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Canada's Eye Witness



Lord Beaverbrook (centre) poses with officers and ladies during WW I. Inset: Beaverbrook (second right) outside Canadian Cavalry Brigade headquarters in France in August 1916. The officer on the far left is Gen. Sir Sam Hughes, minister of Militia and Defence.

Lord Beaverbrook is remembered for many things: as one who made millions through controversial business deals; as a British Press Baron, who used his newspapers to great effect; as a charming womanizer and socialite; and as the “foul-weather friend” that Winston Churchill turned to in World War II to ensure the efficient and massive production of aircraft.

But he is also one of Canada’s greatest historically minded citizens. “This strange attractive gnome with an odour of genius about him,” as Lady Diana Manners described Beaverbrook, turned his enormous energy and drive towards building a historical legacy of Canada’s war effort during WW I.

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Max Aitken was born in 1879 at Maple, Ont., and raised in New Brunswick. He did not excel at studies or sports, and few, including his strict father, a Presbyterian minister, expected him to go far. But Aitken exhibited a command of business, running several profitable schemes at an early age. He began by acquiring small companies in his 20s, selling shares in them, and then purchasing new companies with the profits. An exuberant and energetic figure, short in stature and with an enormous grin, Aitken revelled in deal-making. He moved to Montreal in 1906, travelled in high circles, and had a gift for convincing people to part with their money. When that did not work, he was not shy about greasing the financial wheels needed to support his successful business deals.

Aitken made almost unreal profits in the first decade of the 20th century. Fortunes were made and lost, but he almost always came out on top. He was a millionaire several times over, yet he did not escape condemnation. He was accused of watering down the stock of the many companies he bought, amalgamated, and then sold. When the multi-millionaire Aitken left Canada for England in 1910, it was under a cloud of suspicion.

He wasted little time in establishing himself in England. He won a parliamentary seat as a Tory in 1911, was knighted, and began to buy up newspapers shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, he was mistrusted for his dealings in Canada and for his new-money wealth. Socially active in some of the best London clubs–certainly more so than he was in the House of Commons–he also contributed journalistic pieces to Canadian newspapers. At the same time, Sir Max kept in contact with the Canadian Conservative Party, especially Prime Minister Robert Borden and Minister of Militia and Defence Sam Hughes, to whom he gave campaign money. When war was declared in August 1914, Aitken was thus not only seen as the Canadian expert in Britain, but as a political ally.

He impressed upon his Conservative friends to allow him to be of service to the Canadian cause. It was enough for Hughes, an ardent nationalist who not only distrusted the professional British soldiers, but also wished for control over the newly raised Canadian forces. Aitken was appointed Eye Witness and given an honorary appointment as a lieutenant-colonel. But what was an Eye Witness? Aitken interpreted this as looking out for Canadian interests, and, as he wrote to Borden, “to enshrine in a contemporary history those exploits which will make the 1st Division immortal.” He started to send back weekly communiqués that were published in newspapers across the empire. Later, he wrote a series of best-selling histories, under the title of Canada in Flanders, extolling the deeds of Canadian troops.

With his own immense funds and close friendship to Hughes, Aitken expanded his role within the confused overseas Canadian military hierarchy. Having Hughes’ ear gave him additional leverage.

Aitken was a force to be reckoned with. He manoeuvred the command appointments for friends, blocked the advancement of enemies. “Sir Max Aitken is a power in the land–at present–has immense influence in both Canadian and English governments and consequently upon the Army,” wrote Captain Talbot Papineau, the celebrated French-Canadian, who was later killed at Passchendaele.

Aitken not only pulled the strings within the Canadian organization, but was heavily involved in British politics. He helped bring down the Asquith government, leading the way to the appointment of David Lloyd George as prime minister. He was known to many as a Kingmaker. Yet despite this high-level intrigue, he remained committed to the Canadians. As Eye Witness and, by mid-1915, Canadian Records Officer, he was responsible for, in his words, laying “down the bedrock of history.”

After chronicling the Canadians in print, Aitken turned towards forging and spreading a visual record of the war. He established the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO), initially paying for it out of his own pocket, and its mandate was to further the Canadian cause as both a publicity agency and historical archives. The CWRO would create records to capture the Canadian war experience: photographers, war artists and cinematographers were sent into the field to photograph, paint and film Canadian soldiers, capturing their actions for all history.

The War Office fought him over the plan, unwilling to concede control on how the war would be presented. But Aitken was a powerful figure and had unique rights as Canada’s Eye Witness. He refused to back down, enlisting allies in England and Canada. With his considerable influence, he manoeuvred around the War Office’s objections and, by the summer of 1916, had artists, photographers and cinematographers working to document Canadians on the front.

Aitken had little taste in art, but he understood its value as an enduring visual legacy. He played a key role in establishing and supporting the Canadian War Memorial Fund, the organization that administered Canada’s war art program.

Artists would receive honorary commissions in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), expenses would be paid, and paintings would be exhibited. In return, after the war, their finished works and sketches were to be given as gifts to the Canadian government for future generations. He first commissioned Richard Jack, in November 1916, to begin work on a Canadian battle scene. Jack’s Second Battle of Ypres was of a grandiose scale, measuring 12 x 20 feet. As impressive as it was, it was a traditional heroic depiction, more akin to 19th century Imperial last stands, than the grimmer realities of poison gas, sniper fire and high explosives that choked, maimed and killed thousands of Canadians during the April 1915 week of relentless battle. But more artists soon began to capture the carnage of battle on their canvases.

A.Y. Jackson, one of the first Canadians to paint for the CWMF, recounted meeting Lord Beaverbrook after receiving a peerage at the end of 1916. His assistant “was poised with his notebook ready when His Lordship blew in like a cyclone. Beaverbrook read rapidly through the first letters, and began a running fire of instructions. ‘Tell Winston Churchill I will have lunch with him tomorrow at one. Tell Bonar Law (Chancellor of the Exchequer) I will see him at eight o’clock tonight. Tell Lloyd George to meet me on Thursday afternoon at four.’ He looked at me; for a moment he had forgotten who I was. Then, ‘Alexander,’ he said, ‘make this man a lieutenant.’ And he was gone as swiftly as he had come.” Just like that, Jackson was a war artist.

Canadians William Beatty, C.W. Simpson, Arthur Lismer, Frank Johnston, and F.H. Varley, were among those enlisted to paint the war. This rare opportunity had a profound influence on their subsequent careers and even in the development of Canadian art. Lismer, Johnston, and Varley, for instance, would become important members of the Group of Seven. Others were hired to document home front activities: from munitions workers to “soldiers of the soil” toiling in the fields. Dozens of other relatively unknown artists at the time were given the chance to depict the war and sharpen their talents.

Aitken believed in the power of first-hand witnesses, and the artists were encouraged to seek out their subjects in order to comprehend the nature of battle. Of course, all paintings were finished in studies behind the lines and all had artistic license in the depiction of the war.

Yet many of these works captured the war’s horror. Varley’s For What? is one of the most poignant renditions of the war. One grim figure leans heavily on his shovel, surveying his work and the blasted landscape. In the foreground is a wagon, piled high with corpses that are being buried in a mass grave. Varley was deeply affected by what he had witnessed. As he wrote home to his wife: “your own countrymen unidentified, thrown into a cart…boys digging a grave in the land of yellow slimy mud and green pools…under a weeping sky…until you have lived this little woman–you cannot know.”

The final works were interpreted through the vision of the artists, and what they lacked as a snapshot of reality, they made up for in providing evocative and moving renditions of wartime.

And it was Beaverbrook who first founded and then supported this ongoing work. The CWMF commissioned, bought and exhibited over 1,000 paintings, prints and sculptures, which were shown during and after the war in a number of well-attended exhibitions that helped raise the profile of Canada’s war effort.

Film was not a new medium in WW I and had, since the turn of the century, attracted greater audiences as it brought stories and images to the public, transporting the viewer through time and space. Undercutting live theatre and music halls, going to the pictures was a weekly ritual for millions that revolutionized popular culture. Indeed, by the summer of 1916, more than 20 million tickets were being sold each week in England alone. The importance of the cinema was not lost on the CWRO’s senior officers, who noted in one wartime memorandum regarding propaganda that film “might indeed almost have been invented for the purpose.”

By the summer of 1916, Lieutenant F.O. Bovill, a British artillery driver with some prewar cinematographic experience, was embedded in the CEF. He filmed the Somme battles later that year. The footage was stunning: shell-cratered landscapes and marching soldiers, lumbering tanks and barking artillery. It was later edited to produce a commercially successful film, Canadians at Courcelette.

The Canadian film footage drew immediate attention in England. It was outstanding, especially in comparison to British footage, and CWRO reports noted sheepishly that “there are a disgruntled few who think the Canadians’ cameras and films have been too busy.” It was, to some, a “crusade by camera.”

Unfortunately, after Bovill’s excellent first shots of the Somme battles, he was not able to replicate his success. Bovill’s failure was highlighted by his inability to get good footage of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge. During this coming of age battle in April 1917, where the four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time and dislodged the Germans from their formidable position on the ridge, Bovill’s weak footage indicated damningly that he had stayed in the rear areas, shot the movement of troops, but had failed to push to the front. The limitations of the bulky cameras no doubt hurt his ability to keep up with the infantry, but it appeared he had not even tried to film the Canadians in battle. Aitken was furious that Bovill had failed him and Canadians, writing that the footage was “absolutely worthless.”

Using his influence, Aitken secured a number of British battlefield cinematographers. J.A.B. MacDowell, considered one of the best wartime cameramen, filmed the Canadians in 1917. But others like Geoffrey Malins, Walter Buckstone and Frank Bassill travelled the front looking for suitable Canadian shots to meet the film mandate.

But it was not easy. Cameramen were just as likely to take a bullet in the head as an infantryman who looked above a trench parapet. With battles occurring at night or dawn and, by 1917, behind massive creeping barrages of high explosives and shrapnel, sometimes there was nothing to see but dust and debris. A number of minor Canadian operations in the summer of 1917 were filmed, but produced little useable footage.

The last year of the war and the series of Allied hammer blows against the crumbling German armies in the campaigns that made up the Hundred Days (August to November 1918) were equally difficult to shoot. But the footage for this period was far stronger, with images of tanks, artillery, aircraft and advancing soldiers. Yet still the fighting eluded the cameramen who remained constrained by their cumbersome and unwieldy equipment, and the nature of combat. Most of the film footage was shot behind the lines, away from the greatest danger and from where the cameramen could get useful images.

Despite these difficulties, Aitken’s films were acknowledged as a propaganda coup. By the end of the war, two full-length Canadian films, nine shorts and thousands of feet of additional footage had been supplied to the British cinematography committee. When the profits were tallied, a £10,000 cheque was awarded to the Canadian government, which was double that received by the Australians and New Zealanders because Aitken’s men had shot and contributed more footage.

Although many Canadian soldiers documented the early war effort with their own portable cameras, Routine Order 189 of March 1915 forbid Canadian soldiers to use cameras in the line for fear of turning over valuable information to the enemy. While some continued to photograph clandestinely, most soldiers followed the rules. In any case, the fragile cameras, and the glass plates, often resulted in a short lifespan in the hurly-burly of the trenches. As a result, though, there are almost no photographic records of the important early battles at Second Ypres in April 1915, Festubert, May 1915, and St-Éloi, April 1916.

Aitken realized this dreadful gap in the visual record of the war. And so on April 28, 1916, Captain Henry E. Knobel, a recipient of the Distinguished Service Order, was appointed as official war photographer. He shot some wonderful images, but resigned his post due to poor health in August of that year. Knobel was replaced by Capt. Ivor Castle and Lieut. William Rider-Rider, both experienced journalistic cameramen. They shot more than 6,500 images during the war, and their photographs provide stark evidence of the destruction and heroism of the trenches. Aitken managed to get the first photograph of a tank in September 1916 past the censors, and the Daily Mirror newspaper paid a princely sum of £5,000 to charity for the picture.

Yet like moving film, it was difficult to get good photographs of battle. As one photographer noted, “One would want a hundred charmed lives and indulgence from the enemy…. Taking the photographs of the men going over the parapet is quite exciting. Nothing, of course, can be arranged. You sit or crouch in the first-line trench while the enemy do a little strafing, and if you are lucky you get your pictures.”

An authentic portrayal was not always the driving ambition of the CWRO or its cameramen, and several of the more dramatic photographs were passed off as pictures from the front when they had really been taken behind the lines.

With the difficulty of securing good battlefield photographs, it was not uncommon to use darkroom tricks that added shading, outlining or suppressing of images. Some were so obvious that soldiers hooted with derision–one set of famous images of infantrymen going over the top had men wearing full packs and canvas breeches at the end of their rifles. Many photographs are of laughing, smiling Canadians in the rear areas, but there are occasional hard views of mud-splattered warriors treading wearily home from a front-line tour or tired Tommies curled up in fetal position half inside their trench wall funk holes.

These evocative images were immensely popular. In July 1917, more than 80,000 people flocked to see the Official Canadian War Photographs Exhibition in London. Included in the exhibition was an enormous photograph measuring 22 x 11 feet of the Canadians capturing Vimy Ridge. Here was the image of the Canadian soldier, larger than life, and delivering the first tangible and large-scale victory of the year. Aitken continued this publicity campaign throughout the war and used his newspaper contacts to have the Canadian-content photographs sent throughout the empire.

Much of Beaverbrook’s influence within the CEF was curtailed with the firing of his friend, Sir Sam Hughes, in November 1916. But Beaverbrook was too powerful a force to be banished. He remained committed to documenting the Canadian war effort. By 1917, he had turned his sights again on British politics and would be made the first minister of Information in the last year of the war, largely as a result of his ground-breaking publicity work with the Canadians. Even as minister of Information, however, he looked out for Canadian interests.

Aitken was disliked by many, but he never forgot about Canada, and throughout his life he felt a deep affinity to the country where he was born. He donated millions to New Brunswick, set up art galleries, hockey rinks and endowments.

After WW I, he pressured the government to build a war museum for the art collection, even going so far as to spend his own money to hire an architect. Sadly, these lofty goals were shunt aside during the 1920s. The photographs were available commercially until 1926, when they were transferred to the then Public Archives. The film was even worse off, and almost immediately the fragile nitrate began to break down. Even worse, much of it was lost. After successfully locating and conserving the footage, it was eventually compiled to form the official war film, Lest We Forget. Unfortunately, most of the photographs, film and works of art languished unseen for much of the century.

Without Beaverbrook’s foresight and drive during the war to publicize and document Canada’s war effort, the collective exertions of a generation might have disappeared. While the publicity has faded, the historical legacy remains and much of it can be seen at the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Indeed, new generations of Canadians are able to imagine the strains and sacrifices of Canada’s part in WW I. This may be Lord Beaverbrook’s greatest lifetime accomplishment, and greatest gift to Canada.


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