"They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning. We will remember them." - Laurence Binyon -"Act of Remembrance"

Of all the monuments to Canada's participation in World War I, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is, in the opinion of most Canadians, the most heart wrenchingly beautiful and somber. Far removed from Canadian soil, like the men and boys who fought in the trenches of France, it stands alone atop Vimy Ridge as a stark reminder of man's inhumanity to man. Far from glorifying war, it embraces the purest aspect of sacrifice: remembrance and sorrow for those lost. That it sits on the bloodiest battlefield that Canadian soldiers fought on is a fitting tribute to those that gave their lives for their country.

During World War I, Canada was still a freshly minted country, largely a Commonwealth State, tied to the political whims of Mother England. When Britain entered the war, Canada soon followed. Under a largely English command, 4 Canadian divisions fought for King and Empire. April 9, 1917 saw all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fighting together for the first time. At dawn, they were sent to storm Vimy Ridge, a 14-kilometer long natural rise in the French countryside. The ridge had become a vital part of the German defense system. It was so well fortified that all attempts to take it by Allied forces during the first three years of the war had failed. Hotly contested high ground, it was firmly in German hands. Preceded by a vicious artillery barrage, the Canadians advanced. That afternoon they had captured everything but Hill 145, which fell after three days of bloody attrition. Hailed as a great swift victory, it came at a high cost. 10,602 Commonwealth troops died, 3,598 of which hailed from Canada.

The victory at Vimy Ridge was a turning point for Allied forces in the First World War. Back home in Canada, the victory at Vimy Ridge united Canadians and brought pride to the young nation. After the war ended in 1918, the Government of Canada began a process that would see the Vimy Memorial built. They opened a competition for designs that saw 160 entries. Walter S. Allward, a sculptor from Toronto, Ontario, was eventually awarded the design. In 1922, the government of France gave the 250 acres of land at the site of Hill 145 to Canada in perpetuity, as a gift in remembrance of its help during the war. Allward's design was titanic, using 11,000 tonnes of concrete and steel, and 6,000 tonnes of quarried limestone. Mined from an old Roman quarry near Split, Croatia, the stone was selected because it had previously been used to build a third century Roman palace that has survived to this day in remarkable shape. The base measures 74 metres across. The two central pylons, representing Canada and France, are each 45 metres high. Starting in 1926, it took 11 years to complete at a cost of $1.5 Million dollars, before inflation. Completed in 1936, it was dedicated on July 26 the same year by King Edward VIII of England.

At the peak of Hill 145, carved from a 30-tonne block of limestone, is the figure of a cloaked woman, representing the Spirit of Canada, shown in deep mourning. She stands facing east, looking out toward the Douai Plain. Below her, a tomb draped in laurel branches, holds helmet and sword. On each side of the front walls at the base of the steps are statues known as the Defenders. The two groupings of figures are known as the Breaking of the Sword and Sympathy for the Helpless. Above each grouping is a cannon, draped in laurel and olive branches symbolizing victory and peace. Representing a childless mother and father, two other statues recline in mourning on either side of the steps on the west side of the monument.

Carved on the walls of the base of the monument are the names of 11,285 Canadians who were killed in France and whose final resting place is unknown. More than 7,000 other Canadians lay buried in 30 war cemeteries within a 16-kilometre radius of the Vimy Memorial. All told, 66,655 Canadians died in the First World War.

Rising from the base, twin white pylons, representing Canada and France, are adorned with maple leaves and fleur-de-li respectively. At the peak, figures of named Peace and Justice look down upon Truth, Knowledge, Gallantry and Sympathy. Around the lower figures, the coat of arms of Canada, Britain and France are displayed. Large crosses are sculpted on the outside of the pylons. Between the two structures, on top of the base, a statue of a young dying soldier, known as the Spirit of Sacrifice, throws a torch to his comrades.

Around the monument a 250-acre park, which like the monument itself, is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It has been largely reforested to prevent erosion, but it still preserves the markings of war. Stretches of ground remain peppered with shell holes from artillery bombardments and trenches have been restored and preserved. Some parts of the park actually remain off limits because of unexploded munitions and undermined land.

In 1999, as a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies, the body of an unidentified Canadian solider was disinterred from the Cemetery at Vimy and flown to the new Tomb of the Unknown Solider at the foot of Canada's National War Memorial Cenotaph in Ottawa. The solider was a casualty of the 1917 Vimy Ridge offensive. His body was then buried in a full military ceremony, attended by the Prime Minister and Governor General. After almost 82 years, he was back in Canada, and representative of all the Canadians lost in war.

I was on a tour of France as a teenager when our bus traveled the road from Calais to Paris. When we passed though the green fields along the Vimy Ridge rushing along a three-lane highway, few of us paid much attention to what was outside. When we came to the point on the road where you could see the monument, the bus grew quiet. Our French guide pointed out the tower of marble far across the field with great pride. I stared at it, and it struck a chord. My countrymen had been here long before me and died for peace. For the rest of the trip to Paris, I stared out on the fields and tried to imagine what it was like all those years ago. It was a powerful reminder not to take any thing in life for granted.

Commonwealth War Grave Commission - http://www.cwgc.org/
Canada's Digital Collections,- http://collections.ic.gc.ca
For King and Empire -http://www.kingandempire.com/cemetery_V.html
A visit in person

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