding of the museum are the embarkation lists of the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War. The lists contain some 400,000 names of Canadian soldiers headed oversees. The lists are used extensively to track down information about long-vanished kin:  where they were headed as they boarded their ships, what group they were with as they embarked, and much else.

“People come in with old pay books or discharge papers,” Bruce continues. “ Sometimes there are no records, but we tell them we will see what we can do. We’re usually able to give them some background.”

Beyond this there are the exhibits themselves, on display in the Carberry town library as well as the Legion House Museum – with material drawn from the “Great War”, peacekeeping operations and a range of other military events.

“Some people think those things should be given to the Canadian War Museum. We try to tell them that the museum can show only a small percentage of the mementos it receives. The rest goes into a warehouse. We put these articles on exhibit.”

New operating hours for the museum – Wednesdays from 12 noon to 4 p.m. – go into effect in September.

Some 150 kilometres away, 10 km west of Carberry, sits a heritage site with as potent, and poignant a war record as any likely to be found in this country. It’s the site of Camp Hughes, a large Canadian military training camp which first opened in 1909 as a city of tents,  in shapes resembling coolie hats. Now both a provincial Heritage Park and for the past year as a national historic site, it is the only training area in the  Commonwealth with an  extensive surviving  trench system – totalling 10 kilometres in length. The MHSM has partnered with Carberry and the Rural Municipality of North Cypress  in managing it.

Artillery troops, 5,000 of them, trained on that site in 1914, the opening year of the war. After that there were cavalry (and thousands of horses)  as well, with some 35,000 troops training in 1915 – and a total of  50,000 through the war, mainly from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  Bruce guesses some  2,000 service staff would have been there. It was the soldiers training at Camp Hughes in 1915 and 1916 who would move on later to conquer Vimy Ridge.

The soldiers would be at Camp Hughes between April and October,  and then  before bitter winter arrived the camp would empty until spring returned.

Bruce acknowledges that much of MHSM’s attention is focused on the First World War.  “It’s of major interest, and had a large bearing on Manitoba’s development.   In all, 80,000 soldiers from Manitoba went to war. Every community sent soldiers, volunteers.”   Their old units are gone now, merged into the regular ground forces at Shilo.

It’s a fascinating story.  Most of us in Winnipeg likely don’t know it; most of us have never heard of Camp Hughes.  We need to know more than we do; it’s our history.  Indeed, the MHSM has its work cut out for it.

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