Places to remember
War memorials aren’t places you visit for fun, but are a place for reflection and an opportunity to say “Thank you”. They are works of art in their own right, but their beauty and serenity serve as sombre reminders of horrors many of us can only begin to imagine. They’re more than just stone and metal — they’re the touchstones that connect us to the past and the human cost of the freedoms we often take for granted.
More than 100,000 Canadians died during the two World Wars and Korean Conflict. Many of these soldiers don’t have a known grave — they were never found or never identified, and many of them died at sea or in the skies. These memorials serve as their honourary burial places, and in turn represent the more than 1.7 million men who served in these wars, not to mention past and present conflicts.
In honour of Remembrance Day, here are a few of the places to pay tribute to the fallen.
Even if you’ve never been to our nation’s capital, you’ll likely recognize The National War Memorial from the memorial services on TV. Located in the heart of Ottawa near parliament, the towering cenotaph was officially rededicated in 1982 to commemorate those who fought in World War II and the Korean War in addition to the casualties of World War I. In 2000, the site also became the final resting place of an unidentified soldier from World War I. Now the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents all those who have fought in wars, both past and present.
However, the city is home to many more tributes. For instance, you’ll find the Nursing Sisters’ Memorial in the Hall of Honour in the centre block on Parliament Hill. Stop by to view the Books of Remembrance in the Peace Tower’s Memorial Chamber, and don’t forget the East and West Memorial Buildings too. In front of the city hall, you’ll find the bronze globe of the Commonwealth Air Forces Ottawa Memorial, and Confederation Park is home to the National Aboriginal Veterans Monument. (You can find a full list of public art and memorials from the National Capital Commission.)
Military buffs won’t want to miss the Canadian War Museum, a vast collection focusing on Canada’s military history and role in international conflicts. In addition to special events and exhibitions surrounding Remembrance Day, the architecture itself offers a little something extra. At eleven o’clock on November 11, sunlight shines through a single window to fall upon the original headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier. (You can watch the broadcast on the museum’s website, and view its Online Exhibitions.)
St. John’s, Newfoundland
Though not part of Confederation during either of the World Wars, the people of the Dominion of Newfoundland played an important role. Out of a population of less than 250,000 — smaller than many Canadian cities today — more than 8,500 soldiers went abroad to serve in the war. More than 1,500 of those soldiers never returned, and more than half of them lost their lives in a single battle.
While the province has many memorials, you can visit the largest and more elaborate in the heart of St. John’s, built on the site where Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England hundreds of years earlier. The National War Memorial collectively represents the Royal Naval Reserve, the Mercantile Marine and the Forestry Corps and The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, known as “the Blue Puttees”, who were all but wiped out at Beaumont-Hamel during the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. (For more information, visit Heritage Newfoundland.)
Today, the province celebrates Canada Day along with the rest of the country — but only after Memorial Day commemorations are observed. Across the seas, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France stands on the site as a reminder of the regiment who lost their lives there. Each year, a special ceremony is held prior to Remembrance Day.
Vimy Ridge, France
History buffs know the Battle of Vimy Ridge wasn’t just an important moment in the war — it was also crucial to defining Canada’s identity. It was the first battle where all four Canadian divisions fought together. At dawn on April 9, 1917, more than 35,000 Canadian soldiers led the charge on this key territory occupied by the Germans. While attacks by French and British failed, the Canadians triumphed — but after nearly four days of heavy combat, nearly 3,600 men were killed and several thousand more were injured.
More than a decade in the making, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial was officially unveiled on July 26, 1936, and underwent massive restoration before its 2007 rededication on the 90th anniversary of the battle. On its walls you’ll find carved the names of the 11,285 missing Canadian soldiers who died in France during the war.
However, the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada encompasses more than just the towering monument created by Canadian sculptor, Walter S. Allward. The site also includes two Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries, the Grange tunnel, reconstructed trenches and a house. It’s one of our few national historic sites that isn’t in Canada, and stands as a reminder of all the soldiers who died during World War I.
However, you don’t have to go to France to see a part of history. While designing the memorial, Allward created many plaster figures from which the stone carvers worked. Seventeen of these figures are now part of the Canadian War Museum. (Read more here.)
The beautiful, now peaceful area in the valley of the Ravebeek belies the horrors it saw in the fall of 1917. The Canadian Corps played a major role in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, part of the four month fight to gain control over this village near Ypres and Flanders. More than 15,000 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded. Some fell to gunfire, and while others fell victim to the treacherously muddy, shell-destroyed terrain itself.
Today, the fallen are remembered at the The Passchendaele Memorial, on the site of Crest Farm where Canadian troops met some of the worst fighting. Outside of what is now Passendale is the Tyne Cot Memorial. While not specifically Canadian, the memorial is part of Tyne Cot Cemetery — the resting-place of nearly 12,000 soldiers from the Commonwealth Forces who died from 1914 to 1918. Nearly 70 per cent of the graves have no name on them, though the names of the soldiers who died in battle are inscribed on the memorial itself.
And while it was a Canadian poet who wrote In Flanders Fields, that site is now dedicated to the U.S. war effort. Nearly 400 American soldiers are buried at the Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial.
Then part of the British Empire, this small country off the coast of Italy had it’s own role to fulfill during the Second World War. Thanks to its prime location in the Mediterranean Sea, it was close to important shipping and trade routes linking many of the countries involved in the war. The islands were defended by air and sea, and were well known to soldiers who carried out operations from various bases in Europe.
The Malta Memorial commemorates the 2,297 soldiers — including 285 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force — who lost their lives in operations over the land and seas surrounding the country. Around the base of the 15 metre high Travertine marble column you’ll find bronze plaques listing each name of these men who have no known grave, along with an inscription: PROPOSITI INSULA TENAX TENACES VIROS COMMEMORAT — “an island resolute with purpose remembers resolute men.”
Another interesting fact: the memorial stands over an abandoned railway tunnel where the citizens of Malta sought shelter during the war.
What about more modern memorials? While it’s unlikely you’d want to visit any time soon, there are war memorials in Afghanistan — including the Kandahar Airfield Memorial and Memorial Inuksuk.
Of course, this list is just a small sampling of the many memorial sites in Canada and around the world. However, you don’t have to go abroad to honour those who died. Most cities and towns have dedicated space in honour of the men and women who fought and lost their lives. (In fact, there are nearly 6500 of them on record.) They could be a monument, a cenotaph, a room or an entire building.
Even if you don’t leave your home or workplace, you can observe the minute of silence wherever you are, watch the memorial service on TV or online or tune in to the radio. You can also visit the Canadian Virtual War Memorial (CVWM) anytime and look up a loved one’s name.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be Remembrance Day or a special anniversary to visit any of these sites. After all, reflecting on our freedom — and those who fought and died for it — is something we should do more than once a year.
ON THE WEB
For details on the National Remembrance Day Ceremony in Ottawa, visit the Canadian Legion website.
Additional sources: About.com, Histori.ca, WWII.ca, tourist board websites