by Thomas Littlewood
In 1922, the Municipal Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire in Saint John, New Brunswick held a meeting to organize a memorial to honour the city’s war dead. The public supported the plan and it was soon taken over by an ad hoc committee. The committee held a design competition and chose an attractive and impressive design by a famous Canadian sculptor, Alfred Howell. It was a figure of Winged Victory standing on a simple granite shaft with a second mourning figure below, resting her hands on a sword. At the mourning figure’s feet, there was a soldier’s helmet with a spray of laurel leaves.
That was the easy part. The real challenge would be the location. The War Memorial Committee wanted to put the monument at the head of King Street, which is in the centre of town and close to many prominent buildings and institutions. However, in 1885 the local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had installed a water fountain at the head of King Street in memory of the Loyalist women who had settled in the city. Mayor Frank Potts was staunchly opposed to moving the fountain, and initially the War Memorial Committee decided that they would have to place their memorial elsewhere.
That wasn’t good enough for the rest of the citizens of Saint John. They wanted to see the fountain moved. Dozens of individuals and civic organizations—including the Great War Veterans’ Association—wrote to the Globe demanding that the Mayor be flexible and allow the memorial to be put at the head of King Street. Potts dug in his heels saying that the WCTU fountain was a ‘sacred trust’ and that he, as the mayor, had a duty to protect it. After a passionate fight with LPD Tilley, one of Saint John’s most prominent citizens, Potts pulled back a bit and said that he would allow the fountain to be moved if it got permission from the provincial WCTU, no doubt feeling confident that such permission would not be given.
The city branch of the WCTU responded saying that the memorial belonged to them and not to the provincial branch and so the city would need local permission to move the fountain, which had already been given. True to style, Mayor Potts held fast and required provincial permission which came a few days later. The provincial president, Mrs Bruce, wrote that they cherished their fountain but “that which represents something bigger and better must have first place.” The Mayor didn’t care. He wasn’t going to vote for its removal and that was that. Mrs David Hipwell, the former president of the local WCTU, wrote personally to express her support for the site and to indicate that her husband was the one who proposed it in the first place.
As time passed, citizens grew more and more frustrated and demanded that the debate finish and that the issue be decided. There wasn’t a single Letter to the Editor in favour of keeping the fountain, but the mayor wasn’t going to be told what to do. In the end, the War Memorial Committee put aside the debate and agreed to put the memorial a few feet to one side in order to unveil the memorial in a timely fashion. The mayor won, the fountain was to stay.
The public was still upset and ‘A Woman’ wrote to the Globe to say that the second best site suggests that the city had not done its duty to the fallen and that “there will always be a question in our minds, have we kept faith with those who died?”
Nonetheless, the memorial was erected and the unveiling ceremony was hastily planned. Thousands of people gathered on June 10, 1925 at 7:30 PM, as General Macdonell unveiled the memorial to “the glory of those citizens of Saint John who served in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, or as nursing sisters who lost their lives in the Great War.” Furthermore, he dedicated it to all “young Canadians who, during four years of cruel agony so prized liberty that, to save their country, no sacrifice for them was too great.” Frank Potts then gave his victory speech, saying that the city was founded by Loyalists and so it was fitting that the sun that rose on the memorial to the city’s war dead would set upon the memorial to Loyalists.
War memorials are surprisingly local and specific to the municipalities that erected them and they each tell a story about the city itself. Saint John, to this day, is proud to call itself the Loyalist City and that pride is evident in Mayor Potts’ vehement defence of a monument that was erected in memory of those women. However, the citizens of the city did not agree. They thought that the sacrifices of soldiers during the Great War was far more important than loyalty to the monarchy in the eighteenth century. The reaction to Mayor Potts’ bullish attitude demonstrates the emotional and passionate attachments that the ordinary person had to a war memorial in his or her city. These were not just attractive statues that cost a lot of money– $20,000 ($250,000 today) in Saint John’s case—they meant something to each community.
Canadians in the 1920s wanted to live up to the values for which their sons had died. They believed that they had to live their lives in a way that would be worthy of the death of 60,000 men and women and that in order to do so, they had to band together as communities. The war memorials built after the Great War are the physical manifestation of that desire. They are the promises that post-war Canadians made to themselves, carved in stone, and given in perpetual memory of those who paid the supreme sacrifice.
Thomas Littlewood recently received his MA in History from the University of New Brunswick.