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Photos of the cannon from the Canadian War Museum commemoration in Ottawa on March 13, 2018 with King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium.Ulle Baum

Belgian historian Corentin Rousman came to Ottawa two years ago with an ambitious plan: to ship a cannon back to Canada in honour of the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

But it was not just any cannon.

The 18-pounder field gun had fired the last Canadian shell on the Western front on Nov. 11, 1918 – the day the Canadian Corps liberated the southwest Belgian city of Mons, and the four-year war came to an end.

On Aug. 15, 1919, the piece of artillery was presented as a gift from the Canadian military to the city of Mons as a symbol of enduring friendship between the two countries, one forged in tragedy with almost 60,000 Canadian lives lost.

“In Mons, there is a close connection with Canada,” Mr. Rousman said. “We are very happy to be liberated by Canadians.”

The city of Mons was also where the last Commonwealth soldier, a Canadian, was killed in the war. George Lawrence Price, a 25-year-old from Nova Scotia, was shot by a German sniper two minutes before the Armistice. He is buried in the city’s St Symphorien Military Cemetery.

During his March, 2016, visit to Ottawa to prepare for a 100-year commemoration ceremony in Mons, Mr. Rousman met with officials at the Canadian War Museum. They discussed the plan to return, on a five-year loan, the cannon that Canada had given Belgium almost a century ago.

And so it came about that the cannon was shipped on a C-130 Belgian transport plane to the museum in January, where it will be featured in an upcoming exhibition on the last 100 days of the First World War. “These guns survived, and then the gun has been returned to us. And I think it’s a really powerful piece,” said Tim Cook, the Canadian War Museum’s First World War historian.

The cannon was on display this week during a state visit from Belgium’s King Philippe and Queen Mathilde – the first in 40 years. Although there were some missteps – including a German flag mistakenly displayed on a tree outside Rideau Hall, and a suggestion that the large delegation may have felt snubbed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – the royal couple was well-received, attending a state dinner with Governor-General Julie Payette and other events in Toronto and Montreal.

At a commemoration event at the museum, King Philippe expressed his gratitude to Canada for its role in liberating his country during both the First and Second World Wars.

“The destinies of our two countries were tragically interwoven in the 20th century during two world wars,” the King said in his speech. “You have preserved here the moving testimonies left behind by the Canadian soldiers who twice came to fight, for too many of them to give their lives on Belgian soil.”

The 18-pounder belonged to the 39th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, and first went into action in 1916, participating in a series of battles in the First World War including the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, culminating in the “Hundred Days” offensive between August and November 1918 that won the war. The field gun is called an 18-pounder because it fired an 18-pound shell, filled with explosives, shrapnel, chemicals or smoke. Historians believe the guns fired 100 million shells during the course of the war.

Built in Britain, this piece of artillery also survived the German occupation of Belgium during the Second World War, where older weapons were often captured and repurposed for battle. But space in the Mons Memorial Museum was limited, and only one of the two cannons given to Belgium by Canada was put on display, with the other languishing in storage.

Dr. Cook said the new exhibition at the Canadian War Museum, set to open in October, will chronicle the series of battles at the end of the First World War.

Along with the artillery piece, the exhibit will feature colour photographs, letters, diaries and memoirs of Canadians who served in Belgium, as well as artifacts, a reconstruction of a tank and archival film footage from combat cameramen.

“There is a legacy that is there, a legacy in photographs, in art, in material culture, in museums like this. But also a legacy that is remembered, I think, between the countries,” Dr. Cook said.

At the commemorative event last week, Veterans Affairs Minister Seamus O’Regan said Canadians can only really understand the sacrifices made by their countrymen and women when seen through the eyes of the Belgians and others who were freed.

“We’re fortunate in this country that the war didn’t occur here. It occurred there, it occurred on their land, it affected their families, it affected their homes directly It destroyed cities,” Mr. O’Regan said. “And we, a people who they wouldn’t have known, who weren’t neighbours, came over across an ocean and helped liberate them.”

Mr. O’Regan said he’s planning to attend the special commemorative ceremony in Mons on Remembrance Day. Spokespersons for the Prime Minister’s Office and the Governor-General said it was too early to confirm such visits.

Mr. Rousman, however, is optimistic that the Prime Minister will be there.

“We hope that Trudeau will be in Mons on the 11th of November,” he said.

“It’s our goal.”

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