Remembrance Day: Cowichan cenotaphs still standing 100 years later

The Duncan Cenotaph is erected in 1921 at Station Street and Front Street (now Canada Avenue). (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)The Duncan Cenotaph is erected in 1921 at Station Street and Front Street (now Canada Avenue). (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)
For 26 years the Duncan Cenotaph was a traffic hazard in the middle of the intersection of Front Street (Canada Avenue) and Station Street. In 1947 it was moved to what’s now Charles Hoey Park. (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)For 26 years the Duncan Cenotaph was a traffic hazard in the middle of the intersection of Front Street (Canada Avenue) and Station Street. In 1947 it was moved to what’s now Charles Hoey Park. (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)
The Duncan Cenotaph is erected in 1921 at Station Street and Front Street (now Canada Avenue). (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)The Duncan Cenotaph is erected in 1921 at Station Street and Front Street (now Canada Avenue). (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Museum and Archives)
The Mount Prevost lighthouse memorial, clearly showing its light on top, much like a candle on a birthday cake. The light was vandalized in the 1980s and hasn’t been replaced. (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Archives)The Mount Prevost lighthouse memorial, clearly showing its light on top, much like a candle on a birthday cake. The light was vandalized in the 1980s and hasn’t been replaced. (Photo courtesy of Cowichan Valley Archives)

By T.W. Paterson

(With thanks to the Cowichan Historical Society)

This Remembrance Day marks the centennial of the unveiling of the Duncan Cenotaph on Armistice Day, 1921. Readers may be surprised to learn that both the cenotaph and the lighthouse memorial on Mount Prevost suffered birth pains.


The Duncan Cenotaph (also known over the years as the War Memorial, Memorial Cross and Cross of Remembrance) has now been a city landmark for a century, although not always in its present location.

Originally, it stood in the intersection of Station Street and Canada Avenue (then Front Street). It takes no imagination to guess why it was moved in 1947 to the strip of green beside the railway station that’s now Charles Hoey Park, named for the Valley’s sole Victoria Cross winner of the Second World War.

Original plans called for a cairn in front of the courthouse on Government Street (estimated at $1,000 plus voluntary labour) but when Cobble Hill and Chemainus chose to erect their own memorials, the Duncan committee put these options before the public:

• Proceed as planned by erecting a memorial cross at the courthouse;

• Also erect a cairn on Mount Prevost (the combined cost of which would be $2,500 plus voluntary labour);

• Or build a tuberculosis clinic at King’s Daughters’ Hospital for $8,000.

All plans were to be financed through public subscription.

It became such an issue that the Cowichan Electoral District War Memorial Committee, with $1,700 promised, made a front-page appeal to the public in the Cowichan Leader: “Much difference of opinion exists here…concerning the form the Memorial should take. Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought. One argues that the fallen can best be honoured by devoting moneys to some utilitarian purpose, i.e., something which can be of use to ourselves or to others, particularly the sick and needy.

“The other school argues that the memory of the fallen and the lesson of their devotion can best be preserved and handed on through a memorial typifying their self-sacrifice and devoted solely to them…”

Some, it was acknowledged, were critical of the committee’s goals and gave not at all or gave grudgingly. This was in contrast to the committee members who had sublimated their own personal views “in determining on a course which, they believe, interprets correctly the wishes of the majority of their fellow residents”.

The public was reminded that, “Those, whom it is planned to honour, did not stand on the manner of their going; did not argue on the methods of their service. Their duty was decided for them. They followed the path to give. There is no person here who will argue that a tribute of some kind should not be made to our own glorious dead. As we have stood together before, so let us now join in our last tribute. This path, at least, is clear for every man, woman and child in our district…”

No contribution — “be it only five cents” — was too small.

“Your committee feels that, unless every man, woman and child in the district gives something…the work they have in hand will not be fulfilled in its complete purpose.”

There was division, too, within the memorial committee over the courthouse site, some preferring the front of the Agricultural Hall at Trunk and the railway tracks (now a parking lot), or just across the street at the end of the E&N station’s garden (more or less where it stands today, in Charles Hoey Park).

The committee was unanimous that the memorial(s) honour all of the Valley’s fallen not just those from a specific area such as those planned for Chemainus and Cobble Hill.

Within a month, not only was the money in hand but over-subscribed by $500 (a substantial sum in 1921). Which was just as well as the cenotaph consumed all of the budget originally estimated for it and the Mount Prevost cairn. With several hundred dollars still to be raised for the latter, the committee authorized stonemasons Patterson, Chandler and Stephen to proceed with a 13 foot, 9 inch memorial cross “of hewn granite, of love and self-sacrifice” on Station Street, the Vancouver firm to do the lead lettering at cost.

Completed in time for Remembrance Day 1921, it contained a time capsule with the names of Cowichan’s 160 Great War dead, a list of subscribers, the names of those on Duncan and North Cowichan councils, some coins and a current newspaper inserted by the memorial committee’s secretary, E.G. Smithson.

An estimated 1,000 persons watched as a Union Jack and a White Ensign, the latter loaned for the occasion by HMC Naval College, Esquimalt, were formally removed on an overcast Friday morning. In attendance were veterans, Duncan Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs under Scoutmaster the Rev. Arthur Bischlager, (also president of the Cowichan Great War Veterans Association whose own son would be lost in the next war), Girl Guides and Brownies, members of the Cowichan Women’s Institute and IODE, school children and members of the public.

An organ borrowed from St. John’s Anglican Church was set up in front of the Bank of Montreal and there was a choir. First War veteran Capt. J. Douglas Groves gave the opening address:

“People of the District of Cowichan, it is our purpose today to accept and dedicate this Memorial Cross in Duncan…in proud memory of these, our brothers, and this, our sister [referring to the sole female casualty, nurse Dorothy P. Twist], whose names are inscribed on this Cross, and who, going out from this district, gave their lives for the Empire in the Great War.”

The epitaph inscribed below the names read:

Those who with fame eternal their own dear land endowed,

Took on them as a mantle the shade of death’s dark cloud;

Yet dying thus they died not, on whom is glory shed

By virtue which exalts them above all other dead.

The cenotaph’s design with its Crusader’s sword followed the pattern of Crosses of Sacrifice that had been installed at Canadian military cemeteries in Europe. “As our men served on every front,” was the reasoning, “this in itself links us to the scattered spots where they sleep.” The cross symbolized sacrifice and the sword honoured “Service given for us and our Country”.

About its octagonal base, the names of Cowichan’s fallen had been lettered in lead. The eastern face, which now faces to the west, bears the legend, “Erected by the people of the Cowichan Electoral District in memory of their fellows, who, by sea, land and air, passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. 1914-1918.”

The memorial was dedicated (in a clear voice, it was noted) by Mrs. J. Maitland-Dougall, whose sons Hamish and William had died overseas. James Greig, Duncan’s city clerk, then read out the 160 names of those who had been killed, in action, gone missing or who died on active service. Upon completion of prayers, Hugh Savage addressed Mayor Thomas Pitt: “The War Memorial Committee, on behalf of the people of the Cowichan district, entrust this Cross to the care of yourself and the City Council of Duncan.”

Speaking for the Mount Prevost memorial committee, W.M. Dwyer presented North Cowichan Reeve E.W. Paitson with “a deed to the land, which comprises practically the summit of the mountain. You will note from this deed that the land is conveyed by the E&N Railway Company to the municipality of North Cowichan to be held in trust for the people of the Cowichan Electoral District as a war memorial site in perpetuity.”

It should be noted that Remembrance Day didn’t always mean a ‘holiday.’ Rather, two minutes of silence (marked in Duncan by a fire siren, in Chemainus by a sawmill whistle) — at the striking of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — was the original practice. (Many believed that this was far more moving than having a day off).

Amazing as it may seem, early ceremonies at the cenotaph weren’t always well attended. It has been speculated that this wasn’t the result of apathy but the fact that, for some residents, the wounds were yet raw.

By 1938, just 20 years since Armistice, they were being held inside the Agricultural Hall as a concession to weather conditions. With less than a year to go until the outbreak of another world war, the Aggie Hall also served as Duncan’s Armouries, home to the 62nd Field (Howitzer) Battery, a militia unit.

As it happened, the sun shone brightly, that morning of Nov. 11, 1938.

By 1947 the cenotaph had become an inconvenience, if not a hazard, to automobile traffic. Too, the 1939-45 war meant that more names had to be added to the memorial, so a $2,000 fund was started with Ferguson Hoey, father of casualties Trevor and Charles (Cowichan’s single Victoria Cross recipient), as honorary treasurer. Over-subscribed by $46.32, the project to move it to the city-owned green was underway by mid-March and the cenotaph was formally re-dedicated in the newly minted Memorial Gardens.

To accommodate the latest names, the original memorial was mounted atop a new stone base provided by the same Vancouver monuments firm as before.

Crudely put, it seems that no one had been keeping score during the latest conflict as a committee had to be struck to cull six years of newspapers for the names of the Valley’s lost servicemen(!) These were published with an appeal for any names overlooked and at least four more were added to the list.

The rededicated monument was unveiled on Sunday, June 22, by Mrs. Hoey.

The names of Korean War dead have since been added to the cenotaph.

In 1996 there was public concern when a restoration company power-washed away the black paint highlighting the names of servicemen, it having been recommended that the lead print be allowed to darken naturally. This would have taken several years and the late Bob Evans, a Second World War veteran, circulated a petition demanding that the names be repainted. City council relented.

Repainting of the names again became necessary in 2004 after a vandal outraged the community by spray painting over them.

War trophies

Many Canadian communities were issued captured German artillery pieces as ‘trophies’ to serve, in a perverse way, as memorials. Ultimately, and even more perversely, most were ‘returned’ to the Germans during the Second World War by being melted down and made into armaments for use against them. Duncan’s share of the spoils, in recognition of the Cowichan Valley’s remarkable contribution to the war effort, was a trench, mortar and field gun; this, after competition between the city and North Cowichan municipality raged for months.

In March 1921, before completion and unveiling of the cenotaph, it was reported that the artillery piece was to be positioned outside the post office until a permanent home could be had for it. Renowned painter Arthur Burchett was lauded for his efforts in recreating the gun’s original camouflaged colour scheme with his ‘Cowichan pigment,’ a natural colouring agent long known to the natives that he had recently ‘discovered’. As it happened, the gun was positioned at the courthouse on Government Street. During the Second World War it was towed to Victoria for recycling.


Chemainus Cenotaph

Chemainus, which had opted to honour its own war dead, beat Duncan to the punch by unveiling its own cenotaph in July 1920. It was situated at the intersection of Mill Road and Albert Street on 616 square feet of land donated by the municipality with, as the War monuments in Canada website informs us, “the English church on one corner and the court house and jail on the other”.

It’s now situated at 9799 Willow St.


Cobble Hill Cenotaph

The cenotaph at 1475 Fisher Rd., according to the Cobble Hill Historical Society, came about when the Shawnigan branch of the Ancient Order of Foresters started a subscription to “erect a cenotaph that would forever remember the sacrifice made by local young people” in the war. Cobble Hill Village was selected as it was considered to be the centre of the South Cowichan community. Costing $650 or $920 (tallies vary) work began late in 1919. It was dedicated on Sunday, Feb. 15, 1920 by Premier John Oliver, standing in for Lieutenant Governor E.G. Prior who was ill with influenza.

Over the years the cenotaph has been slightly re-located, the Foresters added a wrought iron fence, and First World War trophies (an artillery piece and a machine gun) have disappeared, one stolen the other melted down. The names of Second World War casualties have been added and the resident Dutch community created Liberation Park with its own monument to recognize the liberation of Holland by Canadian Forces in 1945.


‘For Home and Liberty:’ the Ladysmith Cenotaph

Presently situated in its third location in the Rotary Memorial Peace Garden at Esplanade Avenue and Warren Street, the Ladysmith Cenotaph has lost part of its stonework in the course of moving but not its community significance.

It was unveiled for the first time in January 1923, at 1st Avenue and Gatacre Street, before a large crowd including the mayor, members of city council and veterans. After apologizing to the veterans present for his not having shared their experiences in the trenches, the Rev. Thomas L. Cooney gave an eloquent and moving address: “There are men here in our midst today who could set us afire with the eloquence of ‘No Man’s Land.’ It is beyond the power of words to tell, in a few short moments, all the deeds of heroism that were crowded into those four long years and more. But I will do my best to grace this great occasion…

“We see them in the trenches — there they stand behind their guns — we see them scale the hills and everywhere we meet them; we see their faces fixed in grim determination, and, on their brows in letters of fire are found the words, ‘You shall not pass.’ We are Canada, we are the boys from Ladysmith…Let Vimy Ridge cry out its noble deeds; let Ypres speak and tell its stories — they have 500,000 tongues and all of them Canadian, and some of them speak Ladysmith.

“They have sounded the name of Canada to the ends of the earth; they have told the world the worth of the men from Ladysmith; they died that we may live; they fought to make this world a better one. Shall we forget! Oh, no! Today we have chiseled their names in stone — in everlasting stone, and as we write their names upon these stone pages, let us carve their names upon the pages of our hearts in honor, love and benediction, so that our tongues may speak our hearts and tell of those true heroes from good old Ladysmith. We’ll meet them again, and when we do, will we be prepared to look them straight in the eyes and say, ‘We did not forget.’ Long live those heroes — brave and bold — their names are everlasting.”

There are 41 names from the First World War and 11 from the Second World War on the Ladysmith Cenotaph.


Mount Prevost War Memorial

There’s some conflicting evidence over whether the present lighthouse memorial on Prevost is the second or third to be built there. Sketchy newspaper reports refer to an original rip-rap type of piled (not mortared) stones that preceded the more ambitious 1921 cairn. This one was intended to be permanent but appears to have begun to fail almost immediately and to have been the victim of vandalism. (Something that’s hard to believe as the First World War was yet fresh in the memories of Valley residents.)

The present 37-foot-tall memorial, built as a lighthouse with a flashing beacon that was meant to be seen by ships at sea from three directions, was built of concrete and stone. These were hauled up the steep and winding road to the site on a stone-boat behind a team of labouring horses. The workmanship was done by members of the Great War Veterans Association and others and the finished memorial was dedicated on Nov. 11, 1929.

The light continued to flash until a coastal blackout was imposed during the Second World War. Subsequent attempts to relight the beacon have been thwarted by vandals with rifles. It was repainted in 2001, its original white coat having washed away. By recent reports its stone work needs repairing.

Remembrance Day