From Memorials to Instagram: Twenty-first Century Commemoration of the First World War

Claire L. Halstead

Author's Photo

Author’s Photo

This summer, on August 26, 2016, a new First World War memorial was unveiled in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Titled The Last Steps, the memorial takes the shape of an arch and stands on the city’s harbour front; a gangplank purposefully leads the observer’s eye up the pier, through the arch, and right out to sea. Footprints (cast from an authentic soldier’s boot) burnt into the wooden pier conjure up impressions of souls from long ago. In this, Nancy Keating, the Nova Scotia artist who designed the memorial, succeeds in imparting on the observer the haunting emotion the memorial is intended to convey. The memorial stands as a testament to the last steps soldiers took in Halifax before departing for the Great War.[1]

The Last Steps memorial is just one of thousands of local and national memorials and acts of remembrance happening around the world between 2014 and 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War. Making a new addition to the Halifax boardwalk, the memorial provides an opportunity to ponder the creation of sites of memory and twenty-first century centenary commemoration of the First World War, as it happens. This is an opportunity to observe how centenary commemorations take place; not only their modes and the messages contained within them, but the spaces, both physical and virtual, where they are placed.

The immediate postwar memorialisation of the Great War has been well defined by historians such as Jonathan Vance, Jay Winter, and Stefan Goebel.[2] In Canada, the war was framed as a battle between good and evil; memorials reflected pre-war romanticism and venerated soldiers as “Christ-like”. If the interwar period was a time for cenotaphs, street naming, stained-glass windows, and memorial towers, are the 2010s a time for less permanent acts of remembrance presented in very different forms? The Last Steps memorial acts as an example of this centennial commemoration.

The idea for the memorial came from Corinne MacLellan, a PR professional and governor of Army Museum Halifax Citadel, after she was contacted in 2014 by Visit Flanders (a Belgian tourist office that promotes First World War themed travel) and subsequently read M. Stuart Hunt’s Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War published in 1920.[3] MacLellan was inspired by Hunt’s account that emphasised Nova Scotia’s role in the war and the Nova Scotian men who departed from its shores. Retired army Major Ken Hynes, as the volunteer curator at the Army Museum Halifax Citadel, was brought in to help shepherd the project to completion.[4] The project received funding from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the Halifax Foundation, Veteran’s Affair’s Canada, the City of Halifax, and Parks Canada. At the provincial level, the Waterfront Development was a founding partner while the Government of Canada invested $16,341 in the Army Museum to support the creation of the memorial.[5] With MacLellan, Hynes, and artist Keating at the helm, plans for the memorial were constructed just in time for the 100th anniversary of Nova Scotia “joining” the war. On May 20, 2015, the artist’s plan for the memorial was unveiled at an event at Pier 21 – the date marked exactly one hundred years since 2,282 soldiers from Nova Scotia’s 25th Battalion and Quebec’s 22e Regiment boarded the HMTS Saxonia in Halifax and set sail for Europe.[6] Just over a year later, the memorial was complete, becoming a new point of interest along the Halifax waterfront boardwalk.

As a mock gangplank and arch, the structure of the memorial is unique and undeniably eye-catching. According to www.thelaststeps.ca, the website that accompanies the memorial (an added interpretive device – how very twenty-first century!), the memorial was erected “to enhance the public space along the Halifax waterfront and provide a focus for residents and visitors to reflect on the heavy price that Canada and Nova Scotia paid during the Great War. It symbolizes their ‘Last Steps’ taken on Canadian soil, many for the very last time”.[7] Its fundamental purpose is to remind passersby of the estimated 250,000 soldiers who left through the port of Halifax for war.[8] Some of those accounted for the 59,544 members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who died during the conflict.[9] Yet, emphasising the “last steps” that soldiers took also draws attention to the place where they took those last steps. Unfortunately, the placement of the memorial on the boardwalk suggests to observers that the place where it stands is the actual spot where soldiers took their actual last steps on Canadian soil. This is not entirely accurate as Canadian soldiers actually boarded their ships from Pier 2, a site no less than a kilometer away from where the memorial stands.[10]

Nova Scotia Archives, HE C16 H13 1913, “Department of Railways and Canals of Canada – Report to the Honourable Frank Cochrane, Minster of Railways and Canals on Halifax Harbour, 1913”.

Nova Scotia Archives, HE C16 H13 1913, “Department of Railways and Canals of Canada – Report to the Honourable Frank Cochrane, Minster of Railways and Canals on Halifax Harbour, 1913”.

The creators of the memorial should not be faulted for this inconsistency as they were negotiating a significant problem within commemoration: is it acceptable to sacrifice an essence of historical accuracy to ensure public engagement? If the memorial was situated on the former site of Pier 2 (which is now inconvenient and not connected to the boardwalk), the number of people who could and would view the memorial would be reduced.[11] This draws us back to the mandate of the memorial, to: “enhance the public space along the Halifax waterfront”. To what extent does this transition the memorial from a “traditional memorial” toward a “dark” tourist site, designed to prompt observers to think of the past, but intended principally to draw people to the site?[12] Is The Last Steps supposed to be commemorative but also act as a new spectacle for local residents and tourists, especially cruise ship passengers disembarking near the boardwalk?

This leaves us with a lingering feeling that there is something a bit more complicated lurking beneath the surface: the memorial is tied to place, but the location of that place is not entirely accurate. Perhaps this is just the pedantic view point of a historian, but this historical discrepancy could be easily reconciled by expanding the scope of the memorial to include and emphasise Halifax’s contribution to the war in addition to the men who departed from it. Rather than Pier 2, if we identify the whole Halifax harbour and more broadly, the city of Halifax, as the physical place from which those men took their last steps, we begin to see a view of Halifax’s contribution to the war effort beyond the city’s importance as a Royal Navy Base, and as a space decimated during wartime by the Halifax Explosion, the largest man made explosion until Hiroshima, resulting 1,963 deaths and 9,000 wounded.[13] The funding and support received for this project already inherently reflects the local, provincial, and national importance of this memorial.

Rather than just one section of the Halifax waterfront boardwalk, Halifax as a whole, was the space where soldiers last engaged with the physical, cultural, and social landscape of Canada. Even for those who survived, Halifax was the last place in Canada where they experienced the company of Canadian civilians, spent their last days enjoying themselves or completing mundane tasks, and took their last glimpses of Canada before their lives were changed by the unprecedented warfare.

"Private

Private Percy Winthrop McClare. Dale McClare, ed. The Letters of a Young Canadian Soldier During World War I (Halifax: Brook House Press, 2000).

For nineteen-year-old Percy Winthrop “Winnie” McClare, Halifax was a place to finish up last minute errands before leaving for Europe. On July 19, 1916 he wrote to his father while at sea aboard the HMS Empress of Britain, “I left a watch at a jewelry store to be fixed and I would like you to get it and send it to me…the name of the place is Cogwells on Barrington St”. Three days earlier he had written about his departure from Halifax, noting “we came up from [McNabs] island in the duty boat and went right up to number 2 pier”.[14] From there, McClare took his last steps in Canada and never returned; on May 5, 1917 he was killed in action at Vimy Ridge. His name is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial.[15]

While McClare will forever be remembered at the Vimy Memorial, it is unclear how permanent The Last Steps memorial will be on the Halifax boardwalk. Although one can expect that it will remain until 2018, is the memorial part of the new trend of “pop-up” exhibits and displays that are only temporary? Will other centenary memorials be constructed in this way and, if so, what does this suggest about our nation’s view on conflict today and how we are choosing to reinterpret the First World War? Will the centenary of the Halifax Explosion (December 6, 2017), act as the main mode of commemoration for Halifax’s wartime experience? Will it overshadow the city and province’s contribution to the war effort?

Photo: @anunezphoto Courtesy of Instagram

Photo: @anunezphoto
Courtesy of Instagram

It is already apparent that Canadians are engaging with memorials in ways that are changing. Social media, particularly Twitter and Instagram, now allow historians to monitor the ways in which the public views memorials and commemorative events. Even a quick survey of #LastSteps reveals that individuals are engaging with the memorial by taking photographs, the majority of which depict someone (including children) standing on the gangplank under the arch, smiling or making funny faces.[16] Others place the photo of the memorial amongst images of boardwalk tourist attractions such as Theodore the Tugboat. While some may find this behaviour in poor taste, individuals’ treatment of memorials as a site of tourist consumption and space for personal expression is not unique to The Last Steps. Historians should, however, be using the centenary as an opportunity to monitor how Canadians consume and engage with commemoration.

We're Here Because We're Here

As we approach the centenary, it will be interesting to observe the extent to which similar trends in commemoration emerge. The ghostly footprints permanently burnt into the Halifax boardwalk may, almost poetically, remain long after The Last Steps memorial is gone (if it is removed). Keating’s use of the footprints in her design is oddly and coincidentally reminiscent of We’re Here Because We’re Here, an emotion-evoking “modern memorial” event that took place across Britain on July 1, 2016 to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.[17] The theatrical display included thousands of volunteers dressed in uniform wandering streets and railway stations across the UK, handing out cards to passersby with personal details of soldiers who died on that first day of the battle. The power of the display came as the soldiers stood, detached from the public, in a state of waiting and remained completely silent and ghost-like until they joined together to sing the lyrics “we’re here because we’re here”. The display sent social media (#wearehere) into a frenzy.

Interestingly, both the theatrical display and The Last Steps Memorial have chosen to imbue their commemorations with a sense of ghostliness. This raises some interesting questions. As the First World War has passed out of living memory – the lost soldiers are no longer fathers, uncles, and brothers, but are now “great” or “great-great” generations – will the soldiers now be represented as ghosts whose legacy can be felt, but not seen? Will commemorations in 2018 focus on themes of nation building or conflict, or will they attempt to return focus on the individuals, like “Winnie” McClare, who took their last steps?

Claire L. Halstead, PhD is the creator of the British Evacuee Child Database which stemmed from her doctoral research on the evacuation of British children to Canada during the Second World War (Western, 2015). She is currently working on two separate digital history projects on the Halifax Explosion and Halifax in the First World War.


[1] “Last Steps Memorial to honour Allied Troops”, The Chronicle Herald, August 22, 2016.

[2] See Jonathan Vance, Death so Noble (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997), Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), Stefan Goebel, The Great War and Medieval Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[3] M. Stuart Hunt, Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War (Halifax: The Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co., 1920).

[4] “Gateway to the Great War”, www.localxpress.ca, August 24, 2016.

[5] “The Last Steps Memorial”, Waterfront Development, accessed October 30, 2016, https://my-waterfront.ca/2016/08/26/last-steps-memorial-project/

[6] “N.S. Marks Entry into Great War”, Chronicle Herald, May 20, 2015.

[7] “Home”, The Last Steps Memorial Arch, accessed October 29, 2016, www.thelaststeps.ca

[8] See Hunt, Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War, 1920.

[9] “The Cost of Canada’s War”, Canadian War Museum, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/after-the-war/legacy/the-cost-of-canadas-war/

[10] For his thoughts and assistance, special thanks go to Steve Schwinghamer, historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. For more on wartime Pier 2, see: Craig Dodge, Remembering Pier 2: Halifax’s Other Immigrant Gateway, http://www.pier21.ca/wp-content/uploads/files/research_remembering_pier2.pdf

[11] This is a problem that has plagued the Halifax Explosion memorial and the Fairview Lawn cemetery where victims from the Titanic are buried.

[12] For more on dark tourism see, John Lennon, Dark Tourism: the Attraction of Death and Disaster (London: Continuum, 2000).

[13] “Canadian Disaster Database,” Public Safety Canada, accessed July 17, 2016, http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/cndn-dsstr-dtbs/index-eng.aspx

[14] Dale McClare, ed. The Letters of a Young Canadian Soldier during World War I (Halifax: Brook House Press, 2000), 14. Later letters reveal that Winnie’s father struggled to locate the shop for four months due to Winnie’s misremembering the location and name of the shop. It is unknown if Winnie ever recovered his watch.

[15] “McClare, Percy Winthrop”, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, accessed November 4, 2016, http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/1570887/McCLARE,%20PERCY%20WINTHROP

[16] See #warmemorial #Halifax #laststeps

[17] “We’re here because we’re here”, 14-18-Now, accessed November 5, 2016, https://becausewearehere.co.uk/

3 thoughts on “From Memorials to Instagram: Twenty-first Century Commemoration of the First World War

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of November 6, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Pingback: The Last Steps | The Devil of History

  3. liz tobin

    I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to be the first person to provide Percy with the global recognition he deserves by sharing a link to his story at the IWM Lives of the First World War website. There are a few Canadian volunteers along with others in the U.K. who believe that Canada’s contribution deserves international recognition and have entered some details such as this ……. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/5614452.
    It is only thanks to a Canadian blogger that I found the link to Percy.

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