13 April 2013

Canadian soldier-heroes, 1917-8: Alfred Munnings

Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) was born in Mendham Suffolk in 1878, son of a miller. When he finished his apprenticeship, young Alfred painted rural scenes, gypsies and horses which sold well and were hung from time to time in the Royal Academy.

The First World War meant that families had no money for luxuries.. and art objects were no longer being bought. Munnings attempted to enlist in a Hampshire regiment, but he was knocked back every time on health grounds. Finally in 1917, he was given a civilian job in a horse depot near Reading, checking tens of thousands of Canadian horses for disease and treating them. Only then could the horses be sent to serve in artillery, cavalry, or supply units in France.

Munnings, Canadian Troops at a Musical Evening in France,  
27 x 33 cm, 1918 
Taylor Gallery London. 

I am very grateful to the Canadian War Museum for their references. They believed that Canadian history owed much to Sir Max Aitken, Lord Beaver­brook, a New Brunswick newspaper baron who'd moved to Britain. As a friend of Sir Sam Hughes, Canada's Minister of Militia, Lord Beaverbrook had been given charge of overseas military records. Intent on publicising Canada's wartime achievements, he produced a detailed account of Canadian operations, launched a programme of military photography that included the sale of prints, pioneered front-line cine-photog­raphy, and published a daily newspaper for soldiers, The Canadian Daily Record. Whatever one thought of his politics, Beaverbrook’s salute to Canadian families was heroic.

The crucial role Canadians played in the Second Battle of Ypres (April 1915) was a top priority for Beaverbrook. In 1916 he commissioned a British artist, Richard Jack, to recreate it in paint. Then, with 100 artists being despatched under the auspices of his Canadian War Memorials Fund, Beaverbrook covered the Belgian, British and Canadian armies operations all over Europe. The project eventually brought Canada some 800 military paintings and sculptures.

It was this Canadian War Memorials Fund art programme that Alfred Munnings joined in 1918, specifically to paint the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and Canadian Forestry Corps.

Perfect! For an artist who loved horses and loved painting them, Munnings was in his element. Throughout the history of warfare, horses had played important roles - as pack animals, transporting infantry, hauling artillery and in cavalry operations. And European armies of course included specialised cavalry units.

Munnings, Canadians Felling a Tree in the Vosges, 
51 x 61 cm, c1918 
Canadian War Museum 

And not just horses. France and Britain needed timber for the war effort but logging skills were more readily available in Canada. So in early 1916 the British government asked that a forestry battalion be raised in Canada for service in Europe. The Dominion acted quickly; 1,600 men were recruited and money was spent on both logging and milling equipment. The 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion was sent.

Three more forestry battalions were raised, and soon the foresters numbered some 22,000. Attached personnel (Canadian Army Service Corps, Canadian Army Medical Corps, Chinese labourers, prisoners of war) brought the total strength to 31,000. Many Canadians who would otherwise have been ineligible for military duty were able to serve in the forestry units. Munnings was delighted, in April 1918, to be assigned to paint the Canadians at work. He first went through the Normandy logging camps and from there he travelled to eastern France.

Munnings, Gen Jack Seely, Commander of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, 
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

When Munnings was recalled to London in mid 1918, he completed some works and transferred 44 paintings to the Canadian War Memorials Fund. The artist considered his experiences with Canadian units to have been among the most rewarding events of his life.

Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

The Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is Canada’s national museum of military history. The concept of a military history museum originated in 1880 but the current building that we see in the photo didn't  open until 2005.


iancochrane said...

Forestry battalions? Hadn't given any thought to that, bur certainly see the need when I do think about it.

The tree felling painting certainly tells the story.
Cheers, ic

Hels said...


Agreed. Lord Beaverbrook was interested in celebrating the many contributions that the Canadian people were making to the war effort - precious timber skills which they needed at home, 630,000 soldiers, nurses, horses etc. An amazing effort from a distant colony with a relatively small population.

Hels said...

The Canadians might have been slow in memorialising their contribution and honouring their war dead. But were we any faster? The Australian War Memorial in Canberra did not open until World War Two was well underway.

Andrew said...

Forestry battalions, extraordinary. I had no idea, as usual. I like Munnings' paintings.

Mandy Southgate said...

I love stories like this which go to show just how massive the war efforts were. The whole of society was galvanised to support the war and yes, if you weren't on the frontline there were other aspects you could be drafted in for. My favourites are always true life accounts of the women who became spies. I say true life because fictional accounts are often quite insulting, reducing the women to romantic relationships.

Funny how I have this love of WWII when my own reality was one of horror when my male friends got drafted into the army in South Africa. They often went straight to the frontline in Angola in a war none of us stood behind. Some men I knew even did reconnaissance - they were the most damaged.

Hels said...


Last week, long after I had written this post, Paul Martin was hosting his programme Flog It. He mentioned that his favourite artist in all the world, the artist he would most like to own, was Alfred Munnings!

I had to remind myself of how powerful Munnings actually was.

Hels said...


I know exactly what you are saying, in my case re Vietnam. In the late 1960s, all the males I knew went into the conscription barrel in the year of their 20th birthday. Those who saw their birthdate drawn out of the barrel were conscripted..the others were permanently exempted. It was horrendous, especially since most young people opposed the massacres in Vietnam

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Those pictures remind me of some of the WPA artwork in the U.S., and aren't that much later in time. I commend the artists and commanders who recognized the unique nature of the Forestry battalions, and recorded them with such appreciation. It's too bad these pictures aren't better known, because they have much innate quality.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


There are quality, yes.

Munnings was certainly well known, but for a different lot of paintings altogether. Perhaps by 1919, after the guns went silent and families tried to live with their losses, nobody wanted to be reminded of the War To End All Wars.