Re­mem­brance Day cov­er­age


The speeches were done, the dig­ni­taries gone. The ranks of sol­diers had marched away. Now sculp­tor Mary-Ann Liu had one fi­nal task at Canada’s Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier. It was nearly 6 p.m. on Sun­day, May 28, 2000, six hours af­ter the solemn cer­e­mony had be­gun. An enor­mous crane lifted the gran­ite lid over top the open tomb.

Liu, the win­ner of a na­tional com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the tomb, and Mau­rice Joanisse, the Do­min­ion Sculp­tor who cre­ated the gran­ite sar­coph­a­gus to Liu’s de­sign, spread a thick layer of epoxy resin to per­ma­nently fix the cover in place.

Liu ex­pected the work party to be alone for this fi­nal, in­ti­mate act, but hun­dreds of spec­ta­tors still pressed against the bar­ri­ers sur­round­ing Ot­tawa’s Na­tional War Memo­rial as the crane swung the lid into place. The un­named First World War sol­dier would not be alone when his tomb was sealed.

What hap­pened next caught Liu off-guard.

“When the bar­ri­ers came down peo­ple just flooded in,” she said in a phone call from her Van­cou­ver stu­dio.

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing that. It re­ally struck home what sac­ri­fices meant. Peo­ple were kneel­ing and kiss­ing the bronze and touch­ing it. I was re­ally, re­ally floored by it. It was a very touch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

What be­gan spon­ta­neously that spring evening has car­ried on ever since, a rit­ual of Canada Day and Re­mem­brance Day when the Un­known Sol­dier — Le Sol­dat In­connu — is cov­ered in a man­tle of crim­son pop­pies or Cana­dian flags. Peo­ple place let­ters and pho­to­graphs on the tomb, and, at least once, a real of­fi­cer’s cer­e­mo­nial sword.

Cpl. Nathan Cir­illo, who was born more than 70 years af­ter the First World War ended, lit­er­ally gave his life while guard­ing the tomb, draw­ing his fi­nal breath as he lay at the Un­known Sol­dier’s feet af­ter a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

The tomb has be­come so cen­tral to Cana­di­ans’ re­mem­brance, it has in many ways sur­passed the Na­tional War Memo­rial that soars over it as this coun­try’s ul­ti­mate sym­bol of war and sac­ri­fice. Serge Dur­flinger, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa who spe­cial­izes in Canada’s mil­i­tary his­tory and the me­mo­ri­al­iza­tion of vet­er­ans, is among the thou­sands and thou­sands who have placed their pop­pies upon the tomb.

“It was like an in­stant tra­di­tion. I see it ev­ery year. I take part in it ev­ery year on Re­mem­brance Day,” Dur­flinger said.

“The memo­rial it­self is a won­der­ful evo­ca­tion, but you can’t re­ally en­gage in it. You can only look at it and ad­mire it. But with the tomb, it’s in­ter­ac­tive. You be­come part of the cer­e­mony it­self.”

That rev­er­ence — the lay­ing on of hands to the tomb — is part of a resur­gence in Cana­di­ans’ in­ter­est in the mil­i­tary and mil­i­tary his­tory. In the years af­ter the Viet­nam War, Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies were sparsely at­tended. The Cana­dian mil­i­tary was rocked by scan­dals, like the shame­ful beat­ing death of a young So­mali teen at the hands of a Cana­dian sol­dier. Cana­di­ans’ in­ter­est in the coun­try’s mil­i­tary past waned.

That be­gan to change in 1995, when Cana­dian vet­er­ans re­turned to Eu­rope for the 50th an­niver­sary of the end of the Sec­ond World War, said his­to­rian Tim Cook of the Cana­dian War Mu­seum.

“A lot of peo­ple at­tribute that resur­gence to the war in Afghanistan, but I don’t think that’s right,” Cook said. “In 1995, thou­sands upon thou­sands of vet­er­ans went back to Eu­rope. They were treated as lib­er­a­tors again by the Dutch.

“Then, five years later the Un­known Sol­dier re­turns and there is the very pow­er­ful act of re­claim­ing one of our own. That spon­ta­neous act of per­sonal com­mem­o­ra­tion, it isn’t scripted. It’s not be­ing forced on us by gov­ern­ment. It’s that per­sonal act that is so pow­er­ful.”

Canada’s last First World War vet­eran, John Bab­cock, died in 2010. The chil­dren of Great War vet­er­ans them­selves are in their 80s and 90s. How will we re­mem­ber the First World War once this year’s cen­te­nary of the Nov. 11, 1918 Ar­mistice has passed?

It re­ally struck home what sac­ri­fices meant. Peo­ple were kneel­ing and kiss­ing the bronze and touch­ing it.

“Think about Vimy,” Cook said. “There were 25,000 Cana­di­ans there last year for the 100th an­niver­sary. This year, there was al­most no cov­er­age for the 101st.”

Yet as the First World War fades deeper into his­tory, the Tomb of the Un­known sol­dier will re­main, an im­mutable stone and bronze trib­ute to Canada’s war dead.

More than 600,000 Cana­di­ans fought in the 1914-18 “war to end all wars” and 59,544 would die. The war would kill an­other 1,305 from New­found­land, then still a Bri­tish colony. All but a hand­ful of those dead are buried near the bat­tle­fields where they died, mowed down by ma­chine-guns, as­phyx­i­ated by gas, ripped to pieces by ex­plod­ing shells and shrap­nel or sim­ply suc­cumb­ing to dis­ease in the filth and mud of trench war­fare.

It was the task of the Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion (re­named the Com­mon­wealth War Graves Com­mis­sion in 1960) to record the seem­ingly end­less rolls of the dead, iden­tify the bod­ies as best they could and mark their graves.

In pre­vi­ous wars, the bod­ies of foot sol­diers usu­ally ended up in a mass grave be­neath some suit­ably grand war memo­rial. Wealthy fam­i­lies, how­ever, were of­ten able to bring the bod­ies of their sons or broth­ers, who were usu­ally se­nior of­fi­cers, home for burial in the fam­ily plot.

The war graves com­mis­sion was de­ter­mined not to let that hap­pen. The com­mis­sion grew from work its founder, Fabian Ware, be­gan in the first weeks of the war along­side other up­per-crust vol­un­teers with the Bri­tish Red Cross’s mo­bile am­bu­lance unit. Ware was a 45-year-old for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor who was a staunch be­liever in the Bri­tish Empire. But he was also a re­former who be­lieved in equal­ity and so­cial jus­tice.

Those be­liefs would lead to one of the most mov­ing as­pects of Com­mon­wealth war graves: the row upon row of iden­ti­cal grey gran­ite head­stones, with the bod­ies of gen­er­als ly­ing shoul­der to shoul­der with pri­vates — the commanders and the com­manded — equal in death.

Track­ing the dead be­came a nearly im­pos­si­ble task as the slaugh­ter in­creased and the war bogged down into the stale­mate of trench war­fare.

“Hu­man re­mains in vary­ing de­grees of dis­in­te­gra­tion lit­tered the land­scape,” Cook writes in his 2018 book, The Se­cret His­tory of Sol­diers. “Shell­fire dis­mem­bered men, while those killed in No Man’s Land were of­ten lost in the shell craters and slowly rot­ted away.”

At war’s end, the war graves com­mis­sion be­gan the grim job of comb­ing through the bat­tle­fields and con­sol­i­dat­ing the Empire’s graves.

Cana­dian sol­diers wore twin iden­tity discs made of fi­bre that could be sep­a­rated, with one part left with the body and the other turned in to of­fi­cially reg­is­ter the death. But of­ten there was lit­tle left to iden­tify a man va­por­ized by an ex­plod­ing shell or a grave site churned over and over as the fight­ing see-sawed back and forth across the dev­as­tated land­scape.

Of Canada’s 60,000 First World War dead, 19,660 have no known graves.

The de­ci­sion to bury sol­diers near bat­tle­fields was con­tro­ver­sial. The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment al­lowed fam­i­lies the choice of bring­ing their dead home, al­though Dur­flinger notes the re­sult was of­ten a “catas­tro­phe of lo­gis­tics,” with re­mains ar­riv­ing State­side with no one re­ally cer­tain whose body was in­side the cof­fin.

“It was that Amer­i­can idea of pri­vate prop­erty. There was no sense of a col­lec­tive ideal,” he said. “But in Bri­tain there was this tra­di­tion of Empire where you would give up your son and you might never see them again.”

Nev­er­the­less, the pol­icy of not repa­tri­at­ing war dead was crit­i­cized, even though for many Bri­tons, the war ceme­ter­ies were still within reach. The ceme­tery at Wimereux, France, for ex­am­ple, is less than 50 kilo­me­tres across the English Chan­nel from Dover.

But what of Cana­dian fam­i­lies far across the At­lantic Ocean? Should they not have had the right to have their loved ones brought home?

In her his­tory the­sis on Canada’s re­la­tion­ship with the CWGC, Univer­sity of Ot­tawa stu­dent Karine Landry cites a 1919 let­ter from On­tario MPP Thomas Pre­ston to his Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment:

“Those Cana­di­ans who, like my­self, have given their sons for Coun­try’s sake ought not to be asked to make the ad­di­tional sac­ri­fice of hav­ing the re­mains of their loved ones left on for­eign soil,” Pre­ston wrote.

Some fam­i­lies were so be­reaved they tried to bring the re­mains of dead sol­diers home on their own, de­spite the strict ban on ex­huma­tions. Most at­tempts failed. In 1921, the fam­ily of Pvt. Grenville Car­son Hop­kins of the Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry man­aged to dig up his body from Tyne Cot Ceme­tery near Ypres, Bel­gium, and smug­gled it out in a suit­case. Au­thor­i­ties even­tu­ally found Car­son’s re­mains stored in a mor­tu­ary in Bel­gium and had them re­buried.

But a hand­ful of other fam­i­lies were suc­cess­ful. One of them, Maj. Charles Sut­cliffe, a Cana­dian pi­lot in Bri­tain’s Royal Fly­ing Corp, was brought home in se­cret and is now buried in the fam­ily plot in Lind­say, Ont.

“It’s quite mys­te­ri­ous how they did it,” says Ot­tawa’s Cyn­thia Sut­cliffe, the great-niece of Charles Sut­cliffe, who has done her own re­search on his death.

Charles was the son of wealthy mer­chant Fred­er­ick Sut­cliffe and his wife, Anna. Charles was born in Toronto, but en­listed in Ot­tawa, where one of the fam­ily stores was lo­cated. He served as an army of­fi­cer in the trenches be­fore be­ing sec­onded to the Royal Fly­ing Corps (Canada had no air force at the time), where he trained as a pi­lot.

He dis­ap­peared on June 6, 1917, af­ter fly­ing over Ger­man lines in his Sop­with Scout bi­plane. A few days later, his war records note that a Ger­man plane dropped a note over the al­lied lines say­ing that he had been cap­tured and “lightly wounded.” That line was later scratched out and a note that he was dead pen­cilled in with­out elab­o­ra­tion.

“My the­ory is that the Ger­mans in­ter­ro­gated him, then shot him,” Cyn­thia Sut­cliffe said.

The Sut­cliffes never re­cov­ered from their grief. In 1919, Fred­er­ick and Anna vis­ited the church­yard crypt where he had been buried by his Ger­man cap­tors “with full hon­ours.” Six years later, Fred­er­ick re­turned to France, and with the help of a mys­te­ri­ous man named “Mr. Pitts,” had his son’s body ex­humed and shipped to New York.

It’s be­lieved the fam­ily con­vinced of­fi­cials that Charles Sut­cliffe was an Amer­i­can and could be repa­tri­ated.

“I guess my great-grand­fa­ther knew the right peo­ple and had the fi­nan­cial re­sources to bring him back,” Cyn­thia Sut­cliffe said.

“My great-grand­mother was ap­par­ently ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated. She never re­cov­ered from the loss. For her, that he was brought home prob­a­bly made her feel bet­ter. And as a mother, I would have wanted him home too.

“It prob­a­bly wasn’t right. He prob­a­bly should have been buried with the peo­ple he served with ... but at least they had clo­sure.”

There would be no clo­sure for tens of thou­sands of other Cana­dian fam­i­lies. Though Bri­tain in­terred its own Un­known War­rior with great cer­e­mony in West­min­ster Abbey in 1920 — a sol­dier who was meant to rep­re­sent all of the Empire’s dead — Cana­di­ans would have to wait an­other 80 years to wel­come home their own Un­known.

The idea of a Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier in Canada had been around al­most since the 1918 ar­mistice, but it wasn’t un­til the mid1990s that the idea gained trac­tion. In 1993, Aus­tralia had buried an Un­known in its cap­i­tal, Can­berra, leav­ing Canada as the last of the great First World War na­tions with­out an Un­known Sol­dier.

Cu­ri­ously, the first pro­posal came from a pair of Que­be­cers who saw the project as a way to pro­mote na­tional unity in the wake of col­lapsed con­sti­tu­tional talks and a loom­ing Que­bec ref­er­en­dum. Al­most si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the Royal Cana­dian Le­gion be­gan work­ing on a sim­i­lar plan as a mil­len­nium project.

Those Cana­di­ans who, like my­self, have given their sons … ought not to be asked to make the ad­di­tional sac­ri­fice of hav­ing the re­mains of their loved ones left on for­eign soil.


Ev­ery Re­mem­brance Day, vis­i­tors cover the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier at the Na­tional War Memo­rial with a man­tle of crim­son pop­pies.


Crowds gather to place their pop­pies on the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier at a Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­mony at the Na­tional War Memo­rial.


“Think about Vimy,” says mil­i­tary his­to­rian Tim Cook. “There were 25,000 Cana­di­ans there last year for the 100th an­niver­sary. This year, there was al­most no cov­er­age for the 101st.”

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