What war memorials say about us

The meaning of Remembrance Day and how Canada views its war memorials changes over time

Toronto Star Archives/Getty Images

Toronto Star Archives/Getty Images

This article first appeared on Nov. 8, 2014, the year that Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was killed while defending the National War Memorial

Cenotaphs in every village and city; a Peace Tower at Parliament; memorial windows, memorial halls, even an entire Memorial University in St. John’s, N.L.; two of the finest war memorials—one in Ottawa and the other at Vimy Ridge—ever erected by any country. The Great War changed everything, and that includes the way we remember it, the wars that followed it, and all those who died in them. Remembrance Day as we know it has changed over time, as well, in its rituals, as in its meaning in Canadians’ minds and hearts, and, with the killing of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo—while he was on duty at the very focal point of our collective commemoration—it will resonate anew this year.

The Canada that found itself at war in 1914 was utterly transformed by it, not least in military affairs. The price was brutal—60,000 dead and many thousands more damaged in body and mind—but a nation of amateurs made itself very, very good at fighting. From the time of the meticulously executed assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917, when the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together for the first time, the Canadians honed themselves into elite-troop status. When they, and their fellow shock troops from Australia, broke through the German lines at Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, it set off the famous Hundred Days that would finish the war.

Constantly on the move, sweeping through northern France and Belgium, punching way beyond its weight, the Corps played a vital role in the Allies’ final victory. The Canadians were at Mons in Belgium when the guns ceased firing at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11. They had suffered their last casualty, Pte. George Price of the Saskatchewan Regiment, just two minutes before.

The conviction of a just war, bitterly fought and bitterly won, never entirely left Canada in the decades between the world wars. That belief, in fact, was crucial in the resolute—if far more subdued—way we undertook to do it all again in 1939. But, as time went by and veterans died—many from the war’s lingering effects—the question of whether what was gained was worth what was lost took root, too.

How to commemorate so enormous an event, a great victory at a great cost? The answer to that, says historian Jonathan Vance in an interview, always lies in “choosing what to forget as much as what to remember.” English Canada, at least, chose to forget the disquiet on the home front, particularly the way Canada’s progress abroad from colony to nation almost undid it as a country. (The 1917 election campaign over conscription was one of the most divisive moments in Canadian history: bitter, virulently racist, and pregnant with future ramifications for national unity.) From veterans’ organizations to prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, the narrative of the national baptism of fire, symbolized by Vimy, took hold. But for both the nation-builders and the doubters, who could see violent postwar chaos in Europe and maimed soldiers begging on Canadian street corners, the losses could not be downplayed.

Nor could they be mourned in the traditional ways, after the Dominions and Britain endorsed the decision of the Imperial War Graves Commission to leave the dead where they fell, buried with their comrades in the vast military cemeteries of France and Belgium. The commission’s decision is startlingly at odds with contemporary attitudes. The gathering of crowds on overpasses along Ontario’s Highway 401 to honour fallen soldiers en route from CFB Trenton to the Centre for Forensic Sciences in Toronto became such an accepted way to display respect that the section has acquired the additional name Highway of Heroes—meaning the ritual itself is honoured.

The no-repatriation rule wasn’t wildly popular at the time, either—there were petitions and angry debates in parliaments—but it was generally accepted. The notable Canadian exception was Anna Durie, who, in 1925, after years of fruitless importuning of officials, succeeded in exhuming her son’s bones from a French cemetery in the dead of night and smuggling them to Toronto for burial. The War Graves authorities knew perfectly well what had happened to Arthur Durie’s bones, but declined to investigate thoroughly, lest the commission appear to be a “heartless tyrannical body still pursuing an unfortunate mother.” For 75 years, Arthur Durie was the only dead Canadian soldier to come home.

Helping with public acceptance of what was, at root, a matter of practicalities—what Vance calls the “costs and difficulties of repatriating, especially as far afield as Canada, almost a million bodies”—was the revolutionary democratic character of the cemeteries. In contrast to previous conflicts, where enlisted men were burned in giant pyres or dumped en masse into unmarked pits, all soldiers would be treated equally, even those unidentified—up to 70 per cent in some cemeteries. But, as far as possible, each would be an honoured individual in death, even if their headstones could read only, in words suggested by Rudyard Kipling, who lost his own son to an unknown grave, “A soldier of the Great War—known unto God.”

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Whatever went into the decision and its broad acceptance, its effect on mourning in Canada was profound. Families had no funerals, no graves to visit. “Remembrance Day grew, in part, as a communal substitute for private memory,” says Vance, as did the substitute memorials, especially the cenotaphs, a word that means “empty tombs.” In 1919, Armistice Day was established in the British Empire on the second Monday in November, adjusted in Canada in 1921 to the first Monday in the week of Nov. 11, which managed to combine the event—in the tidy, not to say parsimonious, Canadian fashion—with the Thanksgiving Day holiday, which fell in November back then. For much of the 1920s, the day saw little public involvement. Veterans and those without a grave to visit gathered, in what was still a Christian nation, in churches and at local memorials, but few other Canadians involved themselves.

By 1928—the 10th anniversary, as postwar deaths of veterans mounted—there was a push to separate the war and Thanksgiving, and to emphasize, not gratitude for victory, but recognition of sacrifice. Three years later, Ottawa moved Thanksgiving to an earlier place on the calendar, and decreed a new name and precise date to honour, specifically and precisely, fallen soldiers: Remembrance Day would be observed on Nov. 11 itself. Soon, in a world wracked by economic depression and gathering international storm clouds, Canadians took to the new observance en masse, with thousands of ceremonies across the country. Usually held at community cenotaphs, war memorials, or at schools, they would feature two minutes of silence, the Last Post, and a reading of In Flanders Fields. The practice of wearing poppies quickly spread.

And Canada as a whole responded, much as it did to the war itself, when the nation with the unsuspected talent for war also discovered it had a gift for war memorials. If the dead could not be here, there would have to be a monument where they lay. There was never any doubt about where it would go: Vimy Ridge is where French geography meets Canadian history. The French government donated 100 hectares in perpetuity, and Ottawa chose Toronto sculptor Walter Allward for the work. He laboured 14 years—long past the point where it had become a torment to him—to erect the greatest monumental work of art ever by a Canadian.

Allward’s massive structure is built on a series of long walls inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians whose bodies were never recovered or identified. From the walls rise two 30-m pylons visible for more than 60 km across the northern French plain—the same commanding heights that made the ridge a military prize also made it a superb setting—and 20 giant figures symbolizing such concepts as “The Breaking of the Sword” and “Canada Mourning Her Fallen Sons.” Allward’s design, described by Group of Seven painter A. Y. Jackson as “beyond and above anything the framers of the competition conceived of,” cost the immense Depression-era sum of $1.25 million—less, its defenders noted, than the cost of half a day’s wartime shelling.

From the beginning, when it was unveiled by Edward VIII—the king of Canada standing on Canadian soil, guarded by scarlet-clad Mounties—before a vast crowd that included 6,000 Canadian veterans and relatives of the dead, many considered it the most beautiful of the combatant nations’ memorials. And they considered it fitting, too: Canada mourning, Canada turning its swords into ploughshares, ordinary men caught up in great events, were all notes that resonated far beyond memories of victory.

Ottawa architect Julian Smith, a member of the team who carried out the Vimy restoration project completed in 2007, has a profound admiration for it. It was Allward who had the “three conceptual breakthroughs that make Vimy what it is,” Smith said: “white stone when earlier monuments used grey, preserving the battlefield terrain, and the 11,000 names.”

Back home, a parallel process had been unfolding. In 1926, the call for submissions for a National War Memorial in Ottawa was won by English sculptor Vernon March, whose design went on to have a history as difficult as Allward’s Vimy. March barely got started before he died in 1930, and it took his six brothers and a sister to complete it by 1932. “The Great Response of Canada” presented 22 military figures—from all branches of the service and including women and Aboriginals—passing through an 18-m-high granite arch, topped by the allegorical figures of Peace and Freedom. “It’s one of the finest war memorials in the world,” says Vance, “with terribly moving figures, who are not war-like at all, simply resolute—and no words, just dates.”

It’s a judgment echoed by Queen’s University scholars Brian Osborne and David Gordon in their studies of Ottawa’s evolving public space. The memorial, as prime minister King demanded, has nothing of “the arrogance of the conqueror” about it. “However accidentally,” says Gordon, an urban geographer, “it took the right attitude for the 21st century, celebrating not our victory but our response to crisis.” The Marches may have finished by 1932, Osborne and Gordon note, but Ottawa wasn’t ready with a proper place to put it, and the memorial went on temporary display in London’s Hyde Park.

King eventually got his way, as he usually did, and the memorial went up where he wanted it, in Ottawa’s Confederation Square. There it joined a long sightline of national mythology in stone, from the memorial itself through the great figures of national history up to Parliament itself—the same “pantheon, the same showcase of our shared values, that Michael Zihaf-Bibeau ran on his rampage,” on Oct. 22, says Osborne.

Like Vimy, the Ottawa memorial was too freighted with meaning for anything less than a royal unveiling. King George VI dedicated it before a crowd of 100,000 on May 21, 1939, striking in his speech every theme the memorial was meant to invoke: “Canada’s spirit and sacrifice in the Great War . . . the zeal and chivalry . . . the voice of the nation’s conscience . . . the very soul of the nation.” Three months later, Canada was at war again, this time by its own volition.

After the Second World War ended, there was a call for a monument for its vets, but the newness and evocative power of the Marches’ creation meant the push hadn’t the force of the post-first-war drive. Instead, in 1982, the dates of the second war and the conflict in Korea were added to the original monument. The Great War memorial came to commemorate all wars and all who died in them, just as Remembrance Day did.

And both, in the ebb and flow of time and long decades of peace, faded from the national consciousness, until the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War marked a noticeable upsurge of public interest. Although not as much interest—which has swelled since—as the 2000 repatriation of Canada’s Unknown soldier, when one of our 6,846 unknown dead was taken from his grave near Vimy and brought home.

He lay in state in the Centre Block of Parliament for three days, while tens of thousands filed by to pay their respects. He was then buried, at the foot of the war memorial, in a nationally televised ceremony. His tomb has drawn ever larger crowds and sparked the spontaneous creation of a new ritual: When people depart Remembrance Day ceremonies, they now lay their poppies upon the tomb. In 2006, three drunken louts were photographed urinating on it, and the honour guard was soon established. It was that solemn duty that Argyll and Sutherland Highlander Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was performing when he was shot dead.

Cirillo’s killing will shift the focus of the National War Memorial again. It began in tribute to all, and then, without abandoning that purpose, turned its spotlight on one anonymous soldier. Now a soldier, uniformed and on duty, has been killed there; if ever there was doubt whether Canada had a patch of sacred ground, it’s surely gone now. The death of Nathan Cirillo will loom over every part of this year’s Remembrance Day, and make it like none before it.

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