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Vimy exhibit filled with heartfelt memories of those who served

Historian Tim Cook stands in mock trenches on display at the Canadian War Museum’s Vimy Ridge exhibit in Ottawa on Monday.

For the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge, the battle considered the ‘birth of the nation,’ Canadian War Museum opens a new display

It’s the little things that break the heart.

Like the tiny teddy bear that 10-year-old Aileen Rogers gave her father to keep him company when he headed off to war. Only the bear made it home.

The four hand-sewn Maple Leaves that were in the window of the Adie family home in St. Catharines, Ont. – a leaf for each son that sailed for Europe – only one to return.

The goggles Lieutenant Harold Arthur Sydney Molyneux wore into battle, perhaps cracked and broken as so many others were when Canadian soldiers ripped off their eye protection because they could not see through the mustard gas well enough to protect their comrades.

And the wooden cross that was found in a garage in New Brunswick, snapped off at the base, once a proper stone was laid to mark where Private John Ash fell during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The shattered goggles and broken cross are part of a new exhibition, Vimy – Beyond the Battle, that will open to the public on April 6 and run through Nov. 12 at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

April 9, of course, marks the 100th year since the battle that is widely considered “the birth of the nation” took place. The day will be marked in France by a ceremony at the famous memorial that will be attended by Princes Charles, William and Harry, Governor-General David Johnston, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and as many as 25,000 Canadians, most of them students.

For those who cannot go, there is the war museum and its powerful presentation of the First World War, with particular emphasis on Vimy.

Workers put the final touches on the new display at the museum on Monday. The exhibit includes maquettes built by sculptor Walter Allward for the massive Vimy Ridge monument in France.

The new display includes the maquettes built by sculptor Walter Allward for the massive monument in France that honours the 61,000 Canadians who served and died in the Great War. It has letters welcomed home by families as well as letters dreaded by families – those saying their son, brother, father had been “killed in action.”

One display allows visitors to see their own “silhouette” walking through the battlefield, surrounded by chaos, explosions and unbelievable carnage.

There is a simple but profoundly moving Wall of Lights that holds a lighted square for each of the 3,598 Canadian soldiers who died at Vimy, the lights flickering as you pass by, the entire wall lit up if the room fills with visitors.

There is, as well, remarkable footage of the pilgrimage to see the memorial that took place on July 26, 1936, when five ocean liners left Montreal with more than 6,200 Canadians, most of them veterans. The film is a remarkable record of that journey, from families together on the ship to King Edward VIII carefully doffing his top hat as he thanks Canadian widows for their great sacrifice.

“They were looking for closure,” says Dr. Melanie Morin-Pelletier, curator of the exhibition. From the look on their faces, they appear to have found it.

Historian Melanie Morin-Pelletier stands next to an interactive display at the Canadian War Museum. Each light commemorates one of the 3,598 Canadian soldiers killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Vimy has become a huge symbol today – it’s even on the back of the $20 bill – but it wasn’t always so.

Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum, has written a best-selling book, Vimy: The Battle and the Legend, which looks at the long evolution of Vimy from the horrific battle of 1917 to the revered national symbol of 2017.

Dr. Cook’s book examines the “history of an idea” and he argues that “Vimy is not a straight trajectory of becoming part of our Canadian consciousness.

“Vimy is an important battle – but it doesn’t win the war. The birth of the nation didn’t come on 9th of April 1917.”

And yet it was, all the same, a pivotal moment. “The French had failed to capture this ridge four or five times, all major offensives,” Dr. Cook says. “So there is a lot of pride here, that Canada had done something that France was not able to do.”

The battle involved the four Canadian divisions attacking together for the first time and the success garnered newspaper coverage across the British Empire. Canada’s contribution was duly noted.

There was, however, no immediate demand for such a monument. Memorials were essentially local, cenotaphs going up in thousands of communities across the country.

“No one’s calling Vimy the ‘birth of a nation’ in 1918 or 1919,” Dr. Cook says.

Veterans were not demanding anything special, though they were certainly not amused when the Americans, who entered the war in 1917, began to credit themselves with “winning” the Great War.

Cook views Ghost of Vimy Ridge, painted by Captain William Fredrick Longstaff.

When talk in Canada finally did turn to a special monument in Europe, the first recommendation was that it be erected at Hill 62 in the Ypres Salient, where the Battle of Mount Sorrel had been fought in June, 1916.

Finally, however, Vimy Ridge was chosen, largely because the ridge was so noticeable from such a distance. And the monument was to represent all Canadian soldiers who had fought and died in Europe, not just those who had fallen at Vimy.

It took 15 years for Mr. Allward to complete the monument and it took the 1936 pilgrimage to turn it into a symbol. “That,” Dr. Cook says, “is really the birth of the Vimy legend.”

And yet the symbol never fully stuck. Vimy’s importance faded again, especially by the early 1960s, when war was so unpopular with Canadians, who preferred to celebrate peacekeeping rather than remember conflict.

In 1967, however, the symbol rose high again as it was portrayed in so many picture books. Pivotal to that rise in import was a speech by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in which he said: “Vimy was more than a battle. It is a symbol of the coming of age of Canada as a nation, a nation which was brought to birth in emotion and feeling, and in a unity steeled in blood. May we always keep that feeling of togetherness and unity in this country.”

In years following there was Pierre Berton’s bestselling Vimy, a Historica minute on television and, in 2015, the decision to put the monument on the back of the $20 bill, replacing the Indigenous art of Bill Reid, which had replaced the loon.

By this point, Dr. Cook says, “Vimy really lodges in our consciousness.”

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