While traveling through the countryside of Northern France, one might be skeptical if informed they are standing in Canada. If one was at the battlefield sites of Vimy Ridge or Beaumont-Hamel, however, this would be the case. These memorials commemorate two battles which did more than any others to shape Canadian identity during the war. Vimy resulted in 10,500 Canadian casualties, but was perhaps more important than any other in creating a Canadian identity; Beaumont-Hamel nearly annihilated the Newfoundland Regiment, but exercised the same impact on (the then-independent Dominion of) Newfoundland. This newfound national identity is today well represented in the chosen design of the memorials.
Vimy saw 20,000 Canadians succeed at doing what hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers before them had failed to do; to dislodge the German Army from the seven-kilometre long Vimy Ridge. This represented one of the most dramatic Allied successes of the war by 1917, and certainly of the Canadian Corps. It also represented the first time every division of the Canadian Corps had fought together, under the command of the British general Sir Julian Byng and Arthur Currie, a Canadian. Although the casualty rate for the battle was high, it was significantly lower than had been sustained during previous, failed, attempts to take the ridge. The Germans also suffered 20,000 casualties during the attack; it is impressive, considering the fact that they were assaulting a defensible position, that the Canadians were able to inflict more casualties than they sustained. Four Canadians also won the Victoria’s Cross during the battle, a testament to the bravery of the soldiers who participated. Following the war, in 1922, France made a gift of the land on which the battle had taken place to Canada for all time; it was immediately recognized that a monument would be needed to mark Canada’s sacrifice and bravery. The winning design for the memorial was by Walter Seymour Allward, a Canadian architect, whose double pillar design remains iconic today. The 91 hectares which surround the memorial are adorned with 11,285 trees and shrubs from Canada; this number exactly matches the number of Canadians who went missing in France, whose names are inscribed on the monument. The monument site is open for visits all year round, and has attracted millions of Canadians and foreign tourists who pay tribute to the bravery of Canadian and Allied forces during the war.
Beaumont-Hamel is a very different kind of memorial, but no less significant for that. The Battle of Beaumont-Hamel was a part of the overall Battle of the Somme, which took place on the 1st of July, 1916; it was a horrific battle for both sides, but the Newfoundland Regiment perhaps got the worst of it. 800 Newfoundlanders were committed to the battle as it opened, and of those over 700 were killed, missing, or wounded by the 2nd of July. Coming from such a small Dominion, this casualty rate alone would have been tragic; however, another 2100 Newfoundlanders would tragically add to this tally over the course of the war. The Beaumont-Hamel memorial was designed by British architect Basil Grotto and pushed by Father Thomas Nangle, a padre who served with the Regiment. It takes the shape of a bronze caribou representing Newfoundland; on three bronze plates below the caribou are inscribed the names of the 800 soldiers from Newfoundland who died during the war and have no known grave. Along with five other such caribou around France (and one in Newfoundland itself) these monuments offer a chance for reflection on the sacrifice undertaken by such a small piece of an Empire.
Taken together, both monuments are touching and beautiful spots; they also represent a past which is best remembered but never repeated. With any luck, the construction and maintenance of memorials such as these lessens the chance that such horror will ever occur again, at the very least in the foreseeable future. And if all else fails, it is always nice to think that there are little pieces of Canada abroad.
1 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Battle of Vimy Ridge.” Last modified June 2016.
2 Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Capture of Vimy Ridge.” Last modified October 2014.
3 Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Capture of Vimy Ridge.” Last modified October 2014.
4 Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Capture of Vimy Ridge.” Last modified October 2014.
5 Veterans Affairs Canada. “Remembering the Fallen: Canadian National Vimy Memorial.” Last modified October 2014.
6 Veterans Affairs Canada. “Remembering the Fallen: Canadian National Vimy Memorial.” Last modified October 2014.
7 Veterans Affairs Canada. “Remembering the Fallen: Canadian National Vimy Memorial.” Last modified October 2014.
8 Veterans Affairs Canada. “The Newfoundland Regiment and the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel.” Last modified April 2016.
9 Veterans Affairs Canada. “Design and Construction.” Last modified May 2016.
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.