(Volume 24 Issue 1)
By Gord Jenkins
It is located in the heart of Ottawa and rises from the horizon as one looks north along Elgin Street, framed by the iconic Parliament Buildings and the Château Laurier Hotel. It is ingrained in the psyche of our nation. Of course, I am referring to the National War Memorial, our national cenotaph, which is recognized by all through the yearly Remembrance Day ceremonies that commemorate the sacrifices that have been made in defence of Canada. These ceremonies are conducted by the Royal Canadian Legion and see thousands of Canadians attend in concert with veterans, currently serving members of our Canadian Armed Forces, foreign military and political dignitaries, and other service-related organizations.
This structure was created in «the memory of those who participated in the Great War and lost their lives in the service of humanity» ... the First World War, the «War to end all Wars.» Yet sadly, history has a bad habit of repeating itself and, over time, the memorial has seen the names of the other conflicts in which Canadians have participated etched into the granite: South African War, Second World War, Korea, Afghanistan.
Some things that you may not know about the cenotaph.
Until last year, if you were standing near the cenotaph, you were actually standing on an artificial «island of earth» under which a storage ‹cave› lays. This is due to two reasons. The first being that Ottawa, formerly known as Lower Bytown and Upper Bytown, is actually divided by the Rideau Canal which flows north-south, cutting through the downtown core as it enters into the Ottawa River. Secondly, as the old Grand Trunk Railway lines ran along the Rideau Canal to the main train station (now the Government Conference Centre), the cenotaph site was a confluence of bridges and the roof over the railway tracks. Not a pretty sight for the engineers, but I›ll get to that in a moment.
The design for the cenotaph was awarded to Vernon March, a United Kingdom artist, in January 1926. March won the international competition to design a monument «expressive of the feelings of the Canadian people as a whole, to the memory of those who participated in the Great War and lost their lives in the service of humanity.» March was helped by his six brothers and sister, who completed the work after Vernon’s untimely death in 1930. The bronze figures were all completed in 1931 but had to wait until 1938 until the appropriate site in Canada was found and developed. For six months, Londoners were welcomed to view the bronzes in Hyde Park, prior to the figures going into a storage shed for seven years.
The 22 bronze figures going through the arch, called «The Response,» are surmounted by two figures on top of the arch representing «Peace» and» Freedom.» The arch and the base of the monument were constructed from seven types of marble; the monument itself consists of 503 tons of granite and 32 tons of bronze secured on built-up steel piles. All this weight eventually caused the whole marble and bronze and surrounding platform and steps, also of marble, to begin to sink and a major restoration was announced in March 2016. Numerous cement trucks were then seen at this site as Public Works quietly poured tons of cement into the train track cavern (used for storage) underneath the cenotaph.
Now that the cenotaph is adequately shored up, it will remain a beacon to the memory of those who gave so much in the defence of Canada and our way of life. Don’t forget to wear a poppy and come to the cenotaph on Remembrance Day. All Canadians can be proud of those who went before them and who continue to serve in the Armed Forces.