Today, sixteen students selected from across Canada, England and France have embarked on the Vimy Foundation’s Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation is the generous benefactor of the Vimy Foundation’s flagship student program. To mark our students’ departure, today’s post shares the story of William Maxwell “Max” Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, PC, ONB, revealing his impact on Canada’s First World War effort.
Born on 25 May 1879 in Maple, Ontario, William Maxwell Aitken grew up in Newcastle, New Brunswick. A wily entrepreneur, Aitken had attempted numerous business ventures by the time he wrote his first entrance exams for university. Unable to find his way with neither university nor law school, Aitken again returned to small business ventures, variably selling insurance, writing as a correspondent for the Montreal Star, working in a law office and running a successful municipal election campaign. Gaining employment with the Stairs family of Halifax in the early 1900’s, Aitken’s business savvy quickly launched him to the fore, soon managing massive dealings of shares, stakes, and entire mergers, with ease. By 1910, Aitken moved to England, where he supported fellow New Brunswicker, Bonar Law, in becoming the only Canadian Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. In the years leading up to the First World War, Aitken built up an empire around newspaper publication houses, as well as buying, and selling, a massive share in Rolls-Royce Limited. During this time he was also knighted, choosing the title of Lord Beaverbrook, in reference to a small stream from his hometown of Newcastle, New Brunswick.
With the outbreak of war, Lord Beaverbrook sought a position of influence, eventually gaining one as the “eyes and ears” of Sir Sam Hughes, (the soon-to-be embattled Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence), in the United Kingdom. Although Beaverbrook was to collect and funnel information on the war back to Canada, on his own initiative, he enlarged this role by becoming something of a Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) historian and publicist. Using the newspapers he owned, Beaverbrook was able to write and publish positive coverage about the CEF overseas, often “highlighting their distinctiveness in relation to British soldiers” (Canadian War Museum, Lord Beaverbrook, 2017). Beaverbrook also variously authored, co-authored, and/or edited a three-volume contemporary history of the CEF titled Canada In Flanders.
Facing resistance from the Canadian War Office, Beaverbrook then put forward his own funds to establish the Canadian War Records Office, with the goal of recording and publicizing the Canadian war effort. Due to Beaverbrook’s persistence, official photographers, filmmakers, and war artists were eventually permitted to record the scenes at the Canadian front, arriving mid-1916. Beaverbrook simultaneously created the Canadian War Memorials Fund, commissioning official war artists to paint scenes of the entire nation’s war effort. Nearly 120 British and Canadian artists were employed, three of whom were future Group of Seven members, and close to 1,000 works were created of both the war and home front. In 1918, Beaverbrook was appointed Minister of Information of the newly formed Ministry of Information, assuming responsibility for propaganda in the Commonwealth and neutral countries.
As a lasting legacy of the whirlwind entrepreneur, nearly 8,000 photographs produced by the Canadian War Records Office preserve Canada’s First World War history at Library And Archives Canada. Sadly, a large portion of the film collection was destroyed in a fire at the National Film Board in 1967. Meanwhile, the large canvases of war art were shuffled from various basements and vaults of the National Art Gallery before finally reaching the Canadian War Museum in the 1970’s. Slowly, these works have been carefully restored, preserved and displayed as the Beaverbrook Collection of War Art.
Learn more about Canada’s War Art by clicking here.
The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation is the generous benefactor of the Vimy Foundation’s flagship student program, the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, which offers prestigious summer scholarships to youth 15-17 years of age to study the interwoven history of Canada, France and Great Britain during the First and Second World Wars.