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Painting the Battle of Ortona

This panoramic Battle of Ortona mural, painted by Gerald Trottier, now resides in Edmonton’s Prince of Wales Armouries.
Courtesy of Gordon Henderson’s family; Courtesy Denise Trottier
“The price of Peace, borne by the brave— 

Is priceless…” 

So goes part of the final stanza of George Elliott Clarke’s “At Ortona: An oratorio,” a poetic memorial of the blood, guts and glory of the Second World War’s Battle of Ortona. While lauded by CBC war correspondents as an example of Canadian heroism in the 1940s, the battle was largely forgotten. 

The fight to push Nazi forces from the Italian town in December 1943 left more than 500 dead and nearly 2,000 more casualties, and featured dramatic house-to-house urban combat. It was Canada’s first stand-alone victory of the war. But on its 80th anniversary, Ortona remains for many people an obscure moment in Canadian history. 

Painter Gerald Trottier, however, sought to commemorate the event in what was once thought to be Canada’s largest mural. 

Trottier, born in 1925 in Ottawa, received artistic instruction from renowned painter Ernest Fosbery, who was known as much for his stunning war art as he was for introducing Lord Beaverbrook to Canada’s most well-known art movement, the Group of Seven. 

“[My father] was a renaissance man,” said Trottier’s daughter, Denise. “Not only in his art, but in his character.”  

 Trottier served briefly in the Royal Canadian Navy while Canadian soldiers funnelled into Ortona. 

The Germans had made Allied movement difficult in the town, digging in along the Gustav Line while filling Ortona’s streets with debris. The Canadians were left with no choice but to traverse through cleared pathways, a German strategy that left them victim to MG-42 fire and booby traps.

Gerald Trottier
Courtesy of Gordon Henderson’s family; Courtesy Denise Trottier

“You don’t have to be [a] historian to know this is a pretty important piece.”

Having to improvise, the Canadians responded by using a tactic called “mouse holing,” where they would blast the walls of adjoining houses to advance and, ideally, avoid German attack. In the midst of Dec. 20-28 battle, Trottier’s older brother, Edward, was a tank driver. 

Witnessing the psychological effects war had on his brother, Trottier sought to honour those who served in Ortona. An opportunity to do so would soon arise, his daughter said, by way of Fosbery’s referral.

At only 22-years-old, Trottier was commissioned to paint a 14.6-metre-long, 2.4-metre-high mural by the 26 Central Ordnance Depot in 1945. Using photographs from the battle along with his brother’s recollections, Trottier projected his charcoal outline of the painting onto a large canvas. Using oils to create moody shadows and vibrant blasts of colour, he, along with assistant John Parsons, painted the entire piece in two months.

The Ordnance Depot presented the mural to The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, key players in the battle, in 1961, where it has been on display in the Prince of Wales Armouries ever since. Trottier’s masterwork—much like the Battle of Ortona itself—however, remains largely under-appreciated today. 

“You don’t have to be [a] historian to know this is a pretty important piece,” said Denise. 

“[But] it’s forgotten.” 

Regardless, Trottier went on to have an illustrious career as an artist and educator, known for his “vigour and boldness”—and as one of the few artists to pay tribute to Ortona.  

“Art influences us to think and remember,” Denise pointed out. “Art survives beyond.” 


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