Ghosts of Vimy
CANADA’S GREAT WAR MEMORIAL IS SO LARGE AND SO POWERFUL THAT IT SEEMS ALMOST UN-CANADIAN.
On the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, we reflect on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, a creation so large and so powerful that it seems almost un-Canadian. Plus, the soldiers who served and sacrificed at Vimy, and what the battle means to Canadians today.
It was a dream of death that inspired Toronto sculptor and architect Walter Allward’s monument to Canada’s war dead. During the First World War, as the armies raged overseas on the Western Front, mired in shocking slaughter, Allward often dreamt of the battlefield. He recounted one poignant vision shortly after the war: “Division after division of our army was being swallowed up in this smoke, din, and destruction. Everything was disappearing, but as I looked down a long avenue of poplars lining one of the main roads I saw armies of the white dead coming out to relieve the dying armies of the living.
“When I awoke, and for long, long afterwards, the poignant impression remained and finally became a part of this work. Without the thought of the dead we could not have carried on, during the war or afterwards. It is this feeling that I have tried to express.”
Walter Allward would be entrusted by the Canadian government and the people of Canada to build a monument to the legions of Canada’s dead who had been consumed in the maelstrom of destruction. He was also to create a site that offered some succour and closure to the survivors, while forever marking Canada’s traumatic war experience from 1914 to 1918.
Canada had paid a terrible price in the First World War, known at the time as the Great War. As a dominion of the British Empire, Canada was automatically at war when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Yet it was up to individual Canadians to respond to the call. And they did, by the hundreds of thousands. By war’s end, some 620,000 Canadians had served in uniform from a nation of fewer than eight million people.
About 425,000 Canadian soldiers went overseas to fight, and most served as part of the Canadian Corps, the Dominion’s one-hundred-thousand-strong fighting formation.
The corps, with its four infantry divisions, fought at the Somme in 1916; Vimy, Hill 70, and Passchendaele in 1917; and in the crucial Hundred Days campaign in the final four months of the war. The Canadians had forged their reputation starting at the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915, when they had faced the first chlorine gas attack, and they had been regarded in the many gritty engagements to follow as a formidable shock formation. But the clash of relentless battle and the attrition to forces garrisoning the stalemated front had cost the Canadians dearly. About sixty thousand Canadians were killed up to Armistice Day, and another six thousand died of their wounds or other ailments in the war’s immediate aftermath.
Canada grieved for its fallen. There was pride in the service and sacrifice of the soldiers, but the country also reeled from the exertions of the war. The need to fill the ranks of the evertorn-up combat battalions put a strain on the country. Convincing men to enlist — often with unceasing pressure exerted on them and their families — pitted Canadians against Canadians in the supercharged patriotic environment. Anger and grief fostered intolerance against those who were seen as not contributing to victory, especially recent immigrants, some elements of the organized labour movement, and French Canadians. War-induced scars criss-crossed the country. The country was forever changed. Canada needed to heal. The dead cast a long shadow across the fractured land of the living.
Canada was not a country known for its artists. The British saw the New World colonials as a hardy race shaped from the northern winter wastes, too busy trying to stay warm and fending off wild animals to create evocative art or literature. Canada had yet to embrace cultural nationalism, but there were small pockets of artists.
Walter Allward was one of them. Born on November 18, 1876, in Toronto to transplanted Newfoundland parents, he had received little encouragement or training in his passions of painting, sculpture, and architecture. But he taught himself, banding together with other young artists in the Toronto Art Students League. To further hone his skills, he worked as a draftsman for the firm of Henry Gibson and Charles Simpson. All the while, he studied the European masters and was particularly taken with Michelangelo, whose works he drew and redrew, studying form and figure.
Attesting to his skill — and perhaps the lack of sculptors in Canada — he received his first major commission while still a young man. It was a memorial to the Northwest Rebellion. The Métis and First Nations resistance had been stamped out in a multi-pronged assault by Canadian militia units in 1885. The military operation, seen at the time as a legitimate suppression of an uprising in the West, was celebrated in large parts of English Canada. Allward’s design at Queen’s Park in Toronto drew upon classical themes; his figure of Peace offered a striking focal point when it was unveiled in 1896. The monument raised his profile, and his reputation was further enhanced by a stunning memorial to Canada’s experience in the South African War, which was unveiled in Toronto in 1910 to much acclaim.
Allward, with a shock of brown, wavy hair, blue-grey eyes, and a broad chest, was a handsome figure. He travelled in the highest art circles in Toronto, and he rode the success of the South African War memorial to other high-profile commissions. He finished the Robert Baldwin and Sir LouisHippolyte LaFontaine double sculpture in Ottawa in 1915, and, two years later, the Alexander Graham Bell memorial was completed in Brantford, Ontario.
In the aftermath of the Great War, as communities across the country sought to memorialize the fallen, Allward was contracted to design monuments in the Ontario communities of Peterborough, Stratford, and Brantford. He began work on these projects but would soon be drawn away from them by Ottawa’s call to erect a national overseas memorial. His life would never be the same.
With Canadians trying to make sense of the terrible wartime sacrifice, Sir Robert Borden’s Unionist government voted funds to mark the war in 1919. While the Imperial War Graves Commission would care for Canada’s dead overseas, unearthing thousands of bodies to inter them in new cemeteries, Ottawa also wished to memorialize its major battlefield victories. This act was part of an emerging sense of Canadian nationalism, stirred by the war, whereby Canadians increasingly desired to stand on their own, refusing to let their accomplishments and deeds remain in Britain’s shadow.
Canadian representatives worked with the British and the overseas corps commander Sir Arthur Currie to identify eight sites to commemorate with memorials. Three were on Belgian soil, at St.
ALLWARD’S VIMY MONUMENT DESIGN WAS PRAISED FOR HAVING A "VERY HIGH APPEAL TO THE IMAGINATION."
Julien, Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood), and Passchendaele. Five were in France, at Vimy Ridge, Bourlon Wood, Le Quesnel, Dury, and Courcelette. Bourlon Wood, Le Quesnel, and Dury were all battles in the Hundred Days campaign, from August 8 to November 11, 1918, while St. Julien represented the Battle of Second Ypres in April 1915 and Hill 62 stood for the June 1916 Battle of Mount Sorrel. Land was purchased or acquired on the former battle sites.
The Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission was established in September 1920 to oversee the memorialization of Canada’s war effort. Consisting of politicians and former soldiers, the commission set the rules for the competition that was open to Canadian architects and artists. The committee felt that the same winning memorial might be displayed on all eight sites or that a single, unique monument might stand alone. There was talk of elevating Vimy beyond that of the other battles, but General Currie objected, telling the committee in a formal interview, “I do not think it was the most outstanding battle, or had the greatest material or moral effect on the winning of the war.”
By April 1921, 160 submissions were whittled down to seven- teen finalists, and in October 1921 Allward’s unique Vimy design was declared the winner. “A very high appeal to the imagination,” recorded the minutes of the commission. Allward’s model consisted of two pylons emerging from a long heavy base of stone. It was characterized by strong vertical and horizontal lines, but it was humanized by twenty allegorical figures who represented in stone the sacrifice of a nation. These were placed around the monument, but there was also a central figure, Canada Bereft, an anguished mother who grieved for her dead. Below her stood an empty tomb to represent the fallen. It was far different than the sanitized and glorified Northwest Rebellion and South African War memorials. Canada’s sixty-six thousand dead could not be reduced to an ennobling statue of victory.
There had never been anything like it in Canada or representing Canada. The enormous memorial had a base seventytwo metres long by eleven metres high and thirty-seven metres deep, supporting two vertical shafts just over thirty metres in height. It drew its power from the idea of capturing a nation in mourning.
Allward’s striking monument could not be reproduced eight times to mark Canada’s overseas battles. It was too large, too unique. There had to be a second choice. Frederick Chapman Clemesha’s shaft of granite from which a soldier emerged, head bowed and hands resting on his reversed rifle, was selected as the second design that would be replicated in the remaining seven spots.
Clemesha, a wounded veteran from Regina, was quick to unveil his first memorial at St. Julien to mark the Battle of Second Ypres on July 8, 1923. The Brooding Soldier, as it came to be known, is a powerful monument that evokes the soldiers’ comradery and sadness. One commentator at the ceremony wrote, “There is a mysterious power in this brooding figure drawing you from the things that are to be to things that were. It does more than command the landscape, it orders the spirit ... this is the soul of those who fell.”
Yet Clemesha’s monument, when revealed, was felt to be too distinctive to replicate on six more battlefields. Like Allward’s memorial, it too was seen as exceptional and distinct. The committee scrambled and chose six stone blocks to mark the other battle sites, as it waited for Allward to create Canada’s unique overseas monument. A question remained: Where to put it?
The Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission recommended somewhat surprisingly that Allward’s monument should be erected at Hill 62 in the Ypres salient, where the Battle of Mount Sorrel had been fought in June 1916. The battle over the low-lying ridge was a bloody affair that consisted of three phases: two defeats and a final Canadian victorious attack, all over a twoweek period, at the cost of almost nine thousand Canadian lives. However, it had little place in the pantheon of Canadian battles. It was a strange place to put Canada’s national memorial.
The commission felt that the seven-kilometre-long Vimy Ridge — a more obvious choice to mark, since it was one of Canada's most prominent, where the four Canadian divisions had attacked together for the first time, and which resulted in the capture of the nearly impregnable position — would dwarf, even obscure, Allward’s monument, “where its delicacy of line would be lost in the mass of the ridge.”
The designated site for the overseas memorial remained in the Ypres salient in early 1922 when Allward signed a five-year contract to begin work. But soon after that, in April, the committee in Ottawa recorded in its official minutes that “the name of Vimy Ridge was more closely associated with Canada not only in the minds of Canadians but of the people of other lands.” The commission’s members worried that perhaps they had erred.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had not served during the war and was periodically taunted for it by the Opposition, told them that indeed they had made a mistake. King was a champion for placing the memorial at Vimy. He must have listened to veterans about where they wanted the monument, since he had never gone overseas to see the battlefields, but he was taken with the imagery of Vimy, with the ridge’s looming presence towering over the land. In his words, “Vimy itself is one of the world’s great altars, on which a perceptible portion of our manhood has been sacrificed in the cause of the world’s freedom.”
The government began negotiations with the French, and by the end of the year a hundred hectares of land was granted to Canada — “freely and for all time,” according to the treaty — for the Dominion to develop a memorial and a park. Canada’s overseas monument would be erected at Vimy Ridge.
Allward moved his family to London and established a studio there, but he made frequent trips to Vimy Ridge. Travel was difficult, as much of France was in the throes of rebuilding after the terrible war. There were shortages of building materials and labour, which would also slow the work at Vimy. But first, Allward, in working with Captain (later Colonel) D.C. Unwin Simson, a wartime combat engineer who was responsible for the Vimy site, walked the length and breadth of the ridge. It was pitted with millions of shell craters, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of metal, an unknowable number of dangerous unexploded shells, and the rotting remains of corpses. Even though the grave-digging teams had scoured the land to locate the dead, many were buried beneath the surface in the kilometres of caves and dugouts that formed a labyrinth beneath the ridge. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the ridge for years.
Allward studied the ridge from every angle. He decided to place his monument on the highest point, Hill 145, which had been the site of tremendous battles throughout the war. Allward planned to
excavate the heights to create a flat surface for his monument and to give the impression that it was emerging from the ridge itself. Over the next couple of years, some 60,000 tonnes of clay, chalk, and soil, intermixed with shells and bodies, were removed from the future site of the monument before laying 15,000 tonnes of steel-reinforced concrete for the foundation.
While the memorial’s foundation was being set and its structure erected, Allward struggled to find the right stone with which to clad his monument. In his quest, he travelled France, Britain, and then much of Europe. He tested stone after stone. Nothing met his high standards. The committee in Ottawa was frustrated and even suggested several types of stone to Allward. He turned them all down. Ottawa was increasingly worried about the stubborn architect’s unyielding vision that was holding up the entire project.
Less than a decade after the guns fell silent, rain, snow, and sleet were eroding the once-powerful trench lines, and grass was beginning to emerge from the blasted earth. A reforestation program began in the 1920s to further bring life back to the dead ridge. Yet there was also a desire to preserve the battlefield as it was.
While Allward searched for the stone, Simson had his own vision of Vimy as a preserved warscape. Identifying a number of trenches, Simson’s team of labourers stuffed sandbags with wet cement, stacked them, and let them dry. The crumbling parapet was remade, as were the once-wooden boards beneath the soldiers’ feet that were now recast in concrete.
Next came the excavation of Grange Tunnel, one of thirteen underground tunnels that had been dug under the Canadian lines to protect soldiers from shellfire and snipers. Grange, at over twelve hundred metres and more than ten metres deep, snaked back from the 3rd Division’s front lines to Neuville St. Vaast.
Simson’s work crew began the dangerous work of shoring up the tunnel, parts of which had already collapsed. In the process, battle artifacts were discovered, including ammunition, grenades, and high explosives. The lethal munitions were handed over to the French for disposal, while the other relics were left undisturbed.
One of the astonishing finds was that the walls of the tunnels and other underground caves were marked with soldiers’ inscriptions. The Canadians who had taken refuge in the shelters had used bayonets, other sharp devices, and even pencils to carve their names, home towns, crests, and sayings into the soft chalk walls. The mute testimonies of carvings and phrases were a powerful reminder of the Canadians who had served on the Vimy front.
Allward felt the pressure from Ottawa to get on with the selection of the stone that was holding up the project, but he refused to be rushed. In late 1925, Allward heard of an ancient quarry, near Split in Yugoslavia, that had produced limestone for Diocletian’s Palace in the late third century. The Seget limestone was durable and strong, and as it weathered over time it took on a light cream colour. Allward set off for the quarry, worried that this might be his last chance before he had another stone foisted on him by Ottawa.
When the local quarry owners opened the site for him, he was overjoyed at what he found. Extraction began late in 1926. It was a stressful period. The Canadians contracted the work to a British operator, Walter Jenkins, but no one was sure of how much
stone was in the ground. Far more maddening, inexperienced and incompetent workers broke many of the slabs as they extracted them. Jenkins was losing a fortune, and he sent on to the Vimy site limestone that was flawed with marks or too small for use. Allward studied each piece, refusing many of them. A fierce war of words in print continued between Jenkins and Allward, but by June 1927 there were 6,100 tonnes of rock at the site.
The Seget limestone would clad the concrete memorial. It was what visitors would see and touch, and it would also bear the names
of 11,285 of Canada’s fallen soldiers in France with no known graves. The awesome power of artillery during the war, along with the large-scale battles that raged back and forth across the same battlefields, meant that killed soldiers were often lost forever. Shellfire dismembered flesh; bodies were sucked into the mud; soldiers were slain and buried, and then their crosses were destroyed. After weeks of silence, loved ones at home received the dreaded missive in the form of a telegram or letter that a soldier was “missing.” There were no answers to the next of kin’s pleading requests for information. Over time, the hope for a miracle diminished. Yet there remained no closure.
The names of Canada’s fallen with no known graves in France would be inscribed on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial (with another 6,998 names representing Canadian soldiers who fell on Belgian soil with no known graves on the Menin Gate in Ypres). The names of the missing would be reclaimed from the battlefields that consumed them.
Allward was only informed in September 1926 that his memorial was to carry the names, and he was at a loss as to where to put them. He eventually offered up his walls, running the names alphabetically in continuous bands. Sandblasted into the stone, the thousands of names reinforced the monument’s powerful message of loss and grief. On the walls and ramparts of Vimy, the army of the dead would stand together for all time.
By 1927, the memorial was taking shape and providing an awe- inspiring presence on the ridge. It was staggering in size, with its enormous base and depth and the two vertical shafts reaching to the sky. These pylons, which could be seen from afar, as Allward had planned, attracted much attention. The pylons’ meaning evolved over time, although by the late 1920s Allward had settled on the idea that they represented France and Canada. One suspects that if the monument had been built in Belgium, as initially planned, the pylons would represent something more inclusive than just France.
The long wall facing the Douai Plain, according to Allward, was meant to suggest a bulwark or “a line of defence.” Allward planned for the wall to represent the monument’s impermeability, standing as a symbol of the Canadians who captured and held the ridge — and who hold it still.
Adorning the monument were twenty sculptural figures, standing singularly and in groups. Allward worked on these sculptures for years. They were crucial to his monument as they sanctified and humanized the space. These allegorical figures, some of which were named Truth, Justice, The Defenders, Hope, and Faith, represented idealized visions and were a continuation of his previous sculptural work that had drawn upon classical themes. But these figures, which were situated across the monument and even atop the twin pylons, were in distress. Many were thin, gaunt, and in pain. The monument’s central figure,
THE VIMY MEMORIAL BECAME ALLWARD’S LEGACY PROJECT. NEVER BEFORE OR SINCE HAS CANADA BUILT SUCH A MONUMENT TO ANYTHING IN ITS HISTORY.
Canada Bereft, stands with head bowed, holding wilting lilies, as she weeps for her fallen sons. The sculptures represented suffering in stone.
These figures are important for what they represent, and for what is absent. There are no sculptures to Canada’s martial strength. Instead, there are figures breaking the sword and even holding high the torch of remembrance, clearly influenced by the worldwide success of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” Allward’s monument was a site to peace, not victory, an homage to grief and death, not triumph and conquest, and, with the engraved names, always a call to remembrance.
Again, absence is importance. The memorial was not a signpost to the “birth of the nation.” This is important to note, if only because when King Edward VIII unveiled the monument on July 26, 1936, he spoke of how the Vimy Memorial represented a coming of age event for Canadians. Subsequent generations built on this narrative, as Canadians constructed and reconstructed Vimy’s meaning over time, often ascribing to it a nation-building narra-
tive. However, Allward’s monument was conceived in death and remained a site of mourning for Canada’s fallen.
The Vimy Memorial became Allward’s legacy project. Never before or since has Canada built such a monument to anything in its history. The monument was so large and powerful that it seemed almost un-Canadian. Some found the monument ostentatious, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King. But most critics — and, one suspects, most Canadians — applauded Allward’s grand vision. Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson, a frequent commentator on art and culture in Canada, described the memorial as “beyond and above anything that the framers of the competition conceived of.” It was monumental in size and grandeur. There would never be another like it.
When his work was finished, Allward returned to Canada in 1937. By this time, the country had moved on. He had been away for the better part of two decades, and, while he received honorary awards and was made a fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, he remained an artist in a land that rarely celebrated its own cultural leaders. While he secured a contract to produce a memorial statue of William Lyon Mackenzie, which he unveiled in 1940 to much praise at Queen’s Park in Toronto, there were no other commissions after it.
Allward passed away on April 24, 1955, at the age of seventy-eight. There was a brief outpouring of accolades in obituaries, but he was soon forgotten. The monument, too, was little visited by Canadians in the decades after the Second World War. It was too far away and international travel was too expensive. And perhaps few cared about the Great War, superseded as it was by the necessary war against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, and later by the search for peace during the Cold War under the ever-present spectre of nuclear Armageddon.
The Vimy Memorial would have to wait for another generation of Canadians to return to it, starting in the late 1990s, as well as a major refurbishment from 2002 to 2005. Since then, Canadians have visited the memorial in large numbers, especially on the ninetieth anniversary of Vimy, in 2007, and this year, 2017, for the one hundredth anniversary. Allward was also restored from the dustbin of history; in 2002, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated him a “person of national significance,” with a plaque erected at his Bell Memorial in Brantford.
Allward created a stunning work of art that gave meaning to a generation dealing with the tremendous wartime legacy of shock and pain. His monument anchored the Vimy legend, which, over time, became an important signpost in Canadian history, representing the capture of a nearly impregnable ridge by Canadians from across the country in a time of great upheaval. Some even claimed that Vimy marked the birth of the nation. While assertions like that are contested, the monument remains an anchor of remembrance for Canadians who have struggled to make sense of the war.
To visit Vimy is to bear witness to the agonizing losses of Canada’s war. It is a site of great beauty and sorrow that also stirs pride and patriotism. This monument on a foreign field of battle is a powerful Canadian symbol. While not all find meaning in its ramparts and sculptures, Allward created a unique memorial for the living and the dead. The ghosts of Vimy continue to haunt that ridge, upon which a monument stands for a country forever shaped by the Great War.
Opposite page: Sculptor and architect Walter Allward, creator of the Vimy monument.
Left: Allward’s conceptual drawing for the Vimy monument.
Below: Three conceptual drawings showing other competing designs for the monument.
Above: Stone carvers work on the monument’s allegorical figures. Opposite page: Canadian students at Vimy Ridge in 2013.
Above left: The monument at Vimy Ridge under construction. Above right: An inscription on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
Thousands of people inspect the Vimy monument following its unveiling in 1936.