By Douglas Phillips.
This April 9, we will be commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, an important milestone in Canada’s history. It is defined as the Birth of a Nation when Canadian troops launched an attack on German forces at Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917.
Against all odds, Canadian troops won a decisive battle that turned the tide of the First World War. We will mark the occasion with special events at the Vimy National War Memorial in France and the National War Memorial in Ottawa.
Many stories will be told about the battle and the bravery on television and in newspapers. The Vimy Memorial will be the centrepiece and the backdrop for speeches by politicians from Canada and France.
While the focus will be on the 3,598 brave men who fell in the battle and the 11,285 names of the missing engraved on the base of the memorial who died in France, this article is about the creation and the building of the Vimy Memorial; its history, the person and the vision behind the design, why it was chosen, the construction of the memorial, the creation of the memorial park and how it survived the Second World War.
The Vimy vision
In 1921, while seated in a Toronto park, Walter Allward, the sculptor, drew two pylons and joined them together with a line. He called one pylon Canada and the other France.
Two countries joined together by sacrifice and thus the concept of Canada’s first National War Memorial was born. Allward, like most Canadians, felt there was a deep obligation to never forget the 66,000 Canadian soldiers and nurses who lost their lives during World War I.
The whole country was mourning and many war memorials were erected with the names of local men and women who, only a few years earlier, had marched down the main street to the local train station, cheered on by family and friends. Buried in distant cemeteries, the families of those lost in the war could only look at the last photo, read the last letter and stand before the local memorial and touch the name of a loved one.
Under public pressure, the government decided to build national war memorials in Ottawa, France and Belgium to help a grieving nation. The construction of the Vimy Memorial was not an easy project.
In February 1919, the Battle Exploits Memorials Committee was formed in Britain with a mandate to name the principle battles and allocate a site to each country. Canada was awarded three sites in Belgium and five in France.
In September 1920, Parliament enacted the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission to oversee the design of the memorials. They organized a design competition, open to all Canadian architects, designers, artists and sculptors. The commission selected 17 of the 160 designs received for consideration. Each finalist was asked to produce a plaster model of their respective design. In October 1921, the commission selected the designs of Walter Allward. Frederick Clemesha’s “The Brooding Soldier” was selected as runner up. The commission decided to build two distinctive memorials and six smaller identical memorials.The government favoured Belgium for the Allward design, but the former Canadian Corps Commander, Lt. General Arthur Currie, argued in favour of Hill 145, the highest point on Vimy Ridge.
The Vimy Memorial would serve three purposes – to mark the site of the battle, become the country’s premier memorial in Europe and have the names of the 11,285 missing Canadians who lost their lives in France engraved on the memorial’s base. Before construction could begin, the land around Hill 145 was surveyed and the French government agreed to donate the land. In February 1923, Parliament accepted France’s gift confirmed in the Franco/Canada agreement. “The French Government grants, freely and for all time, to the Government of Canada the free use of a parcel of 100 hectares located on Vimy Ridge in the Department of Pas-de-Calais, the boundaries of which are indicated on the plan annexed to the Agreement… ‘
The Canadian Government pledge themselves to lay out this land into a park and to erect thereon a monument to the memory of the Canadian soldiers who died on the field of honour in France during the war 1914-18. The area is about 107 hectares… which the government of Canada has decided to utilize as follows – 10 hectares for the monument and approaches and 97 hectares to be planted with trees.” Allward took charge of every aspect of the construction, adjusting his design to fit into the hillside overlooking the Douai Plain. The site had been pounded by artillery for three weeks before the battle and the ground was pitted with dugouts, mine craters, trenches and shell holes. Before construction could start, a road had to be built from the Arras-Lens highway through the park to the site and all the unexploded ammunition removed.
Under the supervision of Oscar Faber, a British civil engineer, work was started on the foundation of reinforced concrete. Meanwhile, Allward visited quarries across Europe and Britain looking for a warm, white stone that could be carved from a single block and would reflect the sunlight on the groups of figures. After a year of searching, Allward found a warm limestone in a quarry in present day Croatia, had it shipped to France and the first stone arrived at the Vimy site in 1927. Renowned Italian stone carver Luigi Rigamonti was hired to carve the principal figure of “Canada Bereft” from a single flawless block four metres high. This was delivered to the site in 1931. Allward personally oversaw the exacting work of engraving the names of the missing on the memorial’s walls using a typeface designed by himself specifically for the purpose. As construction difficulties, delays and costs increased, Allward was asked to cut corners but he refused to lower the standards of material. He was determined to create an enduring memorial. After 14 years of continuous work, the memorial was unveiled on July 26, 1936, by King Edward VIII.
Attending the opening were thousands of Canadian Vimy Ridge veterans who had made the pilgrimage to look on as King Edward unveiled the flag covering the figure of “Canada Bereft” and declared Canada’s National Memorial and Park open. In 1925, the French Government started a reforestation program to return the battle sites to their natural state and Canadian maple trees were planted along the approach to the memorial.
Allward’s inspiration was the feeling of a French medieval cathedral and he said the idea came from a dream… “When things were at their blackest in France, I dreamed that I was in a great battlefield. I saw our men going by in thousands and being mowed down by the sickles of death… Suffering beyond endurance at the sight, I turned my eyes and found myself looking down on an avenue of poplars. Suddenly through the avenue I saw thousands marching to the aid of our armies. They were the dead. They rose in masses, filed silently by and entered the fight to aid the living. So vivid was this impression, that when I awoke it stayed with me for months. Without the dead we were helpless. So I have tried to show this in this monument to Canada’s fallen, what we owed them and will forever owe them.”
Arthur Meighen, the ninth prime minister of Canada, said: “The site of the Vimy Monument is beyond comparison, of the various battlefields of the war, it is the most closely associated in the hearts of the Canadian people with all that the war involved in story and in sacrifice.” The memorial figures speak about hope for the future and the impact of wars. It is an enduring image of the First World War and the cost of life.
As a nation, we shall always be indebted to Walter Allward, who gave many years of his middle age life to the Vimy Ridge Memorial and to his many other public monuments that greatly add to our identity as Canadians, our history and achievements. Inscribed on the base in English and French:
“To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.”
Biography of Walter Seymour Allward, RCABorn in Toronto on November18, 1875, educated in local schools. At the age of 14, he assisted his carpenter father. He first worked as an apprenticed draftsman before working at the Don Valley Brick Works, modelling architectural ornaments and this early training prepared him for his lifelong career as a monumental sculptor. At age 19, he received his first commission, the figure of “Peace” which is located on the grounds of Queens Park. Other commissions followed with the South African War Memorial on University Avenue. Perhaps the design of the Bell Telephone Memorial Gardens in Brantford was a precursor for the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Allward has been described as “… probably Canada’s most important monumental sculptor in the first third of the 20th century.” He died on April 24, 1955, and is buried with a simple headstone in Saint John’s Church Cemetery in York Mills, north Toronto. Find more information on his life and works at wikipedia.org
Vimy Ridge Memorial during War World 2
France surrendered to Germany on June 24, 1940. With the evacuation of Dunkirk by the Allied Armies, the fate of the memorial became a focus of concern in the Canadian press over reports that Nazi bombers, during the Battle of Arras in May 1940, had destroyed the memorial. The June 4 headlines of the Globe and Mail read “Vimy Memorial Bombed Sculptor Sad and Bitter.” The country was outraged; Vimy veterans were quoted as “Crying for revenge for our fallen comrades.” This was all “fake news” and to prove the news false the German government issued a famous photo of Adolf Hitler standing under the Vimy Memorial on June 2, 1940.
Further proof was obtained that the memorial was standing when Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilots flew over it in 1942, and throughout the war until the Welsh Guards liberated Arras on the September 1, 1944, and Vimy Ridge was back in Allied hands. On September 11, Lt.General Crerar, Commander of the First Canadian Army, landed on Vimy Park and reported there had been minimal damage. In April 1945, a military ceremony was held and George Stubbs, the Vimy caretaker, returned from German internment to reopen the park to visitors.
Canadian Battlefield Memorials Restoration ProjectDue to weather conditions over the years, the memorial’s base had begun to deteriorate, so in 2004 restoration work began. With new stone shipped from Croatia, the faded names were carefully matched. On completion of the work, the park was reopened by Queen Elizabeth II. Allward’s masterpiece, the Vimy Ridge Memorial, would endure forever.
1 – Vimy National War Memorial, created by sculptor Walter Allward to Canada’s fallen, Stuart Phillips photo
2 – Walter Allward, Wikipedia Commons
3 – Canadian Battle Fields Memorials Commission competition models c1920, Wikipedia Commons
4 – The Crest of Vimy Ridge oil painting 1918 by Canadian war artist Gyrth Russell (1892-1970), Canadian War Museum