Kingston is rich in treasure. The significance of our historic buildings and artifacts is beyond value, not only in terms of dollars, but in the stories that illustrate who we are as a nation.
Indeed, the Royal Military College is unquestionably historic, as is the very ground on which it stands. Every nook and cranny of this hallowed institution has fascinating secrets to tell.
At first glance, RMC’s Currie Hall may seem like any other auditorium, but there is much more than meets the eye.
This hall was built just after the end of the First World War as a memorial to the Canadian Corps by Sir Archibald Cameron Macdonell, when he was Commandant of the College. It had always been his intent to name it after his commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur William Currie, who commanded the Canadian Corps beginning in June 1917. The Corps was larger than some British armies and, hence, he was the first Canadian to command an army-sized formation of Canadians in the field.
The decorations in the hall explain the story. Emblazoned on the ceiling are the initials of such figures as Currie himself – just look up for the “AC”. Also immortalized here are notable commanders such as Edwin Alderson, Sir Henry Burstall, and Julian Byng (who later became Governor-General). It is unfortunate their accomplishments and achievements have, for the most part, been relegated to volumes gathering dust on many a shelf.
Adorning 132 oak panels on the face of the gallery are the badges and battle patches belonging to the units of the four divisions of the corps and the cavalry brigade at the moment of the armistice – a unique way to preserve this specific point in our evolution as a country. It is interesting to note that at this time we had one automatic weapon for every 13 men, versus one for every 61 in a British Division.
Canada began WWI as little more than a jester to the court of Britain, but emerged a significant player on the international stage by war’s end. The seizure of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 gave Canadians a sense of self, with our troops praised for their bravery and valour; as a result, the Canadian command assumed more autonomy in decisions regarding their actions until the end of the war. And with the capture of what was referred to as Hill 70, a true turning point was reached. This opened the door for Canadian politicians, allowing Prime Minister Borden to win both our right to participate in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and membership in the League of Nations’ General Assembly.
Also here, you will find two exquisite Emily Warren paintings depicting the 52 sets of colours being placed for safekeeping on the Wolfe Monument in Westminster Abbey.
Perhaps the most unique artifacts enshrined in Currie Hall are a series of 19 coats of arms that tell the story – geographically – of Canada’s experience during World War I. Not a day goes by that we don’t see such heraldic crests somewhere, but most of us dismiss them as archaic symbols of yesteryear. Certainly, the ones reposed in this cloister are easy to overlook surrounded by the aforementioned badges and canvas artwork, the ornate moulding, and bright stained glass. These small pictographs do not gleam in the morning sun, and their flat paint and lacklustre colours belie their true merit.
The tale begins with a crest depicting a yellow lion on a red shield. This symbolizes Valcartier and Quebec City, where the first four brigades trained and from which they departed for Europe respectively. The second represents Devonport in Plymouth Sound, where the men landed because the waters off Southampton were rumoured to be teeming with German submarines. After a miserable winter on the Salisbury Plain, they crossed to France, where they were soon paired with British equivalents who could prepare them for life in battle.
The story continues when the first division was allowed to trade in the infamous Ross Rifle at Bethune, through the battles at Ypres, the horrors of the Somme, the unforgiving bogs of Passchendaele, and the end of trench warfare at Amiens. The latter marked the beginning of the “100 Days” when the Canadians were unstoppable, and our small corps defeated more German divisions than the million-strong Americans.
The crest for the industrial city of Lens symbolizes the Canadians’ stunning victory at Vimy Ridge. The emblem bearing a white castle stands for Mons, Belgium, where both the first and the last shots of the war rang out. And finally, the ports of Boulogne-sur-Mer, Paris and London are representative of the Canadians’ rest and recovery prior to their subsequent withdrawal from Europe.
Nineteen coats of arms that symbolize so much. A travelogue through time. Our feats and subsequent growth. And why we should be proud.
If you would like to appreciate the stunning Currie Hall first-hand, call the College’s Liaison Office at 613-541-6000 X3805.
It is but one example of the thousands of treasures Kingston has to offer, hidden in plain sight, if only we open our eyes.