Veteran Stories:
Alex Colville

Army

  • Lieutenant D. Alex Colville, War Artist, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, in Germany, March 4, 1945.

    Credit: Lieut. Barney J. Gloster / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-206003.

    Lieut. Barney J. Gloster / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-206003
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"In the field, of course, it was not feasible to do big canvasses or anything like that. So I did watercolours and drawings and I think most of the war artists worked in that way."

Transcript

My first job that Colonel [Charles Perry] Stacey [the Canadian Army’s historical officer], after sort of welcoming me into the historical section, said that I was being loaned to the navy and I was being sent to a, what was called a Landing Ship, Infantry. This was a former, fairly small ocean liner from the West Coast, you know, a passenger vessel, which was used to land I suppose probably brigade-sized units on assaults, on beaches. So I was on a ship called the [HMCS] Prince David, which had been a West Coast passenger vessel, I think of about 8,000 tons. Not huge, you know, not an ocean liner. And I spent some time with that outfit.

I remember that, what we were doing was landing French troops on the south of the France shore in the Mediterranean. I spent some considerable time on that vessel and then I was sent to the 3rd [Canadian] Infantry Division, which was a rather famous one. They had done the landing on D-Day in Normandy, the 3rd Division. And there had been an artist named Orville Fisher with them, I think beginning just before D-Day and running through that. And so I think in October of 1944, I was appointed to the 3rd Division; he was leaving the division to go back to London to work in a studio on paintings based on his drawings and watercolours and so on, which is what we habitually did. I mean, in the field, you obviously couldn’t do big oil paintings and so on, so you did drawings and watercolours. And then you had usually a time back in London or somewhere, where you could do big things based on your sketches, you know.

In the field, of course, it was not feasible to do big canvasses or anything like that. So I did watercolours and drawings and I think most of the war artists worked in that way. Then we had periods in London often of some weeks or perhaps months occasionally, when we were working on doing big things from sketches that we had done in the field; both in London and then later in Ottawa. So it was, what would be a kind of literary equivalent to a person being a kind of reporter - with a division or whatever - and later, writing a book or a long article in a capital city, kind of gathering together what he had done. For me, it was work. If you’re a writer or a painter, your material is life as you see it being lived and that’s it, you get to work and do it.

Spent some time in [Bergen-] Belsen Concentration Camp [near Bergen, Lower Saxony, Germany], making drawings and watercolours of the place, which was of course still functioning, there were still people dying there and so on. Well, it was kind of chilling. I remember the grave with 7,000 bodies in it and so on, still open. Pretty terrible business.

The Canadian - he’s not actually called an ambassador but if, if we were a normal country, he would be the Canadian Ambassador to Great Britain [Charles Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom] - hence had, the Belsen concentration camp had just been overrun and he suggested to someone high up in the army that some, a war artist should go and do some work about what was happening there. And I was sent. I don’t mean that this was a big event particularly but it was the kind of chore that I was sent on.

I don’t think it can be questioned that there was a kind of moral element in the Second War. The things that the Germans had done and were doing were, I mean, to call them deplorable is to understate it. I think it can be called a kind of moral war. I think there are many Germans who would admit this.

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