Remembrance Day exhibit highlights Westmount's contribution to Canadian war effort

George Gohier (right) has a personal connection with some of the items on display at the Westmount at War exhibit. His grandfather, Henri Desrosiers, fought at the second battle of Ypres during World War I and was one of the founding officers of the Royal Montreal Regiment.  (Charles Contant/CBC Montreal - image credit)
George Gohier (right) has a personal connection with some of the items on display at the Westmount at War exhibit. His grandfather, Henri Desrosiers, fought at the second battle of Ypres during World War I and was one of the founding officers of the Royal Montreal Regiment. (Charles Contant/CBC Montreal - image credit)

"Do your duty," the advertisement urged. Its message, one of patriotism and sacrifice amid the ravages of the Second World War, resonated with the young men in Westmount, Que.

Many of them answered the call and joined the Royal Montreal Regiment (RMR) to fight, following in the footsteps of others from their neighbourhood who fought in the trenches during the First World War.

"There was a very strong turnout," said Mélanie Presseau-Dumais, a historian and curator at the Royal Montreal Regiment Museum. "A lot of people from Westmount became officers. A lot of them participated in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Navy."

The advertisement, which appeared in the Montreal Herald in 1941, is part of Westmount at War, a new Remembrance Day exhibit highlighting the contribution Westmount made to Canada's war effort — from the First World War to the war in Afghanistan.

Charles Contant/CBC Montreal
Charles Contant/CBC Montreal

Presseau-Dumais wears gloves as she handles the delicate items on display. As veterans who took part in the conflicts die, the artifacts become ever more valuable: they serve to tell the stories of what people lived through while at war.

In addition to firearms, medals and other military memorabilia, the exhibit is displaying items that provide a glimpse into the lives of the young Westmount men who fought in the two World Wars.

A black-and-white photograph shows a group of smiling men in hockey sweaters, proudly holding a gleaming trophy and a plaque, first-place prizes for winning a hockey tournament while stationed in England.

"They were really proud of this," Presseau-Dumais said. "Look how happy they are.… It's really nice to see pictures from WWII with such smiles."

WATCH |Take a tour through Westmount's military past:

Many of the smiling men later took part in D-Day.

The photos and artifacts behind the display cases carry a grim reminder of the cost of war: many of the young Westmount men pictured didn't make it home.

Henri Desrosiers, one of the RMR's founding officers, was one of the lucky ones. He fought in the second battle of Ypres when the Germans first used poison gas, survived the first World War and passed on a tradition of military service to his family.

This week, his grandson, Regimental Sgt. Maj. George Gohier, showed off equipment used by his grandfather, including a trench periscope he used to keep an eye on enemy lines without exposing himself to return fire. It is now on display.

Charles Contant/CBC Montreal
Charles Contant/CBC Montreal

"It wasn't healthy to stick your head out over the trenches," Gohier said. "Hold this over and at least you can have a bit of a look at what's going on without making yourself another casualty."

Gohier likened it to the current war in Ukraine, where snipers are active and soldiers are dug into trenches, just as his grandfather was, more than a century ago.

Weaponry has changed since the soldiers from Westmount marched to battle with bolt-action rifles and water-cooled machine guns, but war, Gohier noted, is still just as devastating. "It just totally wipes out the youth of a country," he said.

His grandfather never spoke about the gas attacks. Even when Gohier saw veterans of either world war reunite with each other, they rarely mentioned the violence they lived through.

"You could have a dozen of these guys sitting in a room," he said, "and they'd see each other, they'd nod at each other and they really wouldn't talk much to each other about the war, that's a subject, very personal but not shareable."

As veterans age, their attendance at such gatherings dwindles, adding significance to the photos, items and equipment that help tell their stories.

Charles Contant/CBC Montreal
Charles Contant/CBC Montreal

As part of the exhibit, the museum has created an interactive "memorial map" of Westmount which shows the homes where the soldiers lived. Many of those homes are still standing today and look much as they did when the young men left them to join the war effort.

Westmount at War is open until Nov. 13 at the Royal Montreal Regiment Armory at 4625 Sainte-Catherine Street West. It is open to the public, free of charge, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 4 p.m. on weekends.