The Glory and the Pity: The Great War Memorial Figures of George Hill and Emanuel Hahn
Part I: The War Memorials of Charlottetown, Summerside and Saint-Lambert
by Alan McLeod
This is the first in a two-part article on the memorials of George Hill and Emanuel Hahn. We are pleased to present this series alongside our latest issue of the Journal of Canadian Military History (CMH) devoted to war art. For more related content click here to access the current issue of CMH.
In the downtown heart of Charlottetown in front of the historic Prince Edward Island House of Assembly, where the Fathers of Confederation gathered in 1864 to invent Canada, there is a remarkable war memorial. Three Canadian soldiers, infantrymen, march purposefully through a churned battlefield. Their faces are studies in determination, resolve, bravado. Underfoot there is a German pickelhaube helmet of the Great War. The helmet is an augury of what is in store for the foes against whom these Canadians are marching: the enemy is in deep trouble. The name of the artist is emblazoned on the base of the bronze group, under the foot of the lead soldier: George W. Hill.
There was no more prolific designer of Canadian war memorials in the decade following the 1918 Armistice than George W. Hill. Hill’s designs outnumber those of any other memorial sculptor at work in the aftermath of the war of 1914-18. Hill’s bronze soldiers can be found from Pictou, Nova Scotia, throughout southern Quebec, as far west as London, Ontario.
Born in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, Hill was 58 by 1920, still possessed of his considerable powers. His talent had been developed early at the knee of his father, an accomplished stone-carver. Hill the younger had learned sculpting in Paris in the 1890s and was a highly regarded member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He had designed several monuments commemorating Canadians lost in the South African War of 1898-1901, including two outstanding works at Montreal and London. By 1920, as demand for war memorial statuary soared in communities right across Canada, Hill was an established artist in the genre.
The Charlottetown grouping may be one of the most ambitious works in Hill’s oeuvre but it is also a benchmark piece entirely typical of all his other Great War memorial figures. Over the course of the war the men of the Canadian Corps managed to establish a reputation as the finest fighting formation among all the British forces soldiering on the Western Front. Australians then and now may feel it is their boys, their ‘diggers’, who deserve the recognition as the best of the Allied soldiers but the Canadian claim is widely embraced, and not just in Canada. It is the Canadians, many observers have felt, who were the ‘shock troops’ of the British Army.
No one more fervently embraced that view of the Canadian soldier than George Hill. The observer who searches the faces of the three bronze soldiers at Charlottetown finds nothing to suggest that the Canadian Tommy was anything but intrepid, bold, fearless. Hill’s Charlottetown faces suggest that the Canadian soldier brought only eagerness, courage and steadfastness to the fight. Studying those faces the observer discerns nothing insinuating that the Canadian soldier of the Great War was ever troubled by anxiety or fear.
The distance between Charlottetown and Prince Edward Island’s second city, Summerside, is just sixty kilometres. One travels that short distance to find an equally remarkable war memorial, albeit one in a very different vein from Hill’s Charlottetown group. At Summerside, in the heart of an attractive urban park, a bronze soldier is caught in the moment he has just left his trench and is breaking across no man’s land. Wearing battle kit, Lee-Enfield in his right hand, the soldier is in full stride, running headlong toward the enemy.
What were the emotions of an ordinary soldier as he counted off the minutes then the seconds before zero hour? What did he feel, waiting for an officer’s whistled command to go over the top and into action against massed enemy machine guns? Was eagerness his primary emotion? Exultation? Euphoria? Were visions of glory paramount in his mind? If the faces at Charlottetown are to be credited, one might imagine the correct answer is Yes.
Or is it just as likely that the soldier’s interior landscape might be better described by words like apprehension, fear, outright terror? Consider the look of the Summerside soldier and the observer may be inclined to doubt that in the last moments it was fantasies of personal glory that dominated a soldier’s thoughts. Was it more likely that a young infantryman’s thoughts turned to Mother and the dreaded telegram she might receive a few days hence? Despite being crowded shoulder to shoulder with his waiting comrades was a young soldier ever more utterly alone at jumping-off time, his mind roiling with thoughts of what might come to pass in the moments ahead?
There is no mark on the Summerside figure to indicate who produced it. On investigation one learns it is the work of the artist Emanuel Hahn. Like Hill, Emanuel Hahn’s war memorial designs are prolific in Canada: they are to be found right across the country, from eastern Nova Scotia to the Rocky Mountain country of British Columbia.
Born in Germany in 1881, Emanuel Hahn immigrated to Canada with his talented family when he was just seven years of age. He became a Canadian citizen at the earliest date permitted under the laws of the day. He learned art and design in Toronto then underwent further studies in sculpture at Stuttgart. He worked as assistant to Walter Allward, designer of Canada’s great memorial to the missing at Vimy Ridge. He was co-founder and first president of the Sculptors Society of Canada. By 1920 he was not yet 40, at the height of his powers.
Hahn’s German origins illuminate why Hahn was hesitant to sign his name on his war memorial works. From 1914 to 1918 Canadian lads had been killed and maimed by German bombs, German machine guns, German gas. George Hill ensured his name was prominent on all his memorial figures; Hahn’s employers considered it politic that his name be absent from his war memorial works.
Hahn’s Summerside figure is striking enough that it caught the eye of an important person. Lt.-General Arthur Currie played a key role in planning the Canadian success in the battle for Vimy Ridge in April1917 and it was Currie who commanded the Canada Corps during its great achievements in the final year and a half of the war.
After the war Currie assumed a new role, one he loved, as Principal of McGill College in Montreal. Directly across the St. Lawrence from Montreal is the community of Saint-Lambert. Currie decided to underwrite the cost of building the Saint-Lambert war memorial. When the time came to decide what sort of figure should grace the monument Currie determined that it should be a design that reflected well and truly on the men of the Canada Corps, men for whom he felt enduring affection and esteem. Currie decided that the Saint-Lambert monument should feature the same figure as seen at Summerside, and that is what happened. The Summerside figure appears only there and at Saint-Lambert, nowhere else.There is nothing exultant, jubilant or cocksure about the figures at Summerside and Saint-Lambert but observers keen to see such emotions rendered in bronze have options other than George Hill’s Charlottetown group.
In the next part of this article, MacLeod will examine these other monuments designed by Hill and contrasts them to the more somber work of Emanuel Hahn.
Influenced by a great-uncle who survived the Great War, intact physically if not emotionally, Alan Livingstone MacLeod has had a life-long interest in the war and Canada’s role in the conflict. He has delivered presentations to historical organizations on a wide range of Great War subjects. In 2011 he began traveling across Canada to study and photograph Canadian war memorials. In 2016 Heritage House published his book about these figures, Remembered in Bronze and Stone.