The monument to Lieutenant-Colonel George Harold Baker is one of a number of poignant memorials to the First World War installed in the Centre Block. It was commissioned in 1920 following the recommendations of special committees of the Senate and the House of Commons to commemorate the life, dedication and sacrifice of the only sitting Member of Parliament killed in action during the Great War. People pass daily by the monument located prominently in the House of Commons foyer without necessarily knowing anything about the man it commemorates.
George Harold Baker was born in 1877 in Sweetsburg, now part of Cowansville, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. His family were United Empire Loyalists and had resided in the region since the late 18th century. They were a prominent political family in the Townships. At the time of Baker’s birth, his father, the Hon. George Barnard Baker, had already served in the Quebec National Assembly and had been elected three times as Member of Parliament for Missisquoi, Quebec. George Sr. was called to the Senate in 1896 and served as a Senator until his death in 1910.
The younger Baker followed his father’s footsteps in pursuing a career in law and established a successful practice first with his father in Sweetsburg, and then in Montreal. In 1911, he was elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Brome, Quebec. Along with his interest in law and politics, George Harold Baker assumed an active role in various militia units in his region, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of the 13th Scottish Light Dragoons in 1913. With the outbreak of the war a year later, Baker volunteered for active service, retaining his seat in the House of Commons. Shortly afterwards, he was given authority to raise the 5th Battalion Canadian Mounted Rifles, a unit comprised of volunteers from the Eastern Townships.
The battalion left for England in 1915 and was transferred to France in late October of that year. It was attached to the 3rd Canadian Division, which was assigned to the defence of the Ypres Salient in March 1916. On June 2, 1916, the Germans launched a massive four-hour long artillery barrage on the Canadian positions around Mount Sorrel in advance of an attack. The enormity of the barrage and its effect is difficult to fathom for a modern audience. Even at the time, authors struggled in their descriptions of the battle to convey the devastation wrought by four hours of relentless bombardment. In his history, entitled Canada In Flanders, Lord Beaverbrook described the shelling as follows:
“... the storm which burst on the 3rd Division at 8:30 that June morning was like a tropical tornado which presses men flat to the ground and suffocates them with the mere force of the wind, which uproots forests and hurls them headlong, obliterates all ancient landmarks and the houses and shelters of men and beasts, and leaves behind nothing but a tangled desolation from which a few survivors creep out scarcely sane enough to realize the catastrophe or to attempt to repair the damage.”
Firsthand accounts report that Baker played an important role in the battle by providing true leadership and direction to his men while under constant fire for twelve hours. Baker was killed in action at Sanctuary Wood during the Battle of Mount Sorrel near Ypres (Leper), Belgium late in the day on June 2, 1916. He was one of the estimated 8,000, primarily Canadian, allied causalities of the battle. Lieutenant Colonel Baker was 39 years old.
The monument erected to the memory of Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Baker, M.P. was first proposed by the Senate, followed by the House of Commons in May 1919. It is unique among the war memorials within the Centre Block in that it acknowledges the service of one individual.
The artist chosen to execute the commission was R. Tait McKenzie, a native of Almonte, Ontario and one of Canada’s foremost sculptors at the time. The monument was erected by Parliament and unveiled on February 29, 1924 by Governor General Lord Byng, commander of the 3rd Canadian Division at the Battle of Mount Sorrel.
While dedicated to an individual, the monument has always carried a greater symbolic meaning. This fact was emphasized in Prime Minister King’s remarks at the unveiling when he commented on the character of the monument:
“It is personal in character, but it is also essentially symbolic. It speaks not of one member of parliament only who gallantly served his country overseas, but of the fifty or more members of the two Houses who enlisted at the time, many of whom served actively in France, and of the eighteen members of Parliament who lost sons in the Great War. But it speaks of more than this. It speaks of Canadians, approximately 600,000 in number who enlisted for service in the Great War, and above all of the more than 60,000 who gave their lives as the supreme sacrifice of this nation in the cause of the World’s freedom.”
This sentiment was repeated by others throughout the dedication ceremony. The Baker Memorial is dedicated to one man, but personifies a nation’s loss and the spirit of those who served.
For further information, an interesting biography on Lieutenant-Colonel George Baker, M.P., is available through Library and Archives Canada.