Ghosts of Vimy


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Tim Cook and Kate Jaimet.

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.


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,


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.

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