Each Sunday we will share a story of Remembrance. Part IV – Building The Vimy Memorial
With the arrival of the first shipments of Seget limestone in France, sculpting could finally begin for the Vimy Memorial in 1927. The blocks were first cut to size in work shops on the ground before being hoisted into position; the figures of the memorial were only sculpted once set in place atop the memorial. This required the construction of extensive studios, encircling the memorial’s two pylons and suspended nearly 200 feet in the air. A pantograph was used by the sculptors to reproduce Allward’s plaster models to scale.
Due to the difficulty of quarrying such large slabs of stone, as well as its extensive shipping route, the first shipment of Allward’s selected Seget limestone did not arrive in France until 1927. In an effort to keep his workers busy, many of whom were French and British veterans, Canadian military engineer Major Unwin Simson decided to preserve a section of trench lines that had been slowly deteriorating since 1918. Workers reinforced the German and Canadian lines near the Grange crater group by filling sandbags with concrete and re-lining the dugout walls. A portion of the Grange Subway was also excavated, a concrete entrance poured, and electrical lighting installed. The opportunity to experience these preserved trenches and tunnel systems at the Vimy Memorial today can be largely attributed to Major Simson’s efforts.
The competition process for Canada’s First World War memorials was overseen by the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission. In total, 160 drawings were submitted, of which 17 were chosen for further consideration. Despite his design being chosen in 1921, at the time, Walter Allward had not yet even decided which stone he wished to use for the memorial. Upon receiving the Commission’s approval, Allward embarked on a two year journey to find the preferred stone. In an old Roman quarry of Yugoslavia, Allward found the Seget limestone he desired. Six thousand tons of it would travel by water to Venice, where it was then shipped by rail to the site in France. The Canada Bereft figure alone was cut from a single block weighing twenty-eight tons.
Each Sunday we will share a story of Remembrance. This week : Part I – Building the Vimy Memorial
When Will R. Bird visited Vimy Ridge for Maclean’s Magazine in 1932, Walter Allward’s work on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was well underway, having begun in 1925. But progress on the memorial had been slow and tedious, as Allward and his crew faced the same perils Bird had stumbled across during his tour of the trenches.
Littered with unexploded shells and grenades, rusted weapons and wire, 100,000 yards of earth had to be removed by hand to prepare for the monument’s base. Other relics of the war, the dugouts and tunnels, (when discovered), had to be emptied of the explosive munitions that were often stored within, and filled with wet chalk or concrete. Finding these underground caverns hidden beneath the monument’s base was crucial, for in total, the memorial would weigh more than 50,000 tons.
Touring the old battlefields for Maclean’s Magazine in 1932, Bird found the scars of war remained throughout the countryside. Of Vimy, Bird wrote: “the Ridge seemed to me the most isolated ground in France… The hillside in front was scarred with white streaks – old roads and footways that time has not erased. I climbed, slipping and sliding on the wet, greasy soil… On and on and on… in and out of shell holes, skirting the bigger ones, marvelling that such conditions remained… one sees old wire and iron stakes, battered helmets, and old mess-tin covers. Here and there a broken bayonet… Bombs of every kind” (Bird, Thirteen Years After, 107).
And still 13 years after, always more bodies of the dead. “Two boys visited Givenchy Wood last summer, and while playing there found a German and Canadian soldier lying together, their hands locked so tightly that they were buried together as they had died… One, or both, had been badly wounded, and they were trying to help each other when death overtook them. No weapons were there… They had died as comrades” (Bird, Thirteen Years After, 108).
Will R. Bird’s “Thirteen Years After” – In the years immediately following the First World War, acts of honouring the battles and the men who fought quickly declined. In Canada, the economic prosperity of the 1920’s left little time to dwell on the past. But in 1932, one veteran’s tour of the “old” battlefields re-united veterans and brought Great War nostalgia back into mainstream society.
Will R. Bird, M.M. served with the 42nd Canadian Infantry Battalion (The Black Watch) from 1916 – 1919. In 1932, Bird was sent to revisit the battlefields and write articles of reflection for Maclean’s Magazine. Bird’s articles became wildly popular across Canada and helped bring attention to the growing veterans movements. Veterans now in their forties and fifties “were hungry to share their wartime experiences, and Will Bird gave them the chance” (Christie, preface to Thirteen Years After, 2001).
Part II, Will Bird’s tour of the Vimy Ridge battlefield, will be posted next Sunday.
Each Sunday we will share a story of Remembrance connected to Vimy.
Before the Armistice of November 11, 1918, Remembrance ceremonies in Canada were held annually on February 27, “Paardeberg Day”, to commemorate a significant Canadian victory of the Second South African War of 1899 – 1902 and its veterans. Just like the November 11 Remembrance Day of today, Canadians gathered at cenotaphs and memorials across the country.
Many of these were the first war memorials to be built in Canada and still stand to this day. The city of Toronto’s South African War Memorial was designed by Walter Allward, the future sculptor of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. With the Armistice of November 11, 1918, observance of Paardeberg Day on February 27 was ultimately absorbed into the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies of November 11 that arose from the First World War.
Each Sunday we will share a story of Remembrance. How has the Battle of Vimy Ridge lived on in the memory of Canadians?
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial, from renowned sculptor Walter Allward, is a stirring symbol of the First World War. But its design, consistent with First World War commemoration in general, was a significant departure from previous war monuments. As Jacqueline Hucker and Julian Smith note in Vimy: Canada’s Memorial to a Generation, “the major structures were erected as memorials rather than victory monuments and brought into focus the loss of life and sacrifice for one’s country, rather than military accomplishments. Some also made reference to the suffering of those left to grieve in the melancholy post-war years.” (p.25)
The Canada Bereft statue is also known as Mother Canada. She looks out from Vimy Ridge over the Douai plains, and mourns her fallen sons. The sadness in her face, the personification of the young Canadian nation, has continued to be a moving visual for generations who visit the Vimy Memorial.
Do you have photos or reflections of the Canada Bereft statue / Mother Canada? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @vimyfoundation.
Did you know that the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge is 100 days from today? For the next 100 days, we will be counting down to the centennial anniversary with #100DaysofVimy. Stay tuned for content each day, including profiles of soldiers at Vimy, places in Canada that carry its legacy, interesting facts and poll results, and weekly social media contests!