At War’s End: Behind-the-Scenes Part 1

Part 1 of a 5-part series.

This summer I’ve had a pretty unique opportunity. I’ve been hired as the Programming Assistant at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. In addition to living in St. Catharines for the first time over the summer this year, my work at the museum has introduced me to a wide variety of new experiences. I’m here to help the public programming team orchestrate tours, activities, entertainment, and pretty well anything else that could be grouped under the category of programming. My to do list is filled with an assortment of tasks including a new blog series dedicated to the behind the scenes of our 2018 Guided Spirit Walk at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

Our annual Spirit Walks are just one of the many programs offered at the St. Catharines Museum, and it is the one that personally intrigues me the most. Participants are guided through the cemetery making stops at certain headstones, at which time a volunteer actor playing the individual buried there appears and begins to share a bit about his or her life. Sometimes multiple related characters appears in the same scene, be it family, friends, or colleges of the buried person. Our research includes finding actual prose written by these individuals that we can incorporate into the script. If we do not have access to this text we search for primary source documents that describe similar situations to the one our character is discussing and adapt text as closely as possible to fit our theme.

The theme for this year’s walk is At War’s End. The program is set one hundred years in the past and at the end of the First World War in 1918. Our themes for this tour have been centered on the stark realities of the end of the war: the impacts on families, roles of women, soldiers’ stories, and changing ideas towards nationalism. While young soldiers met 1914’s call to war with vigour, forty months of conflict in Europe drained spirits.

My role in research for the project began with looking through some of our documents saved from previous years’ Guided Spirit Walks. We have been looking to pin down whose stories we will tell this September. The rest of the team and I have studied people’s files and city records in our archives, The St. Catharines Standard collections at the St. Catharines Public Library, amongst a variety of other digital and paper resources. One of the individuals whose story we have uncovered and decided to share in our program is Jack Hardy.

St. Catharines resident John “Jack” Ross Hardy enlisted at seventeen years old in 1915 and served with the infantry in World War One. He chronicled his story caring for war horses in a dairy with excerpts such as this: “Sept. 24, 1917: On our return near Fosse 11 we were run down by a motor lorry. Our cart was smashed. Pat was thrown into a field. I was thrown on the engine of the lorry. Charlie the horse was under the lorry. I crawled under and had to cut the harness. About a dozen men took hold of the hind legs and tail and hauled him out. I gave him a kick to see if he was still alive and he somehow staggered to his feet. He was shaken up and bruised… I got bawled out for cutting the harness.”

In 1918 Jack was kicked in the groin by one of his horses when she was startled by shelling. Unable to work, he was discharged and returned home in February of 1919. Upon returning to Canada, Jack struggled to maintain a farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake for seven years and found that work was scarce when he later moved back into the Merritton area. Despite his injury and difficulty with work after the war, Jack was far luckier than some of the other soldiers whose stories we’ll hear on tour this year. He married the daughter of a neighbouring farmer and had two children with her. He had this to say about their shared hardships in their rural Canadian livelihood: “It seemed like seven years wasted. But we got something out of it that money couldn’t buy. And that was to appreciate each other and to adapt ourselves to living conditions no matter what they were”.

Those who served in the Great War, both domestically and overseas, deserve our respect and recognition. I am honoured to be part of the process of creating the St. Catharines Museum’s 2018 Guided Spirit Walks because it means that I get to help share the stories of these heroic individuals. As the programming assistant I am helping to conduct research on our characters, to create the script, and to facilitate rehearsals. Jack Hardy acquired some valuable wisdom from his experiences and emerged from the war grateful for his successes. It is my hope that we will all be able to learn similar insight from the stories of Hardy and a variety of others who were affected by the war that ended one hundred years ago this November.

Be sure to check in for more posts on the creation of 2018’s Guided Spirit Walks. In the next post I will be delving further into the research process and introducing some of our volunteer actors. In later weeks I will describe my experiences in rehearsal, working with costuming, and setting up inside Victoria Lawn Cemetery.

Guided Spirit Walks run September 7th, 8th, 14th, and 15th at 6pm and 7pm at Victoria Lawn Cemetery. Tickets go on sale August 1stFor more information visit our website.

Chris McGivern is the Museum’s summer Program Assistant and is studying Concurrent Education at Brock University.

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