I first visited Vimy in 1974 in the company of the man who would later become my husband. But for as long as I could remember, the far-reaching effects of the First World War had been a subject for discussion. My mother, who was two when it started and six when it finished, had vivid memories of the war’s aftermath; the quiet grief that permeated the countryside, and the lists of familiar names on the modest stone war memorials erected in Ontario villages near the farm where she was raised.
She also remembered the way an echo of the conflict seeped into her post-war playground; how the boys were almost always pretending to “shoot Germans” while the girls skipped to the tune of Mademoiselle from Armentières while chanting,
The Yankees think they won the war, parlez-vous
The Yankees think they won the war, parlez-vous
The Yankees think they won the war
But we were there three years before
Inkey dinkey parlez-vous
Added to this was an awareness of the word “Vimy.”
New roads, schools and community halls were often named after this much talked about Canadian victory. Having lost 66,000 young people from a population of less than 8 million, Canada needed a tangible symbol of nationalist valour and The Battle of Vimy Ridge fit the bill. It was enthusiastically taken up by both the collective unconscious and the governmental spin doctors of the day. My mother, an impressionable child of this era, would grow up to spend a not-insignificant amount of her time collecting Vimy memorabilia – postcards, personal accounts, souvenirs, books, needlework, soldier folk art – so that by the time I found myself standing on that blood-soaked ground, I knew the emotional back story well.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for my own reaction as I walked around the site that had been ceded – in perpetuity – to Canada by the French in 1922. While I was there, almost anything could bring me close to tears; a maple leaf floating down from a specially planted tree; the sight of the same leaf gracing nearby Canadian war graves; the word “Winnipeg” carved into the soft chalk of tunnels where I was told soldiers had stood for hours before being flung into the nightmare of the battle; the fact that a flock of sheep was employed to keep the grass down in many parts of the battlefield because, even 60 years later, the ground was still so dangerously alive with ammunition that a mower was out of the question.
And then there was the enormous and startling Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
My future husband said, as far as he was concerned, Walter Allward, the sculptor and architect who had designed and oversaw the building of the monument, was one of the most brilliant and overlooked Canadian artists of the 20th century. Looking at the memorial’s twin pylons reaching into the sky and examining the tremendously moving and skillfully carved figures, I sensed what he meant.
Here was a work of Canadian Art, the base of which was inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians who had no known grave, and very few people in Canada had heard much about it. A guide told us that while Europeans regularly visited, and that their respect for the site, the monument, and what it represented, was evident, you could count the number of Canadian visitors in any given month on the fingers of one hand.
When Canadian high-school classes were taken on educational tours of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, the battlefield and the monument were not included in the itinerary.
I thought of my own education: Vimy, as far as I could remember, had received short shrift during my history teacher’s brief foray into the role of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War.
This spectacular monument, the neglect of which was visible in cracks and water damage, and the fact that some of the names were beginning to disappear from its surface, had not been mentioned.
Even years later, in 2001, at the time of the publication of The Stone Carvers, the novel that would build itself in my imagination as a result of this visit and several subsequent visits, a Canadian historian boasted that, while in France, he and another Canadian historian had decided against a visit to Vimy because they were late for a reservation at a nearby Michelin three-star restaurant.
Thankfully, things have changed.
The memorial and the site surrounding it have been brought back to life by a team headed by restoration architect Julian Smith – a man who took Walter Allward’s complicated creative personality and inspired intentions into full and respectful account.
The refurbished memorial was unveiled, with thousands of Canadian students in attendance, on April 9, 2007, on the 90th anniversary of the first day of that TERRIBLE EASTER MONDAY battle. Four thousand students will be at the site today, this Easter Monday, for the 95th anniversary.
Here at home we will think about the farm boys, labourers, office clerks, schoolboys, fishermen, loggers, grandsons of Underground Railroad survivors, and first nations hunters who ran out of those tunnels that morning, in 1917, into a living hell. And we’ll remember those thousands who fought and died and know that the Vimy Memorial, a timeless work of art, honours the sacrifice and the sorrow.
Jane Urquhart is the author of seven novels including The Stone Carvers, which was inspired by her visits to the Vimy Memorial.