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Victorian Edwardian War Tapestries - 1900 - Tapes 1

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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure A fabulous Victorian military tapestry found in the attic of an old barn in Wisconsin.

It appeared on the American Antiques Roadshow where it was highly evaluated.

The experts were unsure of the war, perhaps the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. But since "Cossack types" seem to be getting the worst of it, from men wearing Japanese type head gear, it may be another Russo-Japanese War piece.

In the background lancers are charging each other as shells are exploding overhead.

It has the most gruesome war scenes we have seen in any military tapestry. Men in the foreground are brutally - is there any other way? - being bayonetted, the blades shown coming out the other side.

The dying are writhing in their final agonies and two are dripping big gobs of blood from their mouths.

Military Tapestry, c 1905
Orig. woven Jacquard tapestry - Size - 1.59 m x 1.59 m
Found - Eagle, WI

Russo-Japanese War Tapestries - 1905

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Tapestry, Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905
Orig. woven textile - Size - 1.37 m x 1.58 m
Found - Milton, ON
Russo-Japanese War Tapestry: This fabulous tapestry is probably the finest ever produced on a war, since the Bayeux Tapestry. It was one of several produced in 1905 that featured highlights from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

War in the Pacific: In February, 1904, less than two years after the Boer War ended, war broke out again, this time in the western Pacific, between the Russian Empire and Japan.

Japan, an island kingdom, wanted to expand to the mainland in Korea and Manchuria and have an empire of its own. It quarreled over territorial rights with Russia.

In February, Japan launched a pre-emptive strike on Russia by invading mainland Korea and moving into Manchuria beyond. In April, the Japanese Navy destroyed the Russian Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur, Manchuria.

Czar Nicholas II ordered his powerful European Baltic Fleet to sail for the Pacific. In May 1905, Admiral Togo destroyed the pride of the Russian navy at the Straits of Tsushima, in one of the great naval victories of all time. Russia sued for peace which was signed in Sept. 1905 at Portsmouth, NH in the US.

It was the first time in modern times that an Asiatic race had defeated a white European power. And in the days when Britons - not just Germans - spoke of racial pride, this was really something.

Canada & the Russo-Japanese War: Canada did not fight in this war but many Canadians today are descended from people who did. Russian and Ukrainians across Canada have grandfathers or grand-uncles who fought in the Russian armies that were defeated by the Japanese.

After peace was declared and the armies demobilized some of these soldiers emigrated to Canada. Their descendants today remember their forbears telling them that they fought the Japanese in the Pacific.

One of these probably preserved this tapestry as a memento of those "thrilling" days of yore. The fabulous tapestry showed up at an estate sale in the small town of Milton, Ontario.

While I was looking at it, a woman approached me and said, "It's from the Russian War with the Japanese. My great- grandfather fought in it. He was Russian. I remember hearing stories when I was a child. They talked of it sometimes."

The tapestry is a wonderful symbol of the world so many Europeans sought to escape, in order to start a new, different life, in Canada.

The tapestry above is a huge 1.4 x 1.6 m. It is not a "press on" type of transfer but a genuine weaving, produced on a loom. Its colour is as bright as the day it was made; there are no holes, or wear marks anywhere on its surface. It is immaculate, considering is is 100 years old...

Echoing the real theatres of that war, the tapestry is split into two main panels featuring a land war and a sea war.

Below, the Japanese are attacking the Russians on a hill. The weaving still features the war balloon - just as in the Boer War tapestry - run up by both sides as the "eyes" of the army, and the armoured train, steaming under clouds of exploding shells. But there have been changes.

High explosive shells, first used in the Boer War, are now even more lethal, exploding with obvious deadly effect among the Japanese, below.

They are being fired from modern rapid-firing guns with the aid of long-range aiming devices. They are also fired from a long way away, so far in fact, that no gun is even shown in the tapestry, just their exploding shells. Only a couple of barrels are shown poking from behind a distant hill on the top right.

The Victorian practice of rushing the guns up - under fire - into the face of the enemy and setting them up to shoot is completely gone from this modern 20th century battlefield dominated by small bore quick firing magazine loaded rifles and machine guns. The artillery gunners would be dead before they would ever get a shot off. But then the technological advances of long distance aiming made this once gallant and daring practice irrelevant anyway.

A new scene shows the wounded being carried to the Red Cross tent. In the coming wars the numbers of dead and wounded would outstrip the wildest imaginings of the generals.

In fact, while in the Boer War, men joked they might not come back, in Wold War I, countless hundreds of thousands positively knew they would never come back, the slaughter was so horrific.

A key part of the tapestry features the Japanese battleships surrounding a hapless Russian ironclad which explodes and sinks (below) as happened at the Straits of Tsushima.

Making its first appearance on the battlefield, is the gasoline driven motor car (above) which brings mobility to warfare, though very few generals saw this as the key wave of the future. Most - and that includes top British generals, like Boer War cavalry commanders General French and Major Haig, for years to come - were still loathe to give up the horse, which, for thousands of years, had carried warriors into battle. Ten years later, in the thick of World War I, both men were openly skeptical that the machine gun and tank, could ever supplant an infantryman or a horse soldier.

In fact, in the tapestry, this sentiment is mirrored in that the Japanese on horses, are shooting at the Russian general in his car, and send him scurrying to safety. One can almost hear his pleading cries, "My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

The Straits of Tsushima: The battle fought in the waters off Korea, on May 27, 1905, was one of the most decisive and famous naval battles ever fought.

The battle at the Straits of Tsushima, pitted the powerful Russian Baltic Fleet of 45 ships, against the Japanese navy. It was a massacre!

Of the Russian ships only three returned to Russian ports, and six smaller ones to neutral harbours, where they were interned; the other 36 battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and torpedo boats were all sunk, beached, or captured by the Japanese.

The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats and 600 men. The Russians lost 6,000 sailors.

The tapestry shows a lighthouse flashing on shore as the Japanese battleships, from all sides, close in for the kill as another Russian ship is sent to the bottom.

This outcome shocked the world; an Asiatic people had annihilated the massed might of a major European power. It was unheard of. It taught the Japanese General Staff a valuable lesson; the European powers were not nearly as strong, superior, or invincible, as they liked to portray themselves. They could be beaten - soundly beaten. Japanese technological prowess was proved to be second to none in the world, and it could only get better. Clearly the Japanese General Staff believed they were invincible.

Before long they believed they could take on anyone and win. This delusion - taught in their military staff colleges - culminated in the fateful attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 - in fact the flagship aircraft carrier that launched the planes, mindful of history, proudly flew the same flag that Admiral Togo had flown on his flagship when he attacked the Russian fleet at Tsushima. This wrong-headed lesson from history would have disastrous consequences for Japan - and the world - in the years after.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Tapestry, Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905
Orig. woven textile - Size - 45" x 47"
Found - Rochester, MN
Cossacks: Right, is another tapestry from 1905, featuring a more symmetrical pattern, reminiscent of a rug. Though some of these were no doubt used this way, these tapestries were designed to be hung on the wall, used as table cloths, or as throws, over the backs of couches.

This one features a mounted Cossack in each quadrant charging Japanese infantrymen. Cossacks are ethnic Ukrainians; probably men from this group later emigrated to Canada, glad to be leaving behind a part of the world constantly torn apart by one war after another. After that, even life in Bellis, or Pysanka, Saskatchewan, seems bearable. Almost...

The Cossacks (above) - two more are charging in from the background (left) - are using lances, while the Japanese infantrymen are holding their ground with rifles and bayonet. The outmoded lance goes a long way to explaining the Russian defeat.

There are no explosions or bodies in this tapestry. When you're selling to the market place you don't want to offend anyone, lest they not buy your tapestry. Both sides can see themselves in a heroic pose in this one.

A Sad Tale: Another, more elaborate version of the four Cossack tapestry (left), features larger groupings of Cossack and Japanese combatants, as well as a naval central medallion (above) with ships shooting at each other à la Straits of Tsushima.

The Russian lancers look glum and sad, and well they should. The war sounded the death knell of the Russian Empire.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure
Tapestry, Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905
Orig. woven textile - Size - 45" x 47"
Found - Erie, PA

The Russian Revolution: The defeat of Russia, and the heavy loss of life by her sailors and soldiers, stirred revolutionary fervour in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nine years later, with the outbreak of World War I the same worn out and demoralized Russian Army, which was so badly trounced by the Japanese, was annihilated by the ultra-modern German military machine. The Czar sued for peace. It was too late. The anger of the average Russian boiled over, was harnessed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and used to usher in the revolution that brought an end to the Romanoff Royal Dynasty in Russia, in July 1917.

These tapestries are silent witnesses to those historic events.

These men looked at these tapestries in different ways...

Laurier & the Russo-Japanese War: The Russo-Japanese War created problems on the home front for Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier (right), even though Canada was not involved in the war, and did not send soldiers to fight.

Laurier had just finished shepherding Canada through its first military adventure in a foreign (the Boer) war, without overly hemorrhaging the country internally. But now only a year and a half later he was forced to find a Canadian solution to another foreign crisis.

Other countries - Britain, the US, Germany, France - were all sending military attachés to observe the fighting close up with the Japanese Army. (Attachés had followed around the British and Boer armies during the Boer War as well, just as journalists did, though they reported to their governments, not their newspaper publishers.)

French Canadians saw no need to send a Canadian attaché to, "Où est-ce que vous avez dit?...Asie!!!... Merde.."; Canadian nationalists wanted a top Canadian officer to go, "Of course, no question, we're a major power now, we should act like it!"; British Empire supporters wanted a minor Canadian sent, and preferably attached, in a subordinate role, to the British delegation which featured top Generals, including Boer War veteran Ian Hamilton, "Quite so! Imperial matters should, quite properly, be handled by the experts who know best, the British General Staff of course. Canadians should concern themselves with what they know best, cutting trees, hauling fish, or digging coal!"

Lord Minto, the Governor-General (above) and Earl Dundonald, Commander of the Canadian Militia (right), button-holed Laurier, expressing their view that a Canadian junior officer should be sent, perhaps one with artillery credentials to see how the technology and practice of war had evolved since the Boer War.

All the leading Boer War military names came up: Col. Otter suggested a top Canadian officer should go - himself - and appealed personally to the still grieving Minister of Militia Frederick Borden (left) who was a strong Canadian militia booster, then to Dundonald, and Minto directly, suggesting what a good choice he would be... Others promoted Capt. EWB Morrison DSO, of Leliefontein artillery fame. Some said the outspoken Canadian Col. Sam Hughes was the best choice, among others.

Laurier himself was not a militarist. He did not think Canada was in need of a "real army" at this point, that the militia was good enough to quell local disturbances, like the Riel Rebellion. It was, of course, of no use to defend the country, but there was no need for them to, since the Monroe Doctrine - meaning Uncle Sam - would defend Canada if there was outside aggression. He had told Dundonald that, when he had arrived in Canada, in 1902, to take up the post of Commander of the Militia.

In order to avoid a possible military controversy dividing the country, Laurier quietly agreed with Lord Dundonald and Earl Minto, to send a minor, low profile, Canadian officer with "British experience" to be attached to the British delegation, and spirited him off to Asia with as little fanfare as possible - none being preferable.

Picking a minor officer whose only interest was keeping his head down, and getting to go, was a perfect choice for all concerned. The two Brits didn't want a high level Canadian officer - say of Colonel rank - who might create friction with the British delegation of high profile generals; Laurier didn't want one either, lest he be sought out by journalists, be inclined to promote himself, say the wrong thing, and possibly stir up a public relations nightmare in Quebec.

Borden, strongly Canadian, and strongly pro-Militia, was quiet about the issue, keeping his head down; he had bigger fish to fry, and wanted to avoid saying anything which might alienate British support for his Militia initiatives in Canada. The British Parliament was drafting new legislation regarding who had real control over the Canadian Militia. Borden wanted it to be the Canadian Government, not the Colonial Office in England, or a group of British staff officers. He kept quiet to win the bigger battle - get a Canadian to become head of the Canadian Militia, in place of Earl Dundonald...

Col. William Otter
Col. Sam Hughes
Col. TDB Evans

Four of Canada's famous Boer War personalities were proposed as being of the proper level to represent Canada as a military attaché to the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War. Top left, Col. Otter, who led Canada's first Contingent to South Africa, lobbied hard for the posting, because he thought he was the best man. Others whose names cropped up were: the controversial Col. Sam Hughes, who had to return from the fight against the Boers in disgrace, Col. TDB Evans, who did two tours in South Africa, and led the Fourth Contingent, and Capt. EWB Morrison DSO, (right) probably Canada's top artillery man.

But the last thing Laurier wanted was a high profile candidate, perhaps prone to speechifying and stirring up the home front with another controversy about Canada's proper posture in dealing with foreign wars.

The Japanese seemed to be on Laurier's side too. They were not overly helpful in getting any attachés to the front to show them what the Japanese army was doing. Which Laurier liked just fine. The less news from there in the Canadian papers, the better. Then the Canadian attaché got sick and was sent home, thereby missing the biggest battle of them all. He came back to Canada as quietly as he had left.

In 1908 Borden's wish came true. The Commander of the Canadian Militia would henceforth be a Canadian officer. And the first to hold the post, was Col. William Dillon Otter, who had failed to get the attaché job in 1904. Now he was the top general in the Canadian Army.

The tapestries now bear silent testimony to a group of passionate players in a Canadian crisis that never happened, thanks to the skillful political stick handling of Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000