Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
The battle that haunts us still
For military buffs, the most interesting thing about Vimy Ridge is the battle, but for anyone who visits this holiest of Canadian war shrines, it is the monument itself that commands attention.
Nearly 15 storeys tall from the base of the pedestal to the top of the twin white towers, it overpowers visitors who seem to be in a constant state of struggle for perspective and understanding.
The monument overwhelms the human figure, making it seem almost inaccessible, but nothing in Europe or in Canada generates a greater sense of pride and sadness for Canadians than its soaring columns and beautifully carved classical figures.
Even the shell craters and pock-marked landscape have been preserved, although it is wired off from the public because of the danger posed by unexploded shells. Grazing sheep keep the grass tidy and short.
Pine and maples trees were planted after the war, making it difficult to fully imagine the perspective soldiers would have faced as they ascended the rising terrain to the top of the ridge, which overlooks a broad agricultural plain below.
There is nothing like Vimy to mark Canada's sacrifice in the Second World War.
"This is how you remember," said a member of our tour group who had earlier expressed disappointment at the weakness of the Juno Beach Centre, which isn't intended as a national memorial, but which also happens to be the closest thing.
"Imagine a towering monument like Vimy on that beach," added Lorraine Sinclair, a retired nurse from Calgary.
The battle of Vimy Ridge is fairly well-known and documented, but the story of the monument itself less so.
Canada's greatest war memorial, for example, almost never got built on this spot.
After the war, Canada applied for eight locations -- five in France, three in Belgium -- to build monuments. Initially, it was believed all eight monuments should be identical, but after a design competition was held, the clear winner was Walter Allward of Toronto.
It was so grand the committee decided only one could be built, while smaller monuments would be built on the other sites.
But where to put it?
The competition jury recommended Hill 162 in the Ypres salient, not far from Passchendaele, where Canadians suffered their highest casualties of the war in a single battle, nearly 16,000, as opposed to the 10,000 dead, wounded and missing at Vimy.
Lieut.-Gen. Arthur Currie, who led the First Division at Vimy and took over the entire corps at Passchendaele, also proposed Hill 162 in Belgium.
Eventually, Ottawa was convinced the best location was Vimy because that was where Canada's four divisions first fought together and because it was the most complete victory up to that point in the war. The battle is also credited with awakening a sense of Canadian identity.
While the Canadians were victorious at Passchendaele, the Germans recaptured the land after the British took over the Canadian positions. Vimy remained in Allied hands until the war's end.
Work on the Vimy monument began in 1922 and it was officially unveiled in 1936, making it one of the longest and most difficult construction projects in Canadian history.
Allward got the idea for the monument following a dream in which thousands of men were being killed on a battlefield when the dead rose up and entered the fight, according to Vimy, Canada's Memorial to a Generation, by architectural historians Jacqueline Hucker and Julian Smith.
"Without the dead we were helpless," Allward said. "So I have tried to show this in the monument to Canada's fallen, what we owed them and will forever owe them."
He intended it to endure not for 1,000 years, but "for all time," but time did take a toll on its white limestone. Fortunately, the federal government responded with a major overhaul that rehabilitated the monument and stopped the decay before it was too late. They even reopened the original quarry in Croatia to acquire the same stone used in the original.
Charlotte Susan Wood of Winnipeg, Canada's first Silver Cross mother, made the trip to Vimy for the opening, where she met King Edward VIII. She lost five sons in the war, although some sources say three sons were killed and three injured. Her story is still awaiting a biographer.
Historian and journalist Pierre Berton said in his book on the battle it was not worth the cost in thousands of lives mangled and destroyed.
Wood agreed, telling King Edward she didn't understand why so many boys had to die.
The question is with us still.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J11
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