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Carving Out Our History

by Pat Sullivan


The Vimy Memorial turned 65 this year, and creator Walter Allward would have been pleased with the birthday presents. Not only did the federal government promise to spend millions repairing the monument, but the memorial and Allward himself became central characters in Canadian writer Jane Urquhart’s fifth novel, The Stone Carvers.

And with her new book came a new audience. “On a book tour you often attract a literary crowd, the same people who always go to readings,” she explains. “But for this one people were coming and showing me pictures of great uncles in uniform, of the Legion pilgrimage to Europe in the 1930s, of their own visits to the memorial. It was almost as if the book gave them permission to talk about this.”

The novel was published in April, but it’s really about 30 years old because the idea first started percolating when she visited the memorial in the early ’70s. “I wasn’t even writing novels then,” she recalls, “but my background is in art history and I became fascinated with the monument as a work of art.”

That background proved crucial because it ensured that Allward would become a key building block in The Stone Carvers. Urquhart is convinced the memorial could not have been created without the Toronto sculptor’s obsessive attention to detail and his refusal to give in to government bean-counters.”

Allward said it would take as long as it took and cost what it cost,” says Urquhart, “and good for him. The memorial wouldn’t have happened without him.”

That’s why it surprises her that Allward seemed to disappear from sight once the memorial was built. She says there is something “sadly Canadian” about this. The Stone Carvers, at least in part, is her attempt to right that wrong, and when she describes him and his vision the memorial itself comes to life. “Nothing about the memorial was probable, even possible,” she writes. “Allward wanted white, wanted to recall the snow that fell each year on coast and plains and mountains, the disappeared boys’ names preserved forever, unmelting on a vast territory of stone that was as white as the frozen winter lakes of the country they had left behind.”

She also captured his obsession with the stone used to build it: It took him more than two years and visits to quarries in four other countries before he eventually settled on 18,000 tons of stone and concrete, including 6,000 tons of trau stone from a Yugoslavian quarry. Construction began in 1925 and was completed 11 years later on July 26, 1936. The monument, which was unveiled by King Edward VIII, stands as a tribute to all who served Canada in battle during World War I.

Jacqueline Hucker, a historian with Canadian Heritage Historical Services, says the choice of trau stone would have some “rather sad” consequences, because even though the stone was durable in the dry, unpolluted air of Croatia, it would face a tougher challenge in industrialized northern France.

Andrew Powter of Public Works Canada, project leader for the reconstruction, says the climate of northern France is the main culprit behind the memorial’s deterioration. “There’s a constant wetting and drying, freezing and thawing, and that takes a toll.”

Urquhart’s book is filled with minutiae about a memorial that took a lot longer to build than it took to fight the war it commemorates. The ground surrounding Vimy Ridge was so riddled with mines and unexploded ordnance it took five years just to make it safe for construction. Once the work started, the artisans kept discovering their own macabre museum: “Body parts, clothing, bibles, family snapshots, letters, buttons, bones and belt buckles were unearthed daily, and under the plot of earth from which the central staircase would someday rise, the fully uniformed skeletal remains of a German general were disinterred.”

She also describes the mathematical gymnastics needed to ensure the memorial had exactly enough room for every letter of every one of the 11,285 names that had to be carved into it. That job alone would take four carvers two years, and even during construction the list of soldiers’ names was a work in progress. Missing men would turn up “in the north woods of Canada, or in the tropics, or hidden in their attic. And every week or so a few other men would be reported as never returning to homes that had waited for them for years.”

She made a personal connection with that list when she discovered that the name Urquhart appears five times. “I guess that brought it home. It gave some idea of the extent of the loss, because it is not a common name.”

Urquhart, who had the Allward family’s help in conducting her research, says she took some liberties. “His family was wonderful about this,” she says. “For instance, where Klara–one of the main characters–carves the face, well, with Walter Allward you know that would never have happened.”

Did she do a good job capturing the man and his monument? Canada’s premier military historian thinks she did. “I liked it as a book and I liked it as a description of what went into building that monument,” says Jack Granatstein, professor emeritus of history at the University of Toronto and former director of the Canadian War Museum.

He says her book is the first fictional work to deal with the monument. And even though Urquhart is a novelist, not a historian, Granatstein was impressed with her research efforts. “It all rang true,” he says.

Laura Brandon, chief curator at the Canadian War Museum, agrees. Urquhart did some of her research at the museum, which has 17 of the 20 life-size plaster models Allward made in creating the memorial. “When she was here, I showed her how Allward had reworked the plaster in the maquettes (models) and how his fingermarks were still visible. She built this into the book, and for me it was interesting to see how research and fiction came together.”

Veterans Affairs Canada has also given the book its stamp of approval. “Although it is intertwined with fiction, there is enough historical fact in The Stone Carvers to give readers a real sense of Canada’s role in the battle at Vimy Ridge,” says Dolores Griffin, director of branch liaison and executive projects. “The compulsion of the fictional characters to play a role in the carving of the memorial– even Klara, who waited out the war at home–highlights the importance of our battlefield memorials in commemoration of those who served.”

Hucker, meanwhile, “has resisted” casting her historian’s eye on The Stone Carvers, but she says Urquhart picked a worthy subject. “What you can say about the Vimy Memorial is that it is without a doubt Canada’s prime monument from the first half of the 20th century, and I’d say that at the beginning of the 21st century it has almost been reborn as a national symbol.”

Delving into Canada’s military past was a natural enough pursuit for Urquhart, who grew up surrounded by World War II veterans because five of her mother’s six brothers served in the war. Her family cottage still shows signs of this connection, thanks to a lamp made from an artillery shell.

As for the memorial itself, interest continues unabated. Veterans Affairs spokesperson Janice Summerby says it still attracts 600,000 visitors a year. The number has risen by 10 per cent during the past year, but it isn’t known if there is a connection between the increase and Urquhart’s book. Granatstein says there is probably a simpler explanation for the increase–the monument’s deteriorating condition was well publicized in Canada and many visitors probably wanted to see it “before it fell apart.”

Last May, a month after Urquhart’s book was published, Veterans Affairs announced that the final price tag for repairs at Vimy and the 12 other monuments would be $30 million, and that the work would take six years. At Vimy alone, 22 per cent of the stone has to be replaced, and the walkways and aprons require total reconstruction. VAC says water damage is one of the main problems, with lime that has been washed out of the monument obscuring some of the names on it.

Powter, a senior conservation architect at Public Works, said $20 to $25 million of the total will be spent at Vimy; when the memorial was completed in 1936, the cost was $1.3 million. He expects the work will involve two years of construction spread over five years.

In announcing the repairs, Veterans Affairs Minister Ron Duhamel said the “great sacrifices and achievements of Canadians during the First World War must never be forgotten.”

Granatstein thinks The Stone Carvers is one small step in assuring that this never happens. “Jane Urquhart has opened this chapter of our history up to a whole new audience,” he says, “and that is always a good thing.”


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