William Redver Stark: Life on the Lines with the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops

Inter[national] Corners
Belgium 1916

[At] the time I made this drawing, the front line trenches were only a mile away and to the left of me [British?] light artillery were firing about 3 mile range - I was put under arrest temporarily for drawing so near lines of fire.

William Redver Stark sketchbook 8, item R11307-8.9


The First World War is a difficult but important event in the history of Canadian art. It marks the creation of the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) by Sir Max Aitken (the future Lord Beaverbrook), for which some of Canada's greatest artists, including A.Y. Jackson [PDF 10.4 MB] and David Milne [PDF 17.1 MB], created works representing Canada's experience at home and on the battlefield, honouring those who worked, served, fought, and often died in the "war to end all wars."

Documenting the war through art wasn't exclusive to these official representatives, however. Far from the sites where war artists worked, other artists served purely as servicemen and women—not assigned to create art, but to fight, to build, to transport, and to provide care. The William Redver Stark fonds at Library and Archives Canada is a rare illustrated record of one of these undeclared artists' lives in the military. Through 14 sketchbooks of remarkably well-preserved drawings and watercolours, we discover the life of a soldier through his eyes, which were often closer to the action than those of his CWMF counterparts, and which provide a more spontaneous, intimate perception of how day-to-day activities may have looked. Ranging from representations of soldiers at work and at rest, to captured German prisoners and artillery, to landscapes through which battalions moved, to sights at the London Zoo where Stark went while on leave, the illustrations serve as a rich and indispensable complement to the artist's military file, to his battalion's history, and to our visual understanding of a serviceman's experience during the First World War.

The William Redver Stark fonds was donated to Library and Archives Canada in 2005 by his nephew, Douglas Mackenzie Davies and his family: his wife, Sheila Margaret Whittemore Davies, and their two sons, Kenneth Gordon Davies and Ian Whittemore Davies. 

Stark and the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops

William Redver Stark

William Redver Stark
Source

William Redver Stark was born on February 4, 1885, in Toronto. He studied art at the Ontario College of Art, and also fine arts in the United States. He enlisted for the Great War in Toronto, on June 16, 1916, and was assigned to the Canadian First Construction Battalion, which was later renamed the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops. After training at Valcartier, Québec, he left Halifax on September 13 and landed in France on October 26, 1916.

The 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops was posted to the north of France and a small part of western Belgium. During this time, Stark worked as a sapper, which is the rank of engineer private. He operated behind the lines constructing and maintaining infrastructure—railways, roads, pipelines and bridges—to ensure the passage of materials to and from the front. Work was constant, dangerous and tough. It involved ballasting and grading; laying steel tracks and replacing those that had been destroyed by shelling; filling in shell craters; digging ditches and trenches; putting in culverts; constructing pipelines; building and repairing bridges; and continuously inspecting miles and miles of tracks. Men were constantly at risk of being shelled by German forces who targeted the railway lines. Many times, work was done at night to avoid detection, and it occasionally went on for weeks without rest. Men often faced wet weather that flooded tracks and made the ground soft and difficult to work with. The colder winter months made the rain all the more challenging, as did the influenza pandemic of 1918, which affected a number of men within the Battalion.

Despite these conditions, the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops achieved a great many tasks in its two-year posting over an assigned territory that included Candas, Dunkirk, Froissy, Péronne, Poperinge, Combles, Bergues, Béthencourt, Conchy-sur-Canche, Boubers-sur-Canche, Longueau, Amiens, Marquaix, Wambaix and Le Cateau. Thousands of miles of railway tracks were laid, dozens of bridges were built and repaired, multiple hospitals were provided with dugouts and bomb-proof shelters, and many water pipelines were constructed.

As this work progressed, Stark kept an illustrated record of his and his fellow sappers' experiences. The conveniently sized sketchbooks, and the ease of use of his pencils, pen and ink, and watercolours meant that he could draw something on the spot, and in little time, giving himself the option to finish his works when he was off duty. Often done in vivid colours with a quality and a style that reflect Stark's artistic training, the images depict a variety of sights, activities and people encountered: a watercolour of a captured German rail gun, which was a relatively new type of weapon that Stark was fortunate to see while working in the vicinity of Longueau, France; men from the East Indian Regiment who were attached to the Battalion to help prepare lines of defence at Béthencourt; bridges that were built and repaired by the Battalion; and many views of war-torn landscapes.

Stark also got to know the local population, thanks in part to accommodations provided by billets in certain towns and villages. He captured the likenesses of many people in his sketchbooks, and even left the draft of a letter there, written in a beginner's French, that may be a clue to a budding romance between the artist and an unidentified addressee. Many sketches were dedicated to capturing the beauty of the landscapes where Stark found himself posted. Others were made to document the animals he encountered: horses that worked with the Battalion and those found in various French villages and farms; dogs, cats, mules and rats; and, perhaps most interestingly, animals he sketched at the London Zoo while on leave.

The 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops returned to Toronto at the end of war and, on March 26, 1919, Stark was discharged from the military with the rank of private. After the war, he became a freelance graphic artist for the Toronto Star Weekly, and he also worked as a freelance illustrator of educational and children's books, many of which can be found in the Library and Archives Canada collections. He married Marjorie Crouch on September 7, 1921, and the couple had one daughter, Anita. William Redver Stark died in Toronto on November 26, 1953. He was survived by his two sisters, Muriel Ethelwyn Carolyn Stark, also an accomplished and widely travelled Toronto artist, and Doris Lillian Agnes Stark, who was married to the Toronto portrait painter and illustrator of women's fashions, Gordon Albert Davies.

How to access the William Redver Stark fonds and related materials at Library and Archives Canada


Sketchbooks

All 14 sketchbooks of the William Redver Stark fonds have been described and digitized at the item level. In order to access them, please use archival reference number R11307, or MIKAN number 616998.

William Redver Stark's CEF file  [PDF 21.5 MB]

War diaries of the 1st Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops 

Guide to sources relating to the Canadian Railway Troops [PDF 572 KB​]

Books illustrated by W.R. Stark

  • Knight, Nancy. Jack and the beanstalk / verses by Nancy Knight; illustrations by W.R. Stark. -- Toronto: Heaton Publishing, [19--]. AMICUS No. 14175193
  • Knight, Nancy. The sleeping beauty / verses by Nancy Knight; illustrations by W.R. Stark. -- Toronto: Heaton Publishing, [19--]. AMICUS No. 14175229
  • Knight, Nancy. Snow White / verses by Nancy Knight; illustrations by W.R. Stark. -- Toronto: Heaton Publishing, [19--]. AMICUS No. 14175243
  • Wees, Frances Shelley, 1902-. Story land / [written and edited by Frances Shelley Wees; illustrated by Elizabeth S. Dembner and W.R. Stark]. -- Toronto: T. Nelson & Sons, 1946.  AMICUS No. 30971667
  • Wees, Frances Shelley, 1902-. The open door. -- Toronto: T. Nelson & Sons: Educational Book Co., 1940. AMICUS No. 32165980
  • Poirier, J.-E. La porte est ouverte. Éd. du Nouveau-Brunswick. -- Toronto: T. Nelson, 1942.  AMICUS No. 22396568
  • Knight, Nancy. Cinderella / verses by Nancy Knight; illustrations by W.R. Stark. -- Toronto: Heaton Publishing, [19--]. AMICUS No. 14175178
  • Rorke, Louise Richardson. Lefty: a story of a boy and a dog / by Louise Richardson Rorke; with a foreword by Marshall Saunders; illustrated by W.R. Stark. 5th ed. -- Toronto: T. Nelson, 1943, c1931. AMICUS No. 9075756
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