Ahead by a century: framing Canada’s Great War, then and now

These interactive photos compare the jagged human destruction of the war to the reconstructed cities that now stand in their place

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Peter Macdiarmid’s images are miniature time machines.

They meld archival photographs of the Canadian war effort with photos of the same locations today. Shooting these images has a way of collapsing time. It leaves Macdiarmid standing in the long-vanished footsteps of wartime photographers who captured the original scenes of heroism, duty, suffering and death. “The drama of the archive image is in front of you, and you feel a little bit a part of it as you’re there,” he says. “You’re recreating it, you’re standing on that exact same spot, and you can’t help but think about what your colleague from 100 years ago was thinking, what equipment they were using, what they were going through.”

The original photos here were culled from wire services, Library and Archives Canada and the Canadian War Museum’s collection. Macdiarmid begins with Google Street View, searching for small details like a bridge or building that act as a pin on the map. Then he heads out in person. When he knows he’s in the right spot, it’s a matter of making small adjustments to his positioning—counting so many windows on the Buckingham Palace facade, for example, to where a gate intersects—to find the exact vantage point from which the historical photo was shot. (For the images showcased here, Adam Makarenko and Renaud Philippe photographed the Canadian sites.)

It is in the contrast between the jagged human destruction of the old photos and the reconstructed cities that now stand there that the aftermath of the Great War becomes clear: somehow, life went on, and the world was rebuilt.

Salisbury Plain, U.K., 1914

Canadian troops pass Stonehenge, near a key military training area where new recruits learned basic soldiering.

Plymouth, U.K., 1914

In October 1914, Canada’s first contingent of troops arrived in Plymouth. Seventy per cent of them were British-born migrants returning to Blighty for the first time.

Toronto, 1915

Before conscription was enforced in 1917, recruitment drives were held in prominent locations, such as outside Toronto’s City Hall.

Valcartier, Que., 1915

This hastily assembled military base just north of Quebec City, opened in 1914 by minister of militia and defence Sam Hughes, was notoriously disorganized, but was eventually able to house 35,000 troops.

London, 1916

A Canadian lieutenant leaves Buckingham Palace in a wheelchair after being decorated with the Military Cross.

Barrie, Ont., date unknown

Originally known as “Sandy Plains,” Camp Borden was built to train troops for overseas service in the First World War, with 18 km of trenches. It officially opened in 1916.

Ypres, Belgium, 1917

St. Martin’s Cathedral in downtown Ypres was heavily damaged in the First World War, and was subsequently rebuilt according to the original plans.

Cambrai, France, 1918

Most of Cambrai was set on fire by the retreating Germans when the Canadians moved in to take the town.

Cambrai, France, 1918

This city was an important hub for the German army, surrounded by canals that tanks could not cross. Canadian soldiers and engineers fought for 15 days before taking the city over Oct. 9-10, 2018.

Mons, Belgium, 1918

The Canadian Corps’ final push was toward Mons in western Belgium, which was liberated from German control on the final day of the war.

Mons, Belgium, 1918

The 42nd Battalion resting on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, after fighting the last battle of the war before Germany’s surrender. Canadian Pte. George Price was killed two minutes before the ceasefire.