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Vimy Ridge: The making of a myth

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“So you get permanence and you get equality and the sense that the ordinary soldier is as important as the most important officer,” Ms. Hucker says, “and they get buried — and that was a big fight — on the Western Front equally with their comrades. All this was utterly new.”

Canada pushed hard for this approach. “It was a practical problem for Canada,” Ms. Hucker says. “It could not bring all those dead bodies back.”

The governments of Britain and the Dominions decided to erect public memorials rather than leave it to various regiments to put up monuments to their endeavours, as had been the custom. Each government set about bagging battlefield sites. Canada was given eight — three in Belgium and five in France. (Newfoundland, a separate country at the time, had one site in Belgium and four in France.)

The war graves commission hired architects to create battlefield memorials for the British, Australian, New Zealand and South African dead. But Canada did something different: It held an architectural competition, received 160 submissions, and in 1921 selected, unanimously and enthusiastically, Walter Allward's outstanding design for a national memorial at one of its eight sites.

The question was: Which one?

The competition jury wanted it erected on Hill 62 in Belgium, three kilometres east of Ypres.

General Arthur Currie, the senior Canadian officer in the war, opposed the idea of singling out any one site for a national memorial. He did, however, show partiality to Passchendaele in Belgium and was never more than lukewarm about Vimy. “I would not want to have the impression left that Vimy was our greatest battlefield,” he said.

But Vimy was the clear choice of the department of militia and defence, among others, and everybody loved Allward's design.

It was radical, it was beautiful, it was pure mythology — classical Greek married to Christian symbolism — and it was a world apart from the conventional structures of remembrance being built elsewhere: the perfect symbol for a young country yearning for an identity beyond its shores. As war veteran Will Bird wrote in Maclean's: “Europe, when viewing the finished work, will change her impressions of the Canadians as a people.”

Its base is built like a Vauban fort. In front of it sits an empty tomb, making the ground sacred, sanctified by Canadian blood. The tomb is watched over by the figure of Canada Bereft, mourning her dead. Behind her is the figure of Sacrifice, looking like a crucified Christ.

On either side, two pylons soar 40 metres into the French air, suggesting a cathedral's columns through which sunlight passes, offering the metaphysical promise of eternal life. At their top is what Mr. Allward called the Chorus, the idealized figures of Justice, Faith, Hope, Peace, Honour and Charity.

Mackenzie King, who had become prime minister after the war, liked the imagery of sacred ground. The ridge itself he saw as the altar of sacrifice. And then, as one's eyes are raised above death and sacrifice, there are Mr. Allward's redemptive ideals for new life. Heady stuff.

The monument took 10 years to build. When it was opened in 1936 by King Edward VIII, in one of his rare public acts before he abdicated, several thousand Canadians crossed the Atlantic for what officially was deemed a pilgrimage.

Perhaps, as Prof. Hayes says, the details of what transpired on Vimy Ridge are not important. Perhaps a memory, an image, a heroic dimension to life — set exquisitely in stone by Walter Allward — was sufficient in itself to shape a young country's dreams about its identity and its ideals. That it should arise, phoenix-like, from a catastrophic horror is not surprising.

Arthur Lower, Canada's leading social historian in the first half of the past century, recalled a talk with a friend in June, 1914, just before the great conflict broke out.

“We agreed,” he said, “that a nice little war would be just what the country needed to cap its development and give it a sense of corporate unity.”

Michael Valpy is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail

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