One hundred years ago, on April 9, 1917, Canadian soldiers entered into a battle against German forces in Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France during the First World War in what’s now known as the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
While military historians will debate, endlessly it seems, on the significance of this battle, it has taken on a poetic role in Canada’s national story. As the Canadian War Museum’s description states, “The capture of Vimy was more than just an important battlefield victory. For the first time, all four Canadian divisions attacked together: men from all regions of Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, ‘in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.’ ”
It certainly was considered significant enough, in the years immediately after the war, that in 1922 France gave over to Canada 250 acres of that former battlefield for use as a place to commemorate this battle, as well as all Canadian solders killed in France with no known grave.
All told, 61,000 Canadians were killed in that four-year war — 3,600 at Vimy Ridge alone — and 172,000 wounded. There were 620,000 enlisted from a country of 8 million; 424,000 served overseas. One in 10 who enlisted died, and nearly 30 per cent on top of that were wounded.
On that land in France, and at seven other locations decreed Canadian war memorial sites, the Canadian government sought monument designs. The original thought had been to do identical, small-scale installations at these European sites, five in France and three in Belgium. The government launched a competition that attracted 160 submissions; from those, the field narrowed to 17 serious contenders and, in 1921, Toronto sculptor Walter Seymour Allward won the job. His vision, however, might be described as “operatic” when the intent had been “chamber ensemble.” It was soon decided that the Allward design would proceed at one location — Vimy — and the others would have simpler monuments installed.
When looking back on his career, Allward describes the Vimy Ridge memorial as his “masterwork.” The memorial took 11 years to build and is not the usual war memorial sculpture showcasing valiant soldiers about to leap into battle.
To quote the official description From Veterans Affairs Canada: “Twenty sculpted, symbolic figures grace the monument, each carved where they now stand from huge blocks of limestone. The largest, a mourning figure known as Canada Bereft, was carved from a single 30-tonne block. Head bowed in sorrow, she provides a powerful representation of Canada, a young nation grieving her dead. Overlooking the Douai Plain, she gazes down upon a symbolic tomb draped in laurel branches and bearing a helmet and sword.
“Carved on the walls of the monument are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were killed in France and whose final resting place was then unknown.”
My first deep introduction to Allward was through the Canadian writer Jane Urquhart, whose 2001 novel, The Stone Carvers, takes place in part at Vimy Ridge after the First World War when two of her fictional characters join the crew of artists and carvers creating the memorial.
That was the same year we moved to Stratford, Ontario, and I soon discovered there was a prelude to Vimy right along the Avon River in that small southern Ontario city. Allward created only two First World War memorials in Canada, and one is in Stratford. It depicts two Grecian-god-like figures in bronze, one with head lifted high in strength, the other hooded and hunched in sadness.
Urquhart, along with illustrator Scott McKowen, recently launched a Canadian sesquicentenary book, A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told through Fifty Objects, and the Stratford memorial is one of those 50 objects. McKowen’s illustrations for the book are on display from March 11 to May 5, 2017 at Gallery Stratford.
Only recently, in a walk in my own Toronto neighbourhood, did I discover that Allward, who died in 1955, was a Cabbagetowner. His memorial plaque is simple, a small blue oval with his name, date of birth, and death, identical to all others with a level of noteworthiness in our corner of the city.
I’ve never been to the Vimy memorial but more than 25,000 fellow Canadians gathered there on April 9, 2017 to mark the centenary, including heads of state, politicians, soldiers, students, and a very special Royal Canadian Air Cadet from our family who, it’s frightening to think, 100 years ago would have answered the call of his country, have bravely entered those trenches, and followed orders to fight ahead. In war, it is the young, the future, who are sacrificed. Allward himself called his monumental work “a sermon against the futility of war.” And from what a pulpit did he preach.
Main photo: Flight Sergeant Zachary Keenan, 715 “Mohawk” Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Cadets at the Vimy Memorial on April 9, 2017, for the centenary commemoration of the battle. Photo by Adrain M. Taylor.