Wednesday, June 1, 2016

World War Wednesdays: Haunting Beauty: The Canadian Vimy Ridge Memorial and Adolf Hitler

     I've been thinking a lot lately about a story I heard a few months ago at the Canadian War Museum, and thought I'd look into it this week for a post.

     Considered among the greatest war memorials ever built, the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge in northeast France has as dramatic a history as the infamous battle it honors. Following the end of the First World War in 1918, the high escarpment at Vimy Ridge was left with ruined trees, artillery craters, and crumbling trenches which still held the remains of some of the 3,598 Canadians who died trying to capture it over four days in April 1917.
Canadians during the Battle of Vimy Ridge
     The Ridge then became one of eight battle sites in France and Belgium where Canada sought and received permission to construct memorials to in remembrance of its 66,000 fallen soldiers in the Great War. While Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia hired the same group of Commonwealth architects to design their battlefield monuments in Europe, Canada chose a different method: Ottawa announced a nationwide competition for the design of its Vimy Ridge memorial, and an undisputed winner was chosen in 1921. The daring proposal was put forward by renowned Toronto sculptor Walter Allward, whose classic South African memorial (which still stands on University Ave. in Toronto) greatly differed from the breathtaking monument he envisioned for Vimy.
     Allward said the idea for the monument was inspired by a dream he'd had during the "blackest" days of the war in which Canadian soldiers were saved by their dead comrades, who rose up in the thousands to rescue the living. The massive twin pylons symbolize both Canada and France, which tower thirty meters over a stone platform, adorned with sculpted figures symbolizing peace, mourning, and sacrifice. It took a total of twelve years to complete, all of which were supervised by Allward himself, and constructed with stone from a Croatian quarry that had also been used by the Romans in the third century. After years of public anticipation, thousands of Canadians traveled across the Atlantic by ship to attend the monument's dedication ceremony, featuring a speech by King Edward VIII. The site instantly became a popular symbol of Canada's achievements during the battle as well as a major tourist attraction.
Aerial shot of the 1936 dedication ceremony, courtesy of flickr
     However, only three years later, Europe found itself again at the threshold of another war. To calm fears about the memorial's fate as France fell under Nazi occupation, Allward revealed that he had always known the area around Vimy could once again become a battleground. "So we carved the figures of stone instead of casting them in bronze," he said at the time. "Bronze figures might be melted down for munitions". By June 1940, Canadian newspapers had begun trumpeting dramatic accounts of the monument's destruction in order to encourage public favor against the Nazis, as can be seen with the Montreal Daily Star's headline: "Vimy Memorial Smashed by Nazi Bombers," which left Canadians appalled and outraged.
     In response to these false allegations, Hitler decided to visit the Vimy Memorial himself as part of his first trip to France since the start of the war in order to prove that the statues were still intact. German newspapers published a series of photos of him and a group of Nazi officers among the white pylons and nearby trenches. As University of Ottawa historian and a great friend of mine, Dr. Serge Durflinger says, "Hitler admires it immensely. he says so at the time. As a result, the Germans respect the memorial all through the war." Regardless, Canadians were not fully convinced of the memorial's survival until after the area was recaptured by the Allies in 1944 and it was reported to be free of damage. The site remains to this day a symbol of strength and humble sacrifice, with its lack of victorious boastfulness being perhaps one of its greatest and most enduring contributing factors.

Information courtesy of Canwest News Service, 2007.

Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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