After the war, Canadians wanted a physical symbol of their mourning – a tangible expression of remembrance. Public opinion and veterans’ organizations pressured Canada’s postwar governments into marking soldiers’ sacrifices. While various monuments and memorials were erected in Canada, the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission was set up in 1920 by the Canadian government to decide how to properly commemorate the fallen Canadian soldiers of the Great War, and to decide what to do with the eight sites in Europe granted to Canada by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
After a public design competition with over 160 submissions, the Commission selected two designs: one from Walter Allward and another from Frederick Chapman Clemesha. But the debates continued on about whereabouts the national war memorial should be placed. In 1922, after presenting their arguments to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the Commission placed their support behind Walter Allward’s design being located at Vimy Ridge. After some negotiations, the land around Vimy Ridge was gifted to Canada by the French government in December 1922 as a mark of gratitude for Canada’s involvement in the defense of France during the First World War.
(The second design chosen, the “Brooding Soldier,” was erected in Belgium near Ypres as a tribute to those Canadian who died in the first gas attacks of the war. Unveiled in 1923, it is widely considered another of the most striking memorials of the Western Front.)
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.
The stone for the memorial is limestone from an ancient Roman quarry in Seget, Croatia. Allward chose this stone because he wanted white marble, but was worried about its durability in the conditions of Northern France. When he saw that Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia, was still standing and still beautiful, he decided to use the same stone.
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.
Construction began in 1925, took 11 years to build and cost 1.5 million dollars.
The monument sits on the highest point of the ridge, known during the battle as Hill 145.
The two tall columns represent Canada and France, and the friendship between them. The pillars together and the horizontal base also form the top half of a cross. The monument includes 20 allegorical figures representing such values as honour, justice and peace. The two highest figures are Justice and Peace. One female figure, who stands alone looking out over the slopes of the ridge, is known as “Canada Mourning Her Fallen Sons” or “Canada Bereft”. She is carved from a single, 30 tonne block of stone. The base of the monument is engraved with the 11,285 names of Canadians who have no known grave in France.
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)
On 26 July 1936, the Vimy Memorial was ready for its unveiling. The Vimy Pilgrims arrived on the site early in the day, taking time to explore the battlefield that Will R. Bird had told them of in 1931, especially the tunnels and trenches fortuitously preserved by Major Unwin Simson of the Canadian Engineers. As the official ceremonies began, the Pilgrims fell in to ranks as though on parade. Crowded around the Vimy Memorial were more than 100,000 people. While King Edward VIII mingled through the crowds of veterans, British and French Air Force Squadrons flew low over the monument, dipping their wings in salute.
The King delivered a brief speech in both English and French, before pulling the drawstring on the Union Jack that cloaked the Canada Bereft figure, officially unveiling the Vimy Memorial. The Last Post was sounded, followed by two minutes silence, ended by the sounding of Reveille. In the valley leading to the Douai Plain, artillery cracked a 21-gun salute that reverberated across the old battlefield. Following along back home, the entire ceremony was broadcast live to Canada by the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission. Follow this link to hear King Edward VIII’s speech: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/1936-vimy-ridge-memorial-unveiled
The original Vimy Pilgrimage was supported by the government, which waved passport fees and even issued special Vimy Pilgrimage passports. The Canadian Legion also coordinated the lodging and transportation for the pilgrims. The whole trip cost $160 per person at the time, the equivalent of nearly $3,000 today.
In 1940, when France was occupied by the Nazis, Adolf Hitler visited the site. Despite fears that it would be destroyed, the occupying forces did not harm the memorial.
In the early 2000s in advance of the 90th anniversary of the battle, the memorial underwent extensive restoration work, and the restored site was unveiled in 2007 by Queen Elizabeth II. The memorial was the site of the centenary commemorations of the battle in April 2017.