Canada’s contributions to the Allied war effort during the First World War have often been credited with bringing to life a modern sense of Canadian identity. This is not a perception which has arisen since the war; it was shared by those who lived through it. Famously, Brigadier-General Alexander Ross, who commanded the 28th Battalion at Vimy Ridge, stated of the battle “it was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then… that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” In light of this, it is unsurprising that the idea of a National War Memorial was quite popular in the aftermath of the war. Though numerically Canada’s losses (61,000 dead, 172,000 wounded) were significantly smaller than many of the other nations who participated in the war, as a percentage of the population Canada’s casualties were significant (around 2.8% killed and wounded, with 0.9% killed). Therefore, in 1925 an architectural competition was announced to secure a design for the proposed memorial. Under the circumstances the opposition (King’s Liberals were then in power) raised no objection save for one regarding the cost.
127 responses were received by the government. The competition had been open to all British subjects, citizens of allied countries, or those who by birth were British subjects; 66 of the applications were from Canada, 24 from England, 21 from France, 7 from the US, 5 from Belgium, 2 from Italy, 1 from Scotland, and 1 from Trinidad. Ultimately the design of Vernon March, an English architect from Kent, was selected; it is the design seen today, of the bronze soldiers marching through the arch. Although March died suddenly in 1930, his six surviving siblings would finish the work for him, completing the bronze figures and later overseeing the construction of the arch itself. The memorial was finally completed in October 1938; the next year was spent on improving the surrounding area, overseen by Ottawa’s venerable city planner Jacques Greber in one of his earliest roles in the area. Finally, on May 31, 1939, the memorial was unveiled by King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, during the first visit of a reigning monarch to Canada; more than 100,000 people attended the event.
The timing of the unveiling would prove unfortunate. Three months later, another war would break out, one which in many ways was the sequel to the very war which had led to the construction of the memorial. A further 44,090 Canadians would be killed in this conflict, and 55,000 wounded. Once again, however, Canada’s sense of nationhood would be forged in the fire of war; once the war ended, Canada had taken its place as a full-fledged nation, with the last remnants of control passing from London to Ottawa. In 1982, the War Memorial was officially rededicated to also honour the war dead of the Second World War and the Korean War; recently, in 2014, it was again rededicated to officially honour all Canadian war dead (which meant the addition of the Boer and Afghanistan Wars). The memorial remains today one of the most touching areas in Ottawa, and is the centre of the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in the city. Canada passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and it emerged stronger than before. The war memorial remembers those who sacrificed their lives so that their country might survive.
1 Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Capture of Vimy Ridge.” Last modified October 2014.
2 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “First World War (WWI).” Last modified June 2015.
3 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “National War Memorial.” Last modified April 2015.
4 Veterans Affairs Canada. “National War Memorial.” Last modified June 2016.
5 Veterans Affairs Canada. “National War Memorial.” Last modified June 2016.
6 Veterans Affairs Canada. “National War Memorial.” Last modified June 2016.
7 Veterans Affairs Canada. “National War Memorial.” Last modified June 2016.
8 Library and Archives Canada. “Service Files of the Second World War- War Dead, 1939-47.” Last modified July 2016.
9 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “National War Memorial.” Last modified April 2015.
Images of National War Memorial courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.