Books

Monumental obsession

The man behind the Vimy Ridge memorial never got his due

Brian Bethune April 16 2001
Books

Monumental obsession

The man behind the Vimy Ridge memorial never got his due

Brian Bethune April 16 2001

Monumental obsession

Books

The man behind the Vimy Ridge memorial never got his due

Brian Bethune

In the summer of 1936, King Edward VIII made his first royal visit abroad. He travelled to Vimy Ridge in northern France to unveil Canadas monument to its 60,000 Great War dead.

Only six months on the throne and as yet untouched by the scandal of his romance with Wallis Simpson, the popular sovereign had come as King of Canada. Standing on Canadian soil—100 hectares deeded in perpetuity by a grateful French government—and guarded by scarlet-clad RCMP officers, Edward played host on Sunday,

July 26 to French president Al| bert Lebrun, numerous clergy ° and a crowd of 100,000. Among | them were 6,000 veterans and | relatives of the dead who had I come from Canada on what was unselfconsciously described as a pilgrimage. Edward spoke with many of them, including 75-year-old Mrs. C. S. Wood ofWinnipeg, eight of whose 12 sons had perished in the carnage of the Western Front. “Please God, Mrs. Wood,” said the King, “it shall never happen again.”

Simply to read about the events of that day is to peer through a glass darkly at a Canada long vanished, a deeply Christian nation, devoted to its monarchy and inured to sacrifice. It was also a country not given to celebrating its artists. Mention of the Vimy memorials creator at its unveiling was conspicuous by its absence, although Macleans did note, almost in passing, that the shrine was “the most beautiful of its kind in all Europe.” In fact, in 14 years of obsessive struggle, Walter Allward had created what is arguably the greatest work of monumental art by a Cana-

dian. Yet the then-61-year-old Toronto sculptor returned home to obscurity. Even as the wheel of fame begins to turn for Allward a half-century after his 1955 death—he is a central figure in Jane Urquharts new novel, The Stone Carvers, and next month 10 of his original plaster figures for Vimy will go on display at the Museum of Civilization in Hull, Que.—the sculptor remains unknown. “I would have fictionalized Allwards character in any event,”

Urquhart says, “but under the circumstances I had no choice, since there is so litde on him.” Born in Toronto in 1875, Allward was making a comfortable living creating busts of such eminent Canadians as Sir Wilfrid Laurier by the time the First World War began in 1914. Too old to go to war himself, Allward often brooded on the horrors unfolding in France, and his anguish over the slaughter suffuses his design, winner of a 1921 government competition. The massive structure is built on a series of long walls inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians whose bodies were never recovered. From the walls rise two 30-m pylons and 20 giant figures symbolizing such concepts as The Breaking of the Sword and Canada Mourning Her Fallen Sons. Allward’s concept, described by Group of Seven painter A. Y. Jackson as “beyond and above anything the framers of the competition conceived of,” cost the immense Depression-era sum of $ 1.25 million—less, its defenders noted, than the cost of half a day’s wartime shelling. And there was never any doubt where it would go— Vimy Ridge, the place where Canadian history meets French geography.

On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, the Canadian Corps launched an assault on the German position at Vimy, a high ridge so strongly fortified that earlier British and French assaults had been hurled back. But in three days of bloody fighting, the Corps swept everything before it in the greatest set-piece batde of the war. The price was high— 10,602 killed or wounded—but soldiers at the time, and historians since, have argued that the battle was the key

to making Canada a nation. And the same commanding heights that made the ridge a military prize also made it a superb setting for Allward’s pylons, visible for over 60 km.

The immense task of clearing the site, choked with unexploded bombs and human remains, took 2 V2 years. Allward also spent years deciding on which material to use—he chose Trau stone from Yugoslavia—and longer still to locate a source equal to his standards. Work began in earnest in 1925, and for 11 years Allward stubbornly batded for his vision. When the war graves commissioners queried the costly delays, Allward wrote back with artistic aloofness. “I have been eating and sleeping stone for so long, it has become an obsession with me, and, incidentally, a nightmare.” But on that summer Sunday in 1936, no one was complaining of cost overruns. Allward’s spare sculptures and overt Christian symbolism resonated profoundly with the overseas pilgrims.

His work done, Allward returned to Toronto. When war broke out again in 1939, he pestered the government with demands it protect Vimy from aerial attack. He also began to make disturbing sketches—shattered bodies, or lovers run through by a single sword, and, in the background, Vimy in ruins. “I’ve seen those,” says novelist Urquhart. “They’re like little William Blakes, an insight into Allward’s mind.” The monument survived, of course, as did Allward’s original plaster models, sent to Canada, where they were safe from the enemy at least. They ended up in the custody of the department of veterans affairs, which in I960 asked the army to take the plasters to a “location where the attention of the public would not be attracted” and destroy them. But the defence ministry refused, and the plasters now belong to the Canadian War Museum.

Allward’s slow re-emergence into public consciousness has been matched by the slow deterioration of his monument. Although Veterans Affairs has been struggling for a decade to restore the Vimy structure, almost a quarter of its 4,449 stone blocks still need replacement. And in a final irony, leaking lime has obscured many of the names Allward laboured so long to carve on the walls. EE