Returning to Vimy: The Vimy Pilgrimage and the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial

At the end of the First World War in 1919, the eyes of the Canadian government turned from funding a foreign war to commemorating the lives lost on the Western Front during the last 5 years there.  The Canadian Battlefield Monuments Commission was formed with the express purpose of choosing sites for war monuments, selecting the monuments and overseeing their completion. By 1921, it had been decided that instead of multiple large monuments at Canadian battlefields across France, there would be one single large one at Vimy Ridge, the site of Canada’s first resounding wartime victory fought in 1917. The design chosen was submitted by the Canadian sculptor Walter Allward.

Image: Passenger identity card for the HMS Duchess of Bedford, 1936, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2015.05.19.01

There has been a lot written about Allward and the 14 year saga surrounding the construction of the monument.  Allward’s design took 5 years to be completed and preparing the ground for construction turned into a herculean task, as workers struggled with a landscape riven by trenches, tunnels and un-exploded ordnance. The Great Depression intervened, public funds became harder to come by and by the time the monument was unveiled, 79 years ago this coming Sunday, there was another war brewing in Europe. Yet, the unveiling of the monument still captured the Canadian imagination, despite the 14 year wait. In 1929, the Canadian Legion had tossed around the idea of sending veterans of the Great War back to France for the unveiling of the monument, and as completion time neared, the Legion again took up the idea of helping those who had fought and sacrificed their youth in France to return there.

The Vimy Pilgrimage, as it became known, was a feat of organisation with over 6 000 participants taking part. The trip left from Montreal on 16 July 1936 with the group remaining in Europe as part of the Pilgrimage until 1 August; those who wished could also take advantage of an official invitation extended by the French government to stay in France for an extra 5 days, all expenses covered. The memorial was officially unveiled on Sunday, 26 July 1936 at 14h00 in a ceremony attended by the King, the 6 200 pilgrims, the President of France and other European dignitaries. On that day, 19 years after the taking of Vimy Ridge on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, the members of the pilgrimage were finally able to return to the ground for which they had fought so hard.

The members of the Pilgrimage returned to Canada soon after, and four years later the memorial was enveloped in another war as the German Army once again invaded France. This time, the blitzkrieg worked and there would be no chase to Mons, and no colossal struggle for trenches 100 feet apart. The new war was total war, fought on land and sea, in the air and in the streets of the cities that the generations before had already fought so hard for. During all of this, the Vimy Memorial stood on the graveyard of one generation as another fought to end the conflict that had begun 30 years before.

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