My last month has been filled with ups and downs, unexpected changes, and new challenges. In the midst of it, I was scheduled to go visit the Royal Canadian Artillery (RCA) Museum on the Canadian Forces Base Shilo. I was both looking forward to — and stressed out by — the thought of a day away from the chaos of everyday. Who knew that a museum dedicated to Canada’s and Manitoba’s artillery history would help me find my own peace?
It was a pleasant drive out to CFB Shilo, which is just before Brandon nestled next to the town of Sprucewoods. I took a quick look at some of the 40 pieces of equipment located on the grounds (and accessible even when the museum is closed) and dove right into a history lesson.
Since artillery dates way back — think catapult and bow and arrow — there was a lot of ground to cover. The First People to arrive in Manitoba about 12,000 years ago came to this area – as it was the first land to be uncovered by a retreating glacier. They brought with them their own form of artillery and military techniques.
I was surprised to learn, or perhaps relearn (my memory isn’t the best!), that the strong military organization of the Iroquois nearly destroyed New France in the 17th century. I was also surprised to learn that Canada’s overseas contribution to World War II was almost entirely a volunteer effort. This was the first of many times throughout my visit to the museum that I felt proud to be a Canadian.
In between peering in tanks and staring at ammunition the size of my leg, I stood for a long while in front of the printing plate of In Flander’s Fields automatically reciting the words I learned in school.
At the time, those words didn’t carry much weight. Inside this museum, the words felt heavy, but a good kind of heavy – heavy with patriotism, with gratitude, and with the realization that maybe my own challenges weren’t so insurmountable.
Currently running at the museum is a temporary exhibit detailing the successes and failures of the Battle of the Somme during World War I. Running from July 1 until the end of November — roughly the same time frame as the battle — the exhibit tells the story of how machinery changed the face of war. The British army had a secret weapon (no spoilers here!), which showed that new technology can sometimes be a liability. But the Canadians — backed by a country that bought $2 billion worth of war bonds and donated everything from ambulances to artillery — showed great determination. Lessons learned at the Somme paved the way for the Canadian Corps success at Vimy Ridge in 1917-1918.
The museum highlights Manitoba’s contribution to the war efforts, which included Camp Hughes, the primary training base for Manitoba and Saskatchewan with over 40,000 training and working there between 1915-1916 — making it the second largest population in the province at the time. The trench system built for training exercises are still intact, and you’ll pass the signs for Camp Hughes if you’re travelling west on Hwy 1 towards the museum. A celebration to mark the anniversary of the designation of Camp Hughes as a National Historic Site takes place on July 24 with a re-enactment of a WWI creeping barrage.
I got my own sense of what life in the trenches was like when I stepped into a recreated gun pit in the museum. While it was dark inside, it was also quiet and dry — conditions that were likely nowhere to be found in the trenches on the western front.
As I walked through the impressive collection of large pieces of equipment I was struck by the personal artifacts that brought to light the human element of mechanized weapons.
Medals represent acts of heroism and valour. Engraved silver mugs for each new officer represent camaraderie. Uniforms represent a team. Dog tags represent the individual. Letters home represent loved ones. It was these personal items from brave people who had given so much that helped me to realize that I am so thankful to be surrounded by family and friends who love and support me, that I live in country where freedom is valued and respected. I may have been feeling overwhelmed by change , but I wasn’t going into battle, my life was not on the line. My visit to the RCA Museum, while certainly educational, offered great perspective on the sacrifices made to ensure that I — that all of us — can lead the kind of lives we enjoy today.
As I drove through the town of Douglas on my way home, I went past a war memorial on the corner. I stopped and turned the car around to get out to read the names listed and to pay my respects. Thank you Lorne, Percy, Alex, Harry, James, Joseph, George, W.J., Charles, Thomas, George, Frank, and many, many others.
The RCA Museum is open 7 days a week, 10am-5pm through the summer.