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A Memorial Like No Other

Vimy Ridge
Painting by Richard Jack, Canadian War Museum

"Here visitors can begin to picture the nature and magnitude of the task that faced the members of the Canadian Corps on that distant dawn, three-quarters of a century ago, when they walked through the fire-storm of No Man's Land and into history."

The Canadian National Vimy Memorial
photo by G.Wilson

The Vimy Memorial is without a doubt one of the most spectacularly beautiful war shrines ever constructed to commemorate valour and victory. Dominating the ledge of land our soldiers won at dreadful cost on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1917, two soaring pillars pierce the sky proclaiming for all to see the pride and the sorrow of Canada.

By an act of Parliament in 1922, the Republic of France "in the name of the people of France" donated to "the people of Canada" 250 acres of land on the very site of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. This marvelous piece of land, whose commanding view provides a magnificent panorama of the Flanders plain, is to be used in perpetuity for a battlefield memorial park.

Vimy View of Flanders Plain
photo by G. Wilson

To honour the men who fought in "this war to end all wars" the Canadian government asked the noted Canadian architect Walter Seymour Allward to submit designs for an appropriate monument. On an envelope he drew from his pocket, Allward sketched his general idea in a few bold strokes: two towering pylons representing Canada's English and French elements and the sacrifices of the British and French armies who had previously fought unsuccessfully for possession of the Ridge.

Architect Allward wanted a stone that would withstand the rigors of time and he thought he found it in antiquity. Late in the third century the Roman Emperor Diocletion, a Dalmation, had a palace constructed of limestone from a quarry at Trau in Dalmatia, Yugoslavia. Remains of the palace still stand and having weathered the centuries, this same stone was selected for the monument. The quarry had to be re-opened, the stone cut by native labours and shipped across the Adriatic to Venice from where it was transported by rail on flat cars to France.

Construction of the monument began in 1925 on Hill 145, the highest point on the crest of the Ridge. The work, which took 11 years to complete at a cost of 1.5 million dollars, was done by Italian sculptors who worked throughout the cold winters sheltered from the storms that lashed the slopes only be canvas curtains.

photo by G. Wilson

The two towers and the twenty symbolic, twice-life-sized figures containing 6000 tons of limestone, rest on an 11,000-ton bed of concrete and steel. The figures, each formed from huge blocks of limestone, were carved where they stand.

Figures representing
photo by G. Wilson

At the highest point on the 80 metre pylons - one bearing a maple leaf, the other a fleur-de-lis - are four figures representing Honour, Justice, Faith and Peace. At the base of the pylons in the centre, a young, dying soldier representing the Spirit of Sacrifice, hands the torch to comrades. Overlooking the plain that falls rapidly away to the east is a cloaked figure of a grieving woman representing Canada, a young nation mourning her dead.

Mourning Canadian Mother
photo by G. Wilson

A Real Mourning Mother - Mrs. C.S. Woods

It is unimaginable, but this mother, Mrs C.S. Woods, lost eight (8} of her sons in World War I. Taken at 1936 at the unvailing of the Vimy Memorial in France, Mrs.Woods represented the Silver Star Mothers of Canada. She was part of the vast Vimy Pilgrimage of Canadians and their families who returned to the Ridge for the ceremony.

Walter Allward - The Man Who Made This Monument

Carved on the memorial's walls are the names of 11,285 Canadians who died somewhere in France in World War I and who have no known grave. To enoble these names 11,285 Canadian trees and shrubs were planted in the 91- hectare park around the memorial.

Canadian Trees
photo by G. Wilson

The carpet of green grass cannot conceal the bumps and bulges, craters and shell holes that pockmark the landscape, each a reminder of the explosions and implosions that once made the peaceful place a living hell.

Pockmarked Landscape
photo by G. Wilson

Danger awaits there even now, for beyond the accepted routes and roadways, rusty relics of war still abound in the fields about the memorial. Unexploded shells and bombs lurk beneath the blood-soaked soil. Red signs warn of 'Danger - Underground Explosives.' Ironically, flocks of sheep graze peacefully on this perilous pasture, their number periodically reduced by explosions they themselves discharge.


Sheep May Sleep - Forever
photo by G. Wilson

Dangerous Pasture
photo by G. Wilson

Tunnels were dug to provide cover for the movement of men to their jumping off points in safety. These tunnels, which still exist, had electricity, telephone cables and water and were large enough to accommodate battalion and brigade headquarters. The men went over the top at 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917. Stunned by the Canadians' rapid success, the Germans pulled back and lost the advantage the ridge offered for observation.

photo by G. Wilson

photo by G. Wilson

It was a famous victory, hailed in Britain and France and cheered to the echo in Canada and among the soldiers. "The morale of our troops is magnificent," wrote Captain George Vanier to his mother. Vanier later became our Governor General. It had been a costly battle. Some ten thousand casualties were incurred in just five days of fighting to gain 4500 yards.

One of those courageous men was Ellis Sifton from Wallacetown Ontario. Ellis was one of four soldiers to earn the Victoria Cross in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The names of these other illustrious men were Thain Wendell MacDowell, William Johnstone Milne and John George Pattison.

L/Sgt. Ellis Sifton, 18th Battalion

In a letter home, all of which began with the words things are "fine and dandy," Ellis wrote that he hoped, "courage will be mine at the right moment if I am called upon to stare death in the face." He did and he died here, earning posthumously the Victoria Cross.

A German machine gun had pinned down the assaulting Canadians including Sifton, who decided to act alone. He dashed forward, leaped into the trench and overturned the machine gun, completely surprising its crew. He then killed or wounded them with his bayonet and fended off others who attacked him with his rifle butt until support arrived. In their hand to hand fighting, a wounded German soldier picked up a rifle and shot Clifton dead.

His Victory Cross citation read: "For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. During the attack in enemy trenches Sjt. Sifton's company was held up by machine gun fire which inflicted many casualties. Having located the gun he charged it single-handed, killing all the crew. A small enemy party advanced down the trench, but he succeeded keeping these off till our men had gained the position. In carrying out this gallant act he was killed, but his conspicuous valour undoubtedly saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation."

Our victory at Vimy was said to have been "the coming of age for the young nation of Canada." It was the courage and bravery of simple, ordinary men like Ellis Sifton and thousands of other young Canadians like him, who performed extraordinarily in the face of fiercesome fighting, who earned at great cost, that honour and international recognition for our nation.

Two Soldiers at the grave of Ellis Sifton Grave

Fast forward to July 26, 1936 when a remembrance ceremony to top all such ceremonies took place on the same site. A vast throng including six thousand Canadian veterans awaited the arrival of King Edward VIII and President Lebrun of France. Canada was represented by the Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe.

At the unveiling of the Canadian War Memorial on Vimy Ridge, July 26, 1936

Edward VIII
20 January 1936, until his abdication on 11 December 1936

Edward Lebrun
President of France from 1932 to 1940

In a service broadcast to Canada by radio, King Edward in one of his last great functions as king before he abdicated in order to "marry the woman I love," presided over the unveiling of the monument. He remarked that "the glorious monument is now and for all time a part of Canada just as surely as any acre within her ten provinces." President Lebrun, who was awed by the structure, stated, "The masterpiece that rises before our eyes is one of the most remarkable among many which commemorate on the field of battle the valor and abnegation of warriors."

Diocletian (c. 245 c. 312)
Roman Emperor from November 20, 284 to May 1, 305.

From across the centuries, Diocletian's remarks might well have brought all comments to a fitting conclusion that illustrious day.

"We recall the wars which we have successfully fought; we must be grateful for a world that is tranquil and reclining in the embrace of the most profound calm and for the blessing of a peace that was won with great effort" and great cost.

Photo by G. Wilson


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