The Redemptive Power of the Vimy Monument
This year marks the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The Canadian National Vimy Monument, constructed in France over a period of 10 years, is a Canadian National Historic Site and the principal memorial in Europe to our country’s contribution to the First World War. Designed in 1921 by the Toronto sculptor, Walter Allward, the monument is a complex creation that befits the magnitude of the battle and the monstrous loss of life.
Adjacent to the pylons stands the figure of Canada Bereft: her head bowed, she is forever mourning her fallen sons and daughters. At the apex of the monument, a single figure raises the Torch of Peace to the heavens. Underscoring the extent of Canada’s total loss in the war, inscribed around the monument’s walls are the names of all the 11, 285 Canadians who lost their lives in France, and who have no known grave because their bodies could not be identified. Courage, sacrifice, loss and obligation are the principal themes of post-First World War commemoration. Today, we assume that these were always present in military commemoration after a war, but such is not the case. In fact, incorporating these elements into the monument was in marked contrast to nineteenth-century forms of military commemoration, which honoured political and military leaders, commonly ignoring the sacrifices of the ordinary soldier. By contrast, post-First World War commemoration was inspired by the sorrow of those left behind to grieve, and a sense of obligation to honour the memory of each dead soldier.
The Vimy Memorial expresses these modern sensibilities, while its beauty evokes the promise of harmony and peace. When Allward was asked to explain its meaning, he replied that inspiration had come to him in a dream.
When things were at their blackest in France during the war, I went to sleep one night…. My spirit was like a thing tormented. So I dreamed. In my dream I was on a great battlefield. I saw our men going by in thousands, and being mowed down by the sickles of death…. Suffering beyond endurance at the sight, I turned my eyes and found myself looking down an avenue of poplars. Suddenly, through this avenue I saw thousands marching to the aid of our armies. They were the dead. They rose in masses, filed silently by and entered the fight, to aid the living…. I have tried to show… in this monument to Canada’s fallen, what we owed them and will forever owe them.
Allward’s dream echoed another theme that emerged during the war years, when the landscape of the Western Front had come to be seen as sacred ground, sanctified by the sacrifice of those who had died on the battlefield. In 1922 Prime Minister Mackenzie King showed a similar sensibility to the war-torn landscape, when he suggested to Parliament the need for a memorial. In turn, the Government of Canada requested the Government of France to reserve a part of Vimy Ridge “as consecrated hallowed ground… on which Canadians sacrificed for the cause of humanity.” This, too, was a departure from traditional practice, which was to return a European battlefield to its pre-war condition. The transcendental quality that attached to the Western Front inspired many artists, but after the war there was no modern precedent in Europe for preserving an actual battle site as a means of commemorating the war dead.
The element of transcendence clearly affected Allward who revealed that the monument’s design was intended to evoke a spiritual sanctuary.
The two pylons were an endeavor to create an outline against the sky that…would suggest the upper part of a cross. In the afternoon when a shaft of sunlight will break through the space between the pylons, and illuminating part of the sculptures, [it] will suggest a cathedral effect.
Allward’s words suggest that he conceived the Vimy Monument as a theatrical stage depicting the chancel of a cathedral, whose figures are bathed in a spiritual light. His design was almost certainly developed in the artistic milieu of the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, where Allward was a founding member in 1908, along with painters from the future Group of Seven, and Roy Mitchell, the leading Canadian exponent of modern theatre.
It is possible to see parallels between the Vimy Monument’s intensely expressive figure style and the Group of Seven’s simple yet dynamic forms that “transfigured the northern landscape into a transcendent, spiritual force.” A strong affinity can also be seen between the monument’s bold monochromatic form in the landscape and the radically stylized designs of Lawren Harris’s Lake Superior paintings. This spiritual sensibility was also a distinguishing feature of Roy Mitchell’s theatrical productions. Mitchell, who was a follower of the visionary British stage designer, Edward Gordon Craig, believed that all theatre had its origin in religious ritual. Under Gordon Craig’s influence, Mitchell stripped away the surface realism of nineteenth century theatre in order to capture the essential aspects of life. When the time came to construct the monument, Allward proved to have exacting standards coupled with a strong will to ensure the success of his work. Completion took 10 years, with much of the delay attributable to Allward’s insistence on the use of a high-quality facing stone. The limestone he eventually selected came from an ancient Roman quarry near the Dalmatian coast, in present day Croatia. However, the first stones did not arrive at the site until June, 1927.
Once the right stone had been identified, Allward began work on the figures for the monument. These were first modeled in clay, in half-size. His live model for the figure of Canada Bereft was a young woman named Edna Moynihan. Several years later, she recalled that Allward measured her with calipers, explaining that he wanted to design a stone figure with shoulders wide enough to carry the sorrow she felt for her dead children.
Meanwhile, the names of the missing Canadians had been compiled and the threeyear task of etching them into the stone walls was nearing completion. Sadly, at the moment when everything was drawing to successful completion, Allward’s son Donald, who had been living in France and working for his father on the monument, died suddenly. In the wake of his death, Allward and his wife Margaret joined the legions of grieving Canadian parents. When the monument was finally unveiled on July 26, 1936, eight thousand Canadians crossed the Atlantic Ocean to take part in the unveiling ceremony, which was performed by King Edward VIII. Many of those in attendance had fought in the war, and half of the mourners were bereaved relatives burdened by the loss of a husband, brother, son or daughter. After the ceremony, the pilgrims streamed over and around Canada’s first national monument, designed to honour the regular soldier as a hero. In the process, participants became actively engaged in the monument’s mise-enscène. Climbing the stairs to its terrace, they experienced, however briefly, the redemptive power of beauty and nature.
On April 9, 2017, twenty-five thousand people gathered before the Vimy Monument to commemorate the battle and participate in a ceremony of remembrance. From the monument’s terrace, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the courage and sacrifice of the Canadians who had captured the ridge during those bloody days in April 1917. He spoke of the country’s important role in the war as an inaugural affirmation of its nationhood. In concluding, the Prime Minister emphasized our obligation never to forget the impact of war.
Following the centennial ceremony of remembrance, Canadians once more searched for ancestral names on the monument’s walls and mounted the steps to its terrace to experience how it felt to be part of Walter Allward’s masterpiece. Perhaps unknowingly, they were also responding to an insight of the art critic, John Berger, who observed that the First World War memorials will always demand our active engagement, if we are to remember the enormous impact of all wars—the sacrifice they demand and the suffering they leave in their wake.
Walter Allward certainly understood that, in times of crisis, it falls to the artist to make horrific events comprehensible. His monument continues to invite our engagement, and its language of courage, noble sacrifice, loss and obligation remains as powerful today as it was one hundred years ago.
Jacqueline Hucker is an architectural historian and joint author of A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles. From 2004 to 2007 she served as the historian on the international conservation team responsible for the restoration of Canada’s National Memorial on Vimy Ridge in France.