Remembering the Fallen: Canadian National Vimy Memorial

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial does more than mark the site of the great Canadian victory of the First World War. It stands as a tribute to all who served their country in battle and risked or gave their lives in that four-year struggle.

Designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands on Hill 145, overlooking the Canadian battlefield of 1917, at one of the points of the fiercest fighting. It took 11 years and $1.5 million to build and was unveiled on July 26, 1936 by King Edward VIII, in the presence of President Albert Lebrun of France and 50,000 or more Canadian and French Veterans and their families. In his address, the King noted, "It is a memorial to no man, but a memorial for a nation."

At the base of the Memorial, in English and in French, are these words:

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.

In fact, more than 66,000 Canadians died in action, or of their wounds after the war—more than one in ten of those who had worn uniforms. Among the dead are many who have no known grave. Inscribed on the ramparts of the Memorial are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted "missing, presumed dead" in France. Another 6,994 names of missing Canadians are carved on the Menin Gate at Ypres, Belgium.

In 1922, use of the land for the battlefield park which contains the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was granted for all time by the French nation to the people of Canada. The Memorial rests on a bed of 11,000 tonnes of concrete and masonry, reinforced by hundreds of tonnes of steel. Many live bombs and shells were unearthed during the excavation. Today's visitors will find the now grassy grounds still pock-marked with the depressions of mine-craters, shell-holes and mounds from the massive artillery bombardment which the Canadians used to take Vimy Ridge.

The Memorial's two towering pylons and a score of symbolic, twice-life-sized sculptured figures contain almost 6,000 tonnes of limestone, brought to the site from an ancient quarry in Yugoslavia. The figures were carved where they now stand from huge limestone blocks over a 10-year-span.

The sculptor Allward once told friends the form of the design came to him in a dream. He described it like this:

Canadian National Vimy Memorial

"At the base of the strong impregnable walls of defence are the Defenders, one group showing the Breaking of the Sword, the other the Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless. Above these are the mouths of guns covered with olive and laurels. On the wall stands an heroic figure of Canada brooding over the graves of her valiant dead; below is suggested a grave with a helmet, laurels, etc. Behind her stand two pylons symbolizing the two forces—Canadian and French—while between, at the base of these, is the Spirit of Sacrifice, who, giving all, throws the torch to his Comrades. Looking up they see the figures of Peace, Justice, Truth and Knowledge, etc., for which they fought, chanting the Hymn of Peace. Around these figures are the shields of Britain, Canada and France. On the outside of the pylons is the Cross."

The 91-hectare (250-acre) park surrounding the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is adorned with 11,285 Canadian trees and shrubs to match the number of missing Canadians whose names are inscribed on the monument. The park is still honeycombed with wartime tunnels, many closed to the public for safety. A portion of the Grange Subway, originally 750 metres long, still exists to be viewed. Roughly 250 metres of passages and some of its chambers have been preserved. As well, some sand-bagged wartime trenches, Canadian, British and German, can be seen. The famous Montréal Crater has also been incorporated, named for the 13th Battalion, the Royal Highlanders of Canada from Montréal. They seized it after a mine was exploded and drove the Germans off it. A showcase of artifacts found on the battlefield and a ruined German artillery piece all help visitors to visualize the nature and magnitude of the task that faced the Canadian Corps on that distant dawn, in 1917, when Canadian soldiers walked through the fire-storm, across No Man's Land, and into history.

In recent times, the Vimy Memorial has come to symbolize Canada's long commitment to peace in the world, as well as its stand against aggression, and for liberty and the rule of international law. The Canadian tradition of asking its servicemen and women to defend and restore peace has evolved into a long commitment of peacekeeping under the aegis of the United Nations. To date, has contributed more than 100,000 military personnel to many peace support operations. Canadians have demonstrated their valour on many battlefields, but today the message of the Vimy Memorial is one of peace—upheld for Canada by the Canadian Forces.

The troops of the Canadian Corps of the First World War were superbly capable citizen-soldiers, tested in the cruel crucible of war. But their dreams were of peace. The people of Canada still respect those dreams and that sacrifice. Canadians strive to ensure that the dreams are realized and the sacrifice honoured, now and in the years to come. Then the valiant soldiers of Vimy may continue to rest in peace.

Date modified: