Surveying Canada’s Symbols of Remembrance

Sometimes dates become automatically etched in our memories. Where were you when you heard news of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11? Will you ever forget the television coverage that immediately followed? Few people will have difficulty remembering the date that changed the history of the world; to use an overworked description of the tragedy.

Eighty three years ago, on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, World War One came to an end. Nov. 11, 1918 is another of those dates that has become firmly fixed in our consciousness. Why?

Certainly not because this conflict ended all wars as it had been hoped. Incredibly, there was never a year during the remainder of the 20th century that did not witness armed conflict. Even now, as a new century is barely underway, the reality of war is, once more, upon us.

There are several reasons why Nov. 11, 1918 embodies significance for this country. Canada entered World War One as a colony and emerged a nation. This came about because of a war effort that went well beyond expectations; given our population. It was underscored by Canadas heroic commitment on the battlefield, and by the horrendous price paid, through some 60,000 casualties and 173,000 wounded or gassed.

This does not, by any stretch of the imagination, denigrate or belittle Canadas key role in other wars of the 20th century or the country’s part in numerous UN peacekeeping missions. It’s simply the date of a defining moment in our history; and one that has come to commemorate the fallen of all wars.

For these reasons, on Nov. 11, 2001, Canadians will gather at cenotaphs thoughout the country. It matters little whether one is witnessing the pomp and precision of the ceremonies at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, or events unfolding before a simple granite shaft at a country crossroad. The object is clear, the mood and symbolism the same.

How often have you witnessed this familiar scene? More than a half century on, the pace of World War Two veterans in their blazers and grey flannels, with medals on display, is slowing down; their ranks thinning as each year passes. They draw alongside a clutch of spectators swelled by squads of militia, cadets, guides and scouts. The colour party and clergy take their place. Flags, gowns and cassocks stir in the chill breeze.

The haunting strain of the Pipers Lament fills the air. Then come the traditional prayers, the roll call of the fallen, the placing of wreaths, two minutes of silence and the echoing tones of the Last Post. All too quickly, it seems, people disperse.

Among the mound of wreaths left at the base of these many cenotaphs, the striking blood red of the poppies catch our attention. How did these small flowers come to occupy centre stage on Remembrance Day?

During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, it was noticed that after the fighting was over, the war torn battlefields became carpeted with red poppies. During bombardments, the chalky soil was enriched by lime from the grim rubble of war. Thus fertilized, poppies soon appeared. In World War One, the same conditions prevailed, especially in the Flanders area of southwestern Belgium.

The presence of these flowers caught the attention of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae (18721918), a member of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. The result was Canadas most famous poem, soon to be known world wide: In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row/That mark our place: and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly

For almost eighty years, the distribution of remembrance poppies has been in the hands of the Royal Canadian Legion. The idea was fostered by a British army engineer, Major George Howson, who was severely injured in action on the Western Front. The first Poppy Day was held on Nov. 11, 1921. The following year, Howson and five employees began the manufacture of the familiar artificial poppies, in an old factory in Richmond, Surrey, on the outskirts of London. Still in operation, it ironically survived a direct hit during the blitz of World War Two.

The wearing of a poppy in memory of the fallen soon spread around the world, and it is now accepted as a universal symbol of remembrance. The money raised enables the Legion to help those injured during past and present conflicts and to offer support to their families.

Three other Canadian symbols must also be noted. Two are in Ottawa, the other overseas, on a European battlefield. Any visitor to Parliament Hill cannot miss the National War Memorial. Dominating Confederation Square, it will again be the focal point of a Service of Remembrance on Nov. 11th. Not far away, is the Peace Tower, in the centre block of the Parliament Buildings. Within, the Memorial Chamber and Books of Remembrance honour the 116,031 Canadians who did not survive war.

The third and most dramatic Canadian Memorial stands 6,000 kilometres away, near Vimy Ridge in France. It marks the site of a battle that took place on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1917, when 100,000 Canadian troops, stormed and captured the Ridge. Noteworthy is the fact that this was the first time in which all units of the Canadian Army fought together. When the dust of battle had cleared away, it became clear that the cost was high, very high; 3,600 Canadians were dead and 7,000 wounded.

The monument was designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Allward (18751955) and took 15 years, from 1921 to 1936, to complete. When asked to explain the symbolism, he stated that the design came to him in a dream. Dominating the monument are two lofty pylons or sentinels suggesting Canadas two founding races.

Between these, there is a depiction of the Spirit of Sacrifice throwing the torch to comrades. Carved figures commemorate: Peace, Justice and Truth among other virtues. Allward concluded: In plain terms, it was to be an everlasting memorial. The base, pylons and twenty figures were constructed from 8,000 tons of Adriatic marble. It was unveiled by King Edward VIII in 1936.

The awe-inspiring task of sculpting the Vimy figures is featured in a novel The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart. On the short list for both the prestigious 2001 Giller Prize and the Governor Generals Award For Fiction, the novel is a recommended read for anyone interested in World War One. A reviewer has written: In positioning the parts of Europe that survive in Canada, with a part of Canada memorialized in Europe Urquhart tackles something more ambitious than she has ever done before.

In reflecting on recent international events, a comment by British Prime Minister Tony Blair has special relevance, as we approach Nov. 11, 2001. He said: We should try to understand the causes of terror. But let there be no moral ambiguity about this; nothing could ever justify the events of 11 September, and it is to turn justice on its head to pretend it could.

The World War One poet, Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), provides us with a thought provoking postscript: Have you forgotten yet? Look up, and swear by the green of spring that youll never forget.