WWI sculpture enthusiast believes Westville’s memorial is the best in the country

John Brannen
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WESTVILLE – Alan MacLeod of Victoria, B.C., remembers stopping by Westville in 2010. On Main Street, he was stopped in his tracks by a gaze full of grief from the bronze figure atop the town’s war memorial. 

It’s been four years since he first saw it, but the sculpture still captivates him.

News that several groups have undertaken a restoration campaign has piqued his interest in the monument. He heard the news from his mother in Truro.

“I happen to have given a talk to the Western Front Association (Pacific Coast Branch) just this past weekend on the subject of Canada's war memorials, specifically the ones featuring a soldier statue,” he said. “I revealed a bias in my talk, namely, that the Westville bronze by the highly accomplished sculptor Emanuel Hahn is the finest community war memorial in all Canada.”

MacLeod grew up in Dartmouth with stories of his relatives and their part in the First World War.

“I had seven great uncles enlist,” he said. “One of those uncles was very important in my life. His stories were mesmerizing.”

Out of these stories came his interest in war memorials, sculptures and, namely, remembering those lost in the Great War. Of particular interest is the sculptor of Westville’s memorial, Emanuel Hahn.

German-born Hahn became a Canadian citizen long before the war’s outbreak in 1914, but it didn’t spare him the judgment. At a competition in Winnipeg, Hahn was chosen of 47 entries to design and build the city’s cenotaph.

“But once his German origins came to light, veterans groups said they wanted no part of it,” said MacLeod. “They said it would be a monument built by a Hun.”

Despite this, he was widely sought for designs for cenotaphs across the country. Westville was one of his first customers to order a unique design: not a soldier celebrating victory but grieving the loss of his comrade.

“It was the first in that design,” said MacLeod. “After Westville’s was unveiled in 1921, ten other communities across Canada wanted the design.”

Westville’s memorial, however, is the only one signed by Hahn.

His soldier design at the cross can be seen in Springhill’s memorial and as far west as Fernie in B.C. While the others are made with marble or granite, the only other bronze soldier is in Cornwall, Ont. The popularity of the Westville design goes beyond Hahn’s work though.

“It was so widely admired that it was copied several times,” said MacLeod. “Sculptors used the same basic design that Hahn created because that’s what people wanted.”

According to MacLeod, what makes Westville soldier even more interesting is the fact it is made of bronze rather than stone.

“The least expensive way was to have the design carved in Italy of marble. The fact that the town chose bronze, the most expensive at that time, speaks to their understanding of the great loss endured in the Great War.”

While he concedes he has no academic standing in fine arts, MacLeod has visited, photographed and examined over 1,000 war memorials in Canada and Europe.

“My concern is simply that the people in charge of this restoration campaign do what needs to be done properly. They should seek advice from a metal conservationist.”

He believes the green colouring of the bronze, or patina, is proper and not in bad shape.

“I have seen some memorials in bad shape,” he said. “Marble is soft and susceptible to Canadian weather but the best preserved ones are bronze.”

Of the 6,600 war memorials listed by the federal government, only 400 of these feature a statue. Of those 400, 215 of feature a soldier. Marble was the medium of choice for 100 of them, while 115 are made of other materials such as bronze.

“This statue is a treasure not only to the people of Westville, but all Canada,” said MacLeod. “With no living connection to WWI and this year being the 100th anniversary of its start, I hope the restoration takes this into account.”

 

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn 

Organizations: Western Front Association, Pacific Coast Branch

Geographic location: Westville, Canada, Truro Dartmouth Winnipeg Springhill Cornwall Italy Europe

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  • Laura J. Smith
    March 15, 2014 - 11:13

    Thank you Mr. MacNeil ! ! My home town is Westville...the picture and your story brought a tear. Where I live on Vancouver Island, we have a make-shift sort of memorial...so sad. Very blank stares darted to me when I dared ask about the Soldier Statue. Three cheers for Westville. Wish I was still there.

  • David Ross
    March 15, 2014 - 00:11

    Wonderful story. I am living in Halifax remembering the remarkable and haunting memorial to those boys from Westville who long ago gave their lives for their country. I will make a contribution to this noble cause tomorrow.