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Esquimalt's big guns coming out party
Mike Reed proudly places his hands on the barrel of a freshly painted German field gun. He glances to his right and a frown overtakes his broad smile.
For the past eight months, Reed, a public works manager, has carefully curated the refurbishment of Esquimalt’s two 77-millimetre field guns, captured by Canadian soldiers during the First World War.
As he lay his hands on the first gun, much like a proud father, Reed sees out of the corner of his eye the other gun where a piece of metal has fallen out of place. The gun needs more work before the two artillery pieces are unveiled at a public ceremony at Memorial Park on Sept. 4.
“We want the guns to be as accurate as possible,” Reed says from his shop in the public works yard on Canteen Street. “You could go on for hours touching up here and there. Everything we work on, something else pops up that needs working on.”
The two guns have been a part of the Memorial Park landscape for years. But time and weather took their toll on the weapons. So when it was decided to refurbish them to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War, Reed volunteered to take on the job. It was quite the undertaking.
Last February, public works staff removed the guns to begin glass-beaded blasting. From there, Reed and a team of volunteers, mostly from Esquimalt, began the work to bring the guns back to their former glory.
Soon after the work began, the team discovered many items missing from the guns. Its answer in many cases was to either rebuild or refurbish the items, which included everything from ammunition boxes to seat holders, even hatches and hinges.
The one thing Reed wouldn’t allow was to have any moving parts, since the guns would return to Memorial Park and the public would have access to them.
Both guns were captured by Canadian troops during the war. The first gun, an anti-tank version of the larger gun is pockmarked from shrapnel, was taken by the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917.
The regiment, made up of mostly Victoria-based soldiers seized, the gun as one of nearly 400 war trophies that would eventually make their way into the hands of Canadian municipalities following the First World War.
The second weapon, a German 77 mm Feldkanone 96 neuer Art Field gun, with larger wheels and shielding was captured at the second battle of Cambai on Sept. 29, 1918.
When the Canadian government gifted Esquimalt the guns in 1920, they were sited at Lampson elementary for five years to commemorate students who had lost their lives in the Great War.
Most of the guns went back into scrap at the beginning of the Second World War.
Three-quarters of Canada’s war trophy guns were melted down for scrap metal as the war machine ramped up once again, including two similar weapons on the grounds of the B.C. legislature in 1941.
“Apparently, there was another gun at Beacon Hill Park and one in Oak Bay, but Esquimalt’s are the only two that were saved when we incorporated them as part of our war memorial,” Reed says.
Prior to the refurbishment of the guns this year, Reed says little was known about the weapons. For instance, as serial numbers were revealed, they were able to figure out who captured the gun and from whom.
To bring as much authenticity to the guns, both Reed and Colin Wyatt with the Ashton Armoury and Museum in Saanich, have done a considerable amount of research, right down to proper paint colour.
“That was one of the biggest challenges. German field gray isn’t gray,” he says. “And we needed paint that would stand up to our weather challenges.” The solution? Create a polyurethene paint mixture.
“It’s been an interesting process to get here, and the end result is cool as well,” Reed says.
“It’s been a unique project for me, and as a community we’re kind of proud doing it.”
with files from Daniel Palmer, Black Press
The Township of Esquimalt will officially unveil its refurbished First World War trophy guns at a commemorative event on Sept. 4 at Memorial Park, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. This remembrance event will feature displays, music and artifacts reminiscent of the 1914-18 era. For more information, please go online to esquimalt.ca.