By Greg Clark, July 11, 1925
Therefore The Maple Leaf, Borne Through Blood and Death, Has The Right to Its Place On The Flag of Canada – And The Spearhead That Foch Spoke About! – Here Is The Stuff of Which Flags Are Made and Tradition Is Perpetuated
Moved and seconded that the Canadian flag be the Union Jack with the Maple Leaf in gold emblazoned in the midst and the flag then mounted on a staff with a spear-head.
Fifty-seven thousand Canadian men lie on sundry half-forgotten hillsides of France and the low country with the maple leaf in brass on their breasts, though they be dust, enduring still.
Half a million Canadian men, with the maple leaf bright on their foreheads and on the collars, for four years made themselves known and marked in all of Britain, France, Belgium; in parts of the East, Saloniki, Egypt, Russia; and known, too, to every German.
In the Strand, on Princess street, Grafton street, the Rue da la Paix. Fifth avenue, the crowds would come alert and nudge one another when a plain figure in khaki, distinguishable from the hordes of brown only by brass maple leaves on brow and breast, went by.
“There!” they would say. “A Canadian! The fortress of Vimy – the quagmire of Passchendaele – the great spear-head of Amiens – the wolf pack that went with such a vengeful cry out from Arras, to Cambrai, Valenciennes, to Mons! A Canadian!”
We were known in every city and every village of more than half of Europe by a symbol, the maple leaf. Our clothes differed in no way from those of the British army, in which we served as a distinct corps. The Australian you could recognize a block away. We had only the little brass leaf. So we kept it very bright. There is no denying it: we were intensely proud of that small symbol. Men’s eyes, lighting on it, snapped swiftly to our faces. And we, conscious, stared back: conscious of fifty-seven thousand comrades left behind, on unfailing storied ground, near Ypres, on the Somme, on a certain impregnable ridge, in marshes by Passchendaele, and far and wide over a mighty battlefield of a hundred days, the hundred days of the spear-head, the days when we led the whole pack.
So the maple leaf, whatever shortcomings as a national emblem it might have had ten years ago, has no shortcomings now. It is hallowed and sanctified. Hall a million men went forth to give it meaning. Fifty-seven thousand men – and oh, that is many men! – wear it in their lonely graves.
If Canada’s performance in the world war has any meaning, national, international, imperialistic, political, then the maple leaf is important exactly in proportion to the importance of Canada’s entry on to the world stage.
When, at the Somme, we became a corps, and when, at Vimy, we got a commander of our own blood and bone, and the pride of our performance cost us no man knows what in life and death, we began to notice things. When we entered a soldiers’ hostel in the Strand, there over the central place hung all the flags of the British nations – the southern cross of Australia (and they with their distinctive, rakish uniform to boot!) – the flag of Africa, of India, even – and nothing for Canada save an ordinary marine ensign in error – we began to wish for something, too, of our own, that would symbolize the long miles between us and our home land, and the long generations far from the comfort and safety of these isles.
In the big canteens, back of the lines, again the flags of all the British nations, in each case the Union Jack with the marks of still further and greater unions on it – but nothing for Canada.
In the zone of battle a regiment goes by, columns of transport, of guns, and there, fluttering, the stars of Australia, and our guns bare and hard with never a shred of meaningful bunting on them, though their voices had as much meaning as any guns that faced the east.
The Meaning of Tradition
The Union Jack symbolizes the union of British races which founded the empire. The flags of the other nations that are growing up upon that foundation are, in every case, the Union Jack with certain further marks upon it to symbolize still further union and still wider empire. If Canada has been waiting for the right occasion to add her mark of union and of empire to the Union Jack, it has come. The maple leaf in gold emblazoned on the heart of the Union Jack.
The birth of a flag usually coincides with wars and conquests. Poetry and tradition are woven into it, if possible. Every old regiment in the world has certain honors and customs which it cherishes above all things. The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, for example, as a unit, salutes nobody but the King. That special privilege dates to the day King William’s horse ran away with him at a certain battle, and charging away from the firing line carried his majesty with great indignity through and scattered the King’s Own, which was marching to the fray. Recovering control of his steed, the king rode back and jokingly chided the colonel for not saluting the king as he passed; and he said: “From now on, this regiment salutes nobody but the king.”
And so it is. Another regiment drinks the king’s health standing with one foot on the mess table. Another breaks the glasses when the toast is drunk. The army and the navy are full of customs and special etiquette based on some treasured incident or precedent or privilege accorded in olden time.
Canada has just such a priceless incident to treasure if she has the imagination. Flags that have no tradition and symbolism in their weave are not flags but bunting.
After the great advance of the Canadian Corps at Amiens, when, with the crack French Tenth Army on their right and the Australians on their left, they thrust a great point into the German defenses towards Roy, Generalissimo Foch, the supreme commander, said: “The Canadians are the spear head of the allies.”
This is the stuff of which flags are made. If Caesar had said to one of his legions: “You are the spear-head of my army,” they would have passed those words to the ages, would have emblazoned spear-heads on their cuirasses and have worn spear-heads on their helmets. If a modern king had said those words to one of his regiments it would have been taken and treasured in symbolic form for all time.
Why not take the magnificent and historic compliment of the supreme commander of all the armies of the allies for a legend?
Let it be laid down officially as flag etiquette that in remembrance of Foch’s words, the Canadian flag, born out of that great conflict, be unfurled always and only on a staff with a spear head!
In every land, wherever the Union Jack of Canada be flung to the breeze, it must be on a staff with a gilded spear head, as part and parcel of the symbol. A hundred years from now, when other flags are flying, with whatever tradition their colors and devices portray, the Canadian flag shall fly on its spear-headed staff to remind all men and inspire our children with the historic statement of Foch on the occasion of Canada’s first appearance on the stage of the world as an entity and as a whole.
Here we have the material of tradition. There is this consolation. If we do not grasp it, probably our children will.
At the Olympic meet at Wembley last year, it was suggested by the British committee that all the empire contestants, in the great parade of all nations before the opening of the contests, be grouped together behind the Union Jack. The United States had hundreds of athletes in their section of the procession. Britain thought how fine and significant it would be to place the contestants from Canada, Australia, Africa, India and every corner of the empire in one grand and overwhelming battalion. The committees of the dominions thought differently. They decided definitely to march each behind its own flag in proper alphabetical order, in amongst all the other nations.
Canada Entitled to a Symbol
And they were right. The effect was this: A the procession of athletes of all nations, starting with A and passing through the alphabet, went by, nation by nation. And every few moments a British flag went by. Not one British flag but a score were in that great parade. One by one, the flags of the world went by the international throng, and first Australia with a splendid regiment of men carried the Union Jack and its marks of union and empire by. Then some more nations, and the British Isles went past, a great showing behind the Union Jack. Still more nations of the world, and then Canada. So the nations went past, one by one, and at the beginning and at the end came the flag of Britain with the escutcheons of her sons added. How Infinitely more imposing – this recurrence of Britain throughout that review of the nations -than had all the dominions followed under the one flag, the British committee realized fully as the moment passed.
But the flag the Canadians bore that day was not an official flag. Nor did it strike instant recognition by some symbol already known and respected from the eyes of the beholders from all parts of the world.
The objection raised to the use of the Union Jack with a device laid in the midst of it is that governors-general, lieutenant-governors’ and governors’ flags, from olden time, are the Union Jack with the coat of arms of the colonies they govern set in the middle. In the case of the Union Jack with the gold maple leaf emblazoned boldly in the centre, there can be no confusion with the governor-general’s flag, since his is the Jack with the Canadian coat of arms in the centre. The gold maple leaf without inscription of any sort laid in the heart of the Union Jack could have only one meaning, either here or in most of the countries of the world.
Artists must come into the discussion when the subject is a matter of color and form such as a flag. And the Group of Seven, intensest of all Canadian artists, might be expected to have some thought on the question of a Canadian flag.
“It is merely a question of time until we have a flag of our own in Canada,” said Lawren Harris, of the Group of Seven. “Canada is entitled to a symbol, because Canada is already as entity. The idea of the maple leaf, simply emblazoned, without scroll or legend, on the heart of the Union Jack appeals to me immensely. And the conception of the spear head appeals to me even more. For it is sentimental symbols of that sort which the inarticulate mass of people may take for their means of expression of the love of their country, above all others.”
And if there is any means by which Canada’s exploit in the world war can be preserved and brought to the notice and remembrance of all nations of the world could there be a more picturesque and romantic one than that flag etiquette should demand that flag to be flown only on a staff with spear head?
Editor’s Notes: This rather flowery article from 1925 was part of a movement for a distinct Canadian flag that developed after the First World War. Greg uses the term “ordinary marine ensign in error” to describe the use of the Red Ensign, Canada’s unofficial flag.
Ferdinand Foch was Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War.
Greg mentions the “Olympic meet at Wembley last year”. I believe he mixing up the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 held in Wembley, England, and the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Maybe the committee met at the Exhibition before the Olympics.
The Group of Seven were a famous group of Canadian painters.
The illustration behind the photos were by Jim.