Like Britain and the other Empire nations, Canada sought, in the aftermath of the war, some form of method of commemorating her dead. Individual towns began to erect their own local memorials but what of the Nation ?
In 1919 the Canadian government appointed Brigadier Henry Hughes to oversee the possibilities of obtaining suitable ground in France and Belgium. Having liaised with the Canadian Corps’ former commander, Sir Arthur Currie, Hughes identified eight locations.
The idea was put forward that there would be seven identical memorials and an eighth, central and more imposing — Vimy Ridge’s location and height being suggested as making it ideal.
Sir Arthur thought otherwise, telling the commission :
I do not think it was the most outstanding battle,
or had the greatest material or moral effect on the winning of the war.
Currie felt that all eight should be of a similar design and so a competition was organised in 1921 by the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission to choose a suitable design. It was hoped that all eight would be ready for 11th November 1922 at an estimated cost of Cdn $120,000 each.
The clear winner was Walter Allward whose entry was truly monumental and included twenty allegorical figures surrounding two sky reaching pylons. It’s grandeur made it quite unsuitable for replication so Plan B was created. Frederick Clemsha’s Brooding Soldier which had been the second choice would be used for the other sites.
Having awarded the work to Allward the problem now arose ; where to put it ? The Canadian Corps’ early battles in Flanders had been a rallying call for volunteers to come forward. The Canadians’ stand at St Julien (now Sint Juliaan) during the gas attacks of April 1915 had featured prominently on recruiting posters.
But Flanders is pretty much flat and whilst the Canadians had fought at Hill 62, which was at least a prominent, all be-it low, hill it suffered the reputation of having been a defeat.
Clemsha’s monument was unveiled on 8th July 1923 at St Julien. Thankfully the commission realised that recreating the Brooding Soldier would diminish its impact and settled on Plan C, the other monuments would be simple blocks of Canadian granite and it is those that you can see at the other memorial sites — with the exception of the privately funded Hill 70 obelisk inaugurated in 2017.
Things changed in May 1922 when the Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King spoke in favour of Vimy Ridge, suggesting that apart from putting Allward’s monument there, that the ridge itself should be preserved. In that respect he was pretty much onto a winner.
Vimy Ridge had been declared a Zone Rouge by the French which meant that like the battlefields of Verdun it was so smashed and riddled with unexploded shells, barbed wire and other bits of metal that it would never be cultivated and was good for little more than growing trees. When the Canadians proposed clearing it and then turning much of it into a memorial park the French promptly offered them 100 hectares free of charge.
And so the laborious task of clearing the ridge fell to Canada. At the beginning there weren’t even any roads to speak of. Everything had to be created from scratch.
Allward was born in Toronto in 1875 and stated that he had found himself inspired by a dream in which he had seen legions of dead rising up and coming to the aid of the living. Many of those dead and thousands of shells would hold up work on the Vimy site as a suitable road was driven through the Canadian owned land (it may be owned by Canada but be aware that it is still on French soil).
Allward went over every square metre of the ridge and decided upon its highest point as being the most suitable location, looking out across the Douai plain. The area was levelled and the area in front dug-out and cleared to create the expanse of grass that we see today as we look out from the terrace. That required the removal of about 65,000 tonnes of chalk and soil.
Allward may well have had his vision but he still had no idea what he was going to use to create it. Throughout 1923 and 1924 he searched in vain for a stone that would not only convey the qualities he sought but would also withstand the changeable northern French climate.
Whilst Allward searched quarries across the globe the work began of constructing the foundations. A job that required laying 15,000 tonnes of reinforced concrete.
On your way up to the memorial site from Neuville St Vaast you pass the home of François Hennebique at 64 rue du Canada, who was one of the very first engineers to use reinforced concrete. An all concrete US Navy WW2 ship was named after him.
In 1926 a quarry near Split, Croatia (Yugoslavia at the time) came to Allward’s attention. Its Seget limestone had been used to build the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (244-312) in the town (which was used as a location in Season Four of : Game of Thrones).
The problem being that the quarry had been closed for centuries so nobody knew if there would be enough high-class stone for the task which required more than six thousand tonnes of material including pieces large enough to create the figures. The imposing figure of Canada Bereft is the largest ; a single four metre, thirty tonne piece of stone.
Time rolled on and the costs mounted, reaching a final figure of about Cdn $1,500,000. Allward was under constant pressure to expedite the work. Possible dates for an unveiling ceremony were guessed at by the press — all proved wrong.
By 1927 the blocks had arrived in France and the cladding and carving process began. Allward himself didn’t work on the monument but provided half sized, detailed plaster casts to act as guides for the master stonemasons who carried out the work. Make-shift shelters were built around the figures to protect the carvers from the weather. For those at the top of the pylon that ment working 30 metres above the ground !
The cloaked figure overlooking the Douai Plain represents Canada herself, and beneath her lies a symbolic tomb draped in laurel, and bearing a helmet and sword. On the tomb, in Latin, is an inscription reminding the visitor of the thousands of Canadians who crossed the seas and lost their lives on the Continent.
Nineteen years after many of those Canadians had fought their way to the same spot, the monument was inaugurated on 26th July 1936 in the presence of the King, Edward VIII (who made his last public speech before abdicating). Amongst the huge throng watching and listening were over six thousand veterans and their families who had made the Vimy Pilgrimage.
Although he was present, Allward hardly got a mention.
During the Twenties the work of the IWGC (now the CWGC) continued as it prepared the hundreds of cemeteries containing the Empire’s dead but a question was posed : what should be done about all those soldiers who had no known grave, more than half a million of them ?
The answer it was decided was to create a number of memorials to the missing on which would be engraved the names of those who had died but had not been identified.
The Canadian decision was to have its missing commemorated on the Menin Gate for its fallen in Flanders and to use the Vimy Memorial (the construction of which was, as yet, hardly underway) for its missing in France. They wouldn’t actually tell Allward of their decision until 1926 when they asked him to incorporate the names of the 11,285 missing.
It can be imagined how Allward took the announcement. Where could you even start ? Allward’s conception was NOT a memorial to the missing. He abruptly told the Canadian Government that the front wall was out of the question. They told him that the paving stones were likewise out-of-bounds. The two pylons were a possibility Allward suggested, but nobody would be able to read the names. That left what we see today, the stairwells and bands around the rear of the base.
Other memorials to the missing tend to be grouped in columns ; in the order of regimental precedence, rank and finally name. Allward would not hear of such a thing on his monument. The names would be in continuous rows in alphabetical sections and then in rank, name order. Allward created his own font and insisted that the names be continuous, cutting across the seams of block where necessary — creating a mini-nightmare for later generations who had to refurbish the monument.
To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War
and in memory of their sixty thousand dead,
this monument is raised by the people of Canada.
Although the memorial carries the names of 11,285 Canadians who died in France and have no known grave, it was conceived as a memorial to all 66,655 Canadians who died fighting in the fields of France and Belgium.
What does that mean ? Ultimately one of three things. The body was never recovered, because there was nothing left to recover. The body WAS recovered but never identified — a burial marked as Known Unto God in a cemetery. Finally, the body has yet to be discovered. Soldiers’ remains are still being found and identified where possible.
Because of Allward’s insistence of having soldiers grouped by rank and name, finding a soldier can be quite difficult. It is not sufficient to simply look for a letter and work from there. It is also necessary to get the rank correct. Troopers, gunners, sappeurs and privates are all listed separately. Some soldiers will have a number and this is to differentiate between people with the same name and initials — a practice well known to many a soldier called Smith or Brown !
It is worth mentioning here that ALL Canadians who died within the two Départements of the Nord (59) and the Pas de Calais (62) (which obviously includes Vimy) are also inscribed on the Region’s centennial project at Notre Dame de Lorette.
It takes the form of an enormous ring on which are inscribed the names of over half a million soldiers (friend and foe) who died on their territory. I emphasise, just the two areas, NOT the Somme, NOT Belgian Flanders.
All visitors to Vimy Ridge should make the journey to visit Lorette. Apart from it being France’s largest military cemetery from its heights you gain a very good view of Vimy Ridge.
There are three cemeteries on or close to the site :
There are four memorials on or close to the site :