Everyone who has driven through north-eastern France will have seen the huge memorial to Canadian soldiers on Vimy Ridge. The battle there cost 3500 Canadian lives. A year later Alfred Munnings was appointed as a war artist to the Canadian High Commission, but it was not Vimy Ridge that he commemorated. He was, as is now said, embedded with a mounted regiment and recorded them on the march, at rest and, perhaps surprisingly, at work logging.
Painting horses had made the reputation of Munnings, so a mounted regiment placement was appropriate. The placement was in north-eastern France and the Jura. There were no trees left in the battle zone, but in the Jura region there were huge forests and timber was a vital resource. Whether or not these Canadians were lumberjacks they supplied so much timber that the UK was able to reduce its imports by 80%, from over 10 million tons to two. The war effort needed timber in the trenches and in industry, including coal mines.
Munnings painted both the cavalry animals and the heavy horses used in moving the timber. The soldiers also put their shoulders to the work, manually moving wagons. In some cases Munnings drew as they worked or travelled. At other times he had scenes staged after a day’s march or during a break. In one case an imagined cavalry charge is portrayed. This does, however, relate to an actual event, in which a Norfolk emigrant to Canada, Lieutenant Flowerdew, led a charge in which he received fatal wounds. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, one of several gained by the Canadians.
The exhibition comprises over hundred paintings and drawings. They belong to the High Commission of Canada, and are normally kept in Ottawa. The display at the Munnings Museum in Dedham until early November is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will be worth anyone’s time and money. Munnings may be less of a figure than in his lifetime but this is an invaluable document of a contribution to the war effort that deserved to be made and thoroughly deserves to be seen.
It may be difficult some some people to manage the stairs in what was the Munnings family home to see other examples of his work but a tour of the ground floor is easy enough and worthwhile. In the generous grounds are a tea room, his studio with other exhibits and toilet facilities. The car park is generous. Normal adult admission is £8 and the ‘Behind the Lines’ exhibition is included in that price.