The final guns of August

The first of a two-part series on Cranbrook’s First World War trophy.

The nationwide desire for community “war trophies’ was exploited by the government in order to assist fund-raising efforts – Herald

The nationwide desire for community “war trophies’ was exploited by the government in order to assist fund-raising efforts – Herald

Jim Cameron

From the Cranbrook Herald, Aug. 12, 1920:

“The captured German gun, which was presented to the city of Cranbrook by the Dominion Government, has arrived and is on exhibition on Baker Street, near the YMCA. It reached the city last Saturday afternoon, travelling on a flat car with two others of a similar type, which were presumably destined for another point.

“The gun is a dangerous looking weapon, and in the hands of those trained in its operation could soon destroy a city like Cranbrook. Just what havoc to our fighting forces this particular field piece, a 77 millimetre gun of the latest type, has done, will never be known of course, but it will never again fall into the hands of an enemy to destroy our young manhood.

“All who look upon the destructive instrument cannot help but experience a thrill, and swell with pride the more over the accomplishments of our boys overseas.

“The gun sill bears the marks of some of the camouflaging indulged in by the enemy to shield the weapon from the observer’s eyes, and it is said to be of the type which threw the ‘whizz bang’ shells.

“It is said the gun was captured by a Canadian battalion, whether or not any of our boys at home took part in this important event is not known, so many guns having been taken from Fritz [the Germans]. It shows the marks of the strenuous usage to which it was put, and will long be a relic to be admired by every patriotic Canadian, and an eyesore to any Germans who venture our way.”

From the Cranbrook Courier, Aug. 13, 1920:

“War Trophy Has Reached Cranbrook.

“The German 77 millimetre gun, the first of five pieces promised Cranbrook by the War Trophies board, arrived in the city Saturday and is placed near the proposed site of the memorial. It has been inspected by number of returned men.

“It is known as the Whizz Bang type or a three-inch gun. Its arrival will help stimulate interest in the fund now being raised for the erection of a suitable memorial for the fallen men of the Cranbrook district. Renewed efforts will be put forth again in the drive for funds, when the city will be thoroughly canvassed. Several persons anxious to contribute to the memorial were overlooked or not canvassed on the previous drive.

“Unless we can raise three thousand dollars for a suitable monument for our fallen, this German gun, which evidently cost that much money to land it here, might just as well be scrapped and the proceeds devoted to help feed a few of the orphans. The list of dead … paid dearly for the winning of this gun, over one hundred sleeping their last long sleep in Flanders Fields.”

A Letter to the Cranbrook Courier, Sept. 3, 1920:

The other day whilst strolling along Baker Street with my family of three, my eyes fell upon the recently arrived German gun. The thought struck me (as I presume it has most mothers who have lost sons in the war) just how much that death dealing weapon cost the country and how long it will remain in its present position. We should either place it in position for the world to gaze at as a trophy of the war, or relegate it to the scrap heap at MacKinnon’s Foundry. As it stands today it is neither useful nor ornamental.

“[signed] A Cranbrook Mother.”

It may come as a surprise to many that Cranbrook even has a captured World War I German field gun — or, more commonly “cannon.”

Doubtless, There were numerous local opinions concerning the cannon arrival in the community in August, 1920, but these are among the few that remain. It represented different things to different people at the time and, it’s safe to say, does so to this day.

Certainly, to those Canadians who fought in the war, the cannon was a hard-earned symbol of victory, meant to reside in a prominent place in the community. For those who lost friends and family it could well bring darker reminders, as demonstrated by the unsigned Cranbrook mother, although, it would seem, she was not totally against its presence. The promise of a war trophy for a Canadian town was such that, following the war, the Federal Government offered them as prizes to communities that raised the most money in Victory Bonds (keeping in mind that although the war was over, the national debt was far from paid).

The reference to “Fritz” — a common term for “German” at the time — is not necessarily overly derogatory as the Germans often referred to the English as “Tommy”.

The statement that the cannon might prove to be “… an eyesore to “any Germans who venture our way,” merely serve as a reminder that German anti-sentiment was naturally very prevalent at the time and a captured German anything would likely be cause for celebration.

Of course, Cranbrook was not the only community in Canada to receive a war trophy. Indeed, it appears that Kamloops won the prize offered in the advertisement. The remaining hundreds of cannons, et al, were awarded to communities on the basis of how many native sons served their country.

There are, to the present day, numerous communities that boast such prizes, often displayed with pride. Conversely, there are many that have been lost, scrapped, stolen or vandalized beyond repair. So, too, there are those which have lost their meaning and stand rusting and decaying, alone and forgotten and, of course, there is the Cranbrook cannon, which graced the public view in various places of honour for decades and now sits in a rear parking lot of a local hotel.

Next week: The Final Guns of August – Part II