My apologies. This post was supposed to have been published on 17 April, but I ran into some weird technical issues with WordPress which I hope have been corrected. Apparently the weirdness has continued and although I re-published this post on 20 April, it seems like I need to publish again.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge evokes the image of national unity and achievement and has propelled the battle to national significance for Canada. The idea that Canada’s identity and nationhood were born out of the battle is an opinion that is widely held among military and general historians throughout Canada.
In this post, I want to visit the Canadian National Vimy Memorial; certainly the most dramatic memorial to the Canadian military in Europe. I have had the privilege of visiting the Vimy Memorial several times, including for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the memorial. This place has never failed to inspire me and to make me proud of my Canadian heritage. A pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge should be on every Canadian’s bucket list.
The Vimy Memorial overlooks the Douai Plain from the highest point of Vimy Ridge. From this vantage point you have an unobstructed view for several kilometres in all directions.
By treaty in 1920, 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 so doing, France recognized the significance to Canada of Vimy Ridge, both in recognition of the victory in 1917, but also in the foundation of the Canadian identity that rose from the battle. This agreement between France and Canada allowed for its perpetual use with the understanding that Canada use the land to establish a battlefield park and memorial.
As well as the Monument, there is a Parks Canada interpretive centre and some of the landscape features have been retained. During the construction of the monument, Major Unwin Simson, a Canadian Military Engineer working on the site, noticed that many of these landscape features were degrading rapidly. To keep his workers employed, he directed them to reconstruct some of the trenches and subway tunnels to preserve them. Much of the 100 hectares are not accessible because of unexploded shells and bombs; sheep and goats now tend to the grass.
For a very moving tour of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, I suggest you join David Raetson for a visit. While watching this video, imagine the pock-marked ground stripped of the grass and trees that now cover the mud and blood soaked terrain of this place.
For a very moving tour of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, I suggest you join David Raetson for a visit. While watching this video, try to imagine the pock-marked ground stripped of the grass and trees that now cover it. Imagine the mud and the blood soaked terrain of this place as it would have been in 1917.
A competition for the design and construction of the monument was conducted in 1920. Walter Seymour Allward’s design was eventually selected. Allward, a Toronto sculptor and designer, stated that the monument was inspired by a wartime dream that he had never forgotten. The monument was never intended to glorify war or to speak to the greatness of the victory. It successfully symbolizes loss and mourning.
The twin towers of the monument rise 30 metres above the memorial’s stone platform. One bears the maple leaf for Canada and the other the fleur-de-lis for France and symbolize the unity and sacrifice of the two nations. Twenty figures representing faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge, and hope adorn the monument. Construction on the monument began in 1925 and took eleven years to complete. Allward actually moved to Europe to set up studios to oversee the construction. For a full description of Walter Seymour Allward and the symbolic nature of the figures, I would suggest you visit the article at the Canadian War Museum.
In a key figure, Canada Mourning her Fallen Sons or better known as Canada Bereft, a young woman stands between the two towers. Her head bowed, her eyes cast down towards a sarcophagus on the ground. This poignant creation speaks to Canada’s wartime losses and suffering. One can see her asking the simple question: “Why?”
Inscribed on the walls of the monument are the names of 11,285 Canadians who were killed on French soil and have no known graves.
Dedication and Pilgrimage
At Vimy Ridge, Canadians suffered significant death and destruction through four days of withering conflict, yet it was also the place where Canada is believed to had come of age. In 1928, Canadian Legion delegates to the national convention, passed a unanimous resolution calling for a pilgrimage to be organized to the Western Front battlefields. It was decided that the pilgrimage would coincide with the dedication of the memorial.
The Vimy Memorial was unveiled in July 1936 by King Edward VIII, in his first official engagement following the death of his father, George V. A crowd of more than 100,000 gathered for the event. Included in these numbers were 6,200 Canadian veterans from the battle. These veterans, echoing the reality of the soldiers who fought the battle, came from every corner of Canada and represented every ethnic background that made up the Canadian landscape. If you look closely, you may be able to see my grandfather in the mix.
In Canada, memories of the war and what our soldiers did at Vimy, at Passchendaele, at Hill 70 and other battles has faded and is, at best, discussed occasionally in classrooms. In France, the sacrifices made by men and women who answered the call from so far away have not forgotten. The French live in the shadows of the cemeteries and memorials dedicated to the soldiers who travelled from so far away to protect them. When I attended the Centennial of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I visited the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Givenchy is just below the ridge and from almost every corner of the village, the monument is visible.
The Memorial in World War 2
In what I can only describe as one of the more bizarre incidents of the Second World War, the Vimy Memorial continued to draw new admirers.
Nazi Germany took control of the site during their blitzkrieg offensive. Rumours of the destruction of the Vimy Memorial circulated widely in Canada and the UK. Those rumours prompted Adolph Hitler to visit the Memorial on 2 June 1940 to demonstrate that it had not been desecrated. Apparently, he admired the memorial for its peaceful nature and was photographed while touring it. He then assigned special troops from the Waffen-SS to guard Vimy Ridge. Their orders were to protect it, not only from Allied armies, but also from regular Wehrmacht soldiers who might want to deface it. No one would defy the SS.
Ironically, during the Great War, Hitler, as a corporal, had been transferred out of the Vimy area just weeks prior to the battle.
Honour the Fallen; Help the Living