This past weekend was the 91st anniversary of the end of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a four-day offensive in World War I in which the Canadian Corps, with help from the British army, seized a German stronghold on the Western Front. Marking the first time that such large numbers of Canadians fought together as a single unit, the battle has since achieved near mythical status (justified or not) as a key point in the development of Canadian identity.
Today, the battle site is commemorated by still-uncleared minefields, stretches of trenches, immaculately tended graveyards containing some of the 3,600 Canadians who died at Vimy, and the famous white marble and limestone monument.
Designed by Toronto sculptor Walter Allward, whose work also includes the South African War Memorial at Queen & University, and finished in 1936, the monument dominates the landscape. Its size forces visitors to recognize their own smallness and compels humility; its content—inscribed on the base are the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who died in France, and the sculptures portray grief and mourning, rather than triumphant military images—focuses the mind on the true nature of war, particularly one as murderous as this one was.
In contrast to Allward’s memorial, the nearby Vimy visitors’ centre comes as a disappointment. Small and error-riddled when it opened last year to coincide with the 90th anniversary commemoration, the centre clearly suffers from a lack of funds. It can be toured within 15 minutes, and it evokes none of the same emotion that you feel when visiting, for example, the equally small but more poignant visitors’ centre, also built last year, at the Tyne Cot Commonwealth memorial in Passchendaele. In 2004 the Canadian government found the money, deservedly, to refurbish Allward’s memorial, then in a state of decay; a few dollars more to construct a proper visitors’ centre would be a wise next step.