Friday 10 April 2015

The Vimy Memorial

The approach to Hill 145 - the principal objective
of the Canadian 4th Division.

Long before the War ended memorials to those killed were being erected across France and Belgium by members of their battalion. Memorial services were held frequently across the front, and monuments, many just simple crosses, were raised in memory of their comrades.  

“On February 19th I held the dedication service at the unveiling of the artillery monument at Les Tilleuls. Owing to its exposed position no concourse of men was allowed, but there was a large gathering of the Staff, including the Army Commander, and of course a number of officers from the artillery. The lines of the monument are very severe. A plain white cross surmounts a large mass of solid masonry on which is the tablet, which General Currie unveiled. It stands in a commanding position on Vimy Ridge, and can be seen for miles around.” Canon Frederick George Scott, 1922

But these battlefield monuments, often simple oblesks, were modest commemorations of those killed from those who fought with them and they lacked the symbolism inherent in the memorials that would be raised after the war. To bring meaning to the four year conflict post-war monuments portrayed the war as a great victory, a triumph “for civilization, humanity, or ideals like liberty, truth, justice, honour, mercy or freedom.” 

Bronze statues of winged victory or rejoicing soldiers, arms held aloft, were the dominant image. And the 60,000 Canadian dead did not lose their lives, but “gave” them for the same ideals: “Not Dead, oh no! But borne beyond the shadows into the full clear light” the epitaphs read. This concept of resurrection was central in helping Canadians deal with the magnitude of the war and those killed - in giving their lives for such high principles, their sons, husbands and brothers were guaranteed eternal life. As such, memorials were not designed to mourn their loss, but to celebrate a great victory and rejoice in their sacrifice.

The commanding nights of Hill 145 overlooking
the Douai Plain - the slag heaps of Lens in the distance. 

While communities across Canada erected memorials at their own expense, it fell to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission, established in September 1920, to oversee Canada’s commemorative presence in Belgium and France. The Commission planned on building a memorial on eight sites granted to them by the Imperial War Graves Commission, each of which represented a significant Canadian engagement during the War: St. Julien, Passchendaele Crest Farm, Hill 62 Observatory Ridge, Courcellete, Le Quesnel, Dury Mill, Vimy, and Bourlon Wood. 

Initially, the commission envisioned eight memorials of similar design that would be selected in a national competition. But one submission was viewed by the jury which presided over the competition as “so striking and original” that the Commission changed its plan and recommended having one preeminent national memorial - the monument designed by Toronto sculptor, Walter Allward.

The original design concept - eventually
select for six sites, including this one
st Passchendaele.
While General Currie, in his submission to the Commission, suggested that all eight sites be accorded the same status - that no single battle represented by the eight was more important, he did concede that if the Commission favoured one site then it should be at Vimy; although he was careful to explain that he did “not think it was the most outstanding battle, or had the greatest material or moral effect in winning the war”. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1922, Hill 145, the highest location on Vimy Ridge, was recommended as the site for this memorial: “from thence you can see Lens. . . You can see a very long distance. I believe you can see Bourlon Wood, and you might even look down on Cambrai itself.”
The second place design now stands in
St. Julien, honouring the Canadians who
were killed in the Second battle of Ypres.

After the unveiling ceremony of the second place design at St. Julien in July 1923, the jury decided that it too would not be replicated at the remaining six sites, so moved were they by Frederick Chapman Clemesha’s memorial, The Brooding Soldier. Hence, the memorials at the remaining six sites were marked by a 13 tonne block of Stanstead granite from Quebec, mounted on a raised platform of flagstones, set in a garden with pathways, shrubs, flowers and trees.

The Vimy Memorial is unquestionably unique among the memorials that crowd the Western Front, both as a work of art and as an engineering marvel. The monument covers more than 2000 square metres of land, 15,000 tonnes of concrete and reinforcing steel, set on a foundation of bedrock 13 metres below grade. His ideal was that the monument could endure “in an exposed position for a thousand years”; although in its design and construction Allward failed to appreciate something that would have been all too familiar to the men who fought around Arras during the war, the debilitating effect of the region’s seasonal rains. 

The Vimy Memorial is a brilliant composition - achieving
something much more than being a monument to the
War and a memorial to those killed. 
Seget limestone, from a quarry around Sarajevo that dates back to Roman times, was used as the facing on the monument - the limestone is bonded to concrete and provides a distinct colour, texture and brilliance. And the names of the 11,300 men who were missing in France are engraved across the base of the monument; unlike other memorials, however, these names run across the wall, across the ortar joints - Allward’s vision was that the monument be homogenous, that is, to be seen as one massive piece of stone. 

Allward’s memorial is an allegorical masterpiece, extreme in its symbolism, and captures all of the imagery that was important in the immediate post war period. It commands the heights of Vimy Ridge, the two central pilons, representing France and Canada, rise 30 metres over the memorial, separated at their base by the Spirit of Sacrifice who “giving all, throws the torch to his comrades”. The twenty statues that adorn the monument depict the end of hostilities, victory for civilization and protection of the weak and helpless, mourning the fallen, and symbols for what they fought for: faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. And then there is the solitary figure of the Spirit of Canada, “brooding over the souls of her valiant dead”, and looking down on the Sarcophogus, “a resting place for the soldiers who did not come home.”

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The uniqueness of  Vimy is that it is more than a memorial to the missing and killed in France. At Thiepval and the Menin Gate the names are the memorial and eyes scan them, stopping occasionally to teflect on three or four that share a common last name from the same battalion. At Vimy, you are drawn to different elemnts of the monument; the statues of  the weak and the helpless, the Spirit of Canada the view of Lens with the slag heaps in the distance, the massive columns, and the vertical drop of the front wall that blends in to the slope and declines towards the Douai plain. The names engraved on the wall are just one more element in a massive work of art. The Vimy memorial is a brilliant composition - it achieves its objective of being something much more than a monument to the war and a memorial for those who were killed.

After the war, visiting the battlefields of Belgium and France was quickly painted as a pilgrimage, invoking what had become the “language of sacrifice”, conjuring up a religious mission to “the new Holy Land” that distinguished it from battlefield tourism. The year after the war ended more than 60,000 people made the trek to these battlefields, a number that would double within ten years.

While individual Canadians joined in this pilgrimage almost as soon as the war ended, the unveiling of Allward’s memorial at Vimy Ridge in 1936 became a national pilgrimage, the largest pilgrimage from a single Dominion, attended by close by more than 50,000 people, 6000 of whom made the journey from Canada.

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