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Setting a legend in stone

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He used reinforced concrete -- which only recently had been invented -- as the memorial's core, and had the Seget stone set into the concrete while it was still wet. The stone cladding was designed with the largest possible blocks (some weighing 14 tonnes), the narrowest possible joints (a few millimetres) and the most continuous possible surface textures to create the sense of a monument carved out of a single block.

What Mr. Allward apparently didn't realize is that concrete and stone expand and contract at different rates as temperatures change. When the mortar in the joints was fresh and flexible, much of the movement could be absorbed. But over time, the stones began to crack, with corners and other bits shearing off.

The original quarry had been closed. Replacement rocks the Canadian government found elsewhere were harder than the Seget stone and sometimes accelerated the cracking. After 30 per cent of the original stone had been replaced, the problems were only getting worse.

The names of the missing dead posed their own challenge.

The inscriptions had not been part of Mr. Allward's original design approved by Ottawa. He did not like the idea when the government subsequently asked him to include them, acting on behalf of the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, which had established the principle that all the war's casualties would be remembered, those whose bodies were found and those who simply disappeared. (The names of 7,024 Canadian soldiers missing in Belgium are carved on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.)

On other Commonwealth battlefield monuments, the names are carved on individual stones that can be removed from the wall when the letters fade and sent out for re-engraving. What Mr. Allward did instead was to inscribe the names in continuous bands around the base, across both vertical and horizontal seams in the stone cladding in keeping with his concept of the memorial as a single block. The effect was nice: The names look as if they're floating on the stone.

But because the stones were set in concrete, they could not easily be removed and sent for re-engraving when the lettering faded. And as they deteriorated along the seams, they aggravated the deterioration to the names.

The restoration team made two decisions at the outset: The first was to bring Ms. Hucker on board as architectural and cultural historian; the second was to establish an advisory board that included conservation architects and military historians, plus retired General Roméo Dallaire and author Jane Urquhart, whose novel The Stone Carvers was about a family who worked on the memorial.

The advisory committee recommended that the monument be fully restored, rather than merely preserved or rehabilitated. Restoration meant much of the monument needed to be taken apart -- the stones cut away from the concrete with a specially designed two-metre-diameter saw and a new setting designed with special mortar so that the concrete and the rock could freely expand and contract.

Delicate negotiations were initiated to purchase stone from the area where Mr. Allward had obtained the original supply. Julian Smith likened it to a Wild West movie at one point, with bribes being asked for and one quarry owner threatening to arrange for an accident to happen to a rival's equipment.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which maintains the Vimy site, wanted the names of the missing to be contained on individual stones as at other memorials, but Mr. Smith insisted that Mr. Allward's technique be followed.

All the names were recarved by an engraver known as Luc, who sat day by day on his wooden stool. A few names of men were omitted because their bodies had been discovered, or because it was found that they had enlisted under false names, being underage, and they had turned up somewhere else.

The project began facing two risks: Whether enough stone could be found and whether the restoration team could match Mr. Allward's exquisite workmanship in dismantling and reassembling the monument. They succeeded -- although the project was well under way before the team knew it would get the stone it needed.

Four years of Smith's life were spent at the memorial.

"It makes you think about the Great War and about modernism and about being a Canadian. About being a Canadian in the world," he says.

"I mean, Vimy is remarkable because it's sitting there in France as a national monument without any regional identity. That I find fascinating, because I love the layering of identities in Canada. I think that's what makes us Canadian. But Vimy exists outside that. It exists in a kind of pure form as being a Canadian monument."

Something like it probably could never be built again.

"It would be sort of artificial," Mr. Smith agrees.

Michael Valpy is a senior writer with The Globe and Mail.

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