Philip Dombowsky is an archivist at the National Gallery of Canada. His new book, Walter S. Allward: Life & Work, is being published by the Art Canada Institute.
With recent protests around the globe calling for the removal of certain historical statues, it is worth noting this country’s most famous work of public art, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. It’s been 100 years since it was commissioned, and April 9 is the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the First World War conflict that led to its creation. The monument is an edifying lesson on how stone slabs can become foundational messaging tools in the building of a better world.
It is vital that we discern, protect and respect the monuments that stand to connect us and distinguish them from those that perpetuate our divisions. The Vimy Memorial, pictured on the back of our $20 bill and visited by 800,000 people annually, is such a revered landmark. Though the memorial commemorates an event viewed by many historians as marking the birth of Canada as a nation, its meaning transcends any fixed national allegiance. It is a salute to human sacrifice in the pursuit of peace and justice, a point that rings true regardless of the time, place or station of one’s birth.
The monument mourns the 3,598 Canadian lives lost over four days at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which began on Easter Monday, 1917. Four years later, in 1921, the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission held an open competition for a structure to mark the country’s losses in Europe. From 160 submissions, it chose a proposal by Toronto sculptor Walter S. Allward (1874–1955), who felt his responsibility deeply and described his idea for the project as “a sermon in stone against the futility of war.”
Thousands of war memorials were being erected across Canada when Allward began his design, but the scale and composition of his Vimy monument stood apart. Today no national war monument is more famed and majestic. Allward’s vision dared to challenge the conventional practice of simply representing soldiers. He presented plans for a composition whose topmost figure – an image of Peace – would rise 110 metres above France’s Douai Plain – a provocative exploration of redemption and the possibility of a future without war.
The resulting and now iconic sculptural tour-de-force is an imposing structure of concrete and limestone built directly on the killing field at the highest point of the ridge. It comprises two pylons, soaring 27 metres tall and representing the bond and sacrifice shared by Canada and France. Surrounding them are 20 figures that symbolize peace, truth, knowledge, justice, faith, charity, hope and honour.
These were powerful themes to explore at the long Vimy Ridge escarpment, where, for the first time, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought as a unit. They captured the ridge from the German army in a nation-defining moment, earning immense respect from Canada’s allies for their fighting skills and bravery, while also inspiring pride at home. Vimy became hallowed ground – the ideal place to commemorate the more than 61,000 Canadians who lost their lives during the war.
Allward devoted 15 years of his life to the Vimy Memorial, committing himself to ensuring that every element of it was flawless. His vision was one of gracious lines, perfect proportions, impeccable construction and, most importantly, one that would speak to future generations.
He achieved his goal by creating the depiction of an idea rather than the portrayal of an event. When the memorial was completed in 1936, it was interpreted as a symbol of peace. In a statement read on behalf of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at the Vimy dedication, Canada asked that the nations of Europe strive to obliterate whatever makes for war and death because “a world at peace, Canada believes, is the only memorial worthy of the valour and the sacrifice of all who gave their lives in the Great War.” For the more than 80 years since its unveiling, this description of the Vimy Memorial has remained relevant and true.
In 2021, what makes the Vimy monument extraordinary and a powerful example of a historical statue is that it is more than a memorial to the dead. It is a commemoration that surpasses the literal and one that imagines a future, inviting all who see it to contemplate a just world. It asks us to commit to working for peace – a unifying message as relevant today as it was when Allward began his commission for the monument 100 years ago.
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