A RCMP officer stands with his head bowed at the corner of the Victoria Park cenotaph before the Remembrance Day ceremony in London, Ont. on Monday November 11, 2013. (CRAIG GLOVER, The London Free Press)
Since his high school days in London, the city’s numerous cenotaphs have reminded George Olley of soldiers sacrificing their lives to ensure freedom for generations to come.
“When I was a student, I thought about the soldiers who died in the First World War,” the Second World War flight sergeant said. “Now every time I pass a cenotaph, I remember the bravery of those fought in all wars, just praying these wonderful monuments will never be vandalized.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.
Much of the country’s commemorative practices appear tied to its cenotaphs.
Today 6,696 memorials dot the Canadian landscape, focal points without pomp and ceremony. Defined by its Greek origins as an empty tomb, these often bleak granite obelisks have profound meaning to those who flock to Remembrance Day ceremonies every Nov. 11.
Whether elaborate like the National War Memorial in Ottawa — with its full-size bronze figures and granite pedestal and arch — or hand-crafted structures in neighbourhoods and small towns, the Canadian cenotaph mystique arguably represents the country’s collective soul.
More than a decade ago Ingersoll Mayor Ted Comiskey and his young children had a chance meeting with a local veteran at the town’s cenotaph. Both man and structure provided Comiskey a moment of inspiration.
“I was so moved by the sight of the monument and the re-telling of his experiences during the Second World War, I wrote and later recorded a song, Red Petal Flower,” said the founder of the Canterbury Folk Festival. “I play it throughout the year, not just Nov. 11, because that encounter in the park meant so much to me.”
Western University history professor Jonathan Vance says the idea for such memorials came about after the First World War, largely because Canadians could not attend funerals for loved ones killed in action.
“The soldiers were buried overseas and given the number of missing we can only assume there were graves,” he said. “So the cenotaph became a substitute grave. It started around 1915-16, with most being quite modest structures. There was a national impulse to erect them after Canadians learned of the first wave of casualties.
“Today’s official cenotaph count hovers below the 7,000 mark, but it could be as high as 10,000. Just drive our back roads and you might discover some modest handmade memorials in small towns and in some communities that no longer exist.”
In Squamish, B.C., residents erected a wooden cenotaph in memory of John Askey Quick, the first local serviceman killed in the Second World War. Located in a reforested area, the memorial has since been moved as the forest has overgrown it.
Three years ago, at the other end of the country in Newfoundland (which was not part of Canada during the First and Second World Wars), more than 100 people gathered in the resettled community of Merasheen to unveil a new war memorial to 47 people from Merasheen Island who fought in various wars. One of the 300-plus communities abandoned during Joey Smallwood’s resettlement program from the 1950s to 1970s, Merasheen residents were resettled to places like Placentia. Yet the sense of pride and respect for their ancestors still binds those one-time neighbours.
Following the First World War, there was a strong sentiment in Canada that a national memorial should be erected to those who had served their country in that war. The task fell to English sculptor Vernon March, assisted by his six brothers and his sister who completed the work after his death in 1930.
The National War Memorial was unveiled by King George VI at 11 a.m. on May 21, 1939. Since 2000 it has contained the remains of an unknown First World War Canadian soldier brought back from France.
“Most people accepted they had a duty to memorialize the dead,” says Vance. Communities recognized the war was an important event in the life of the country and for that reason it shouldn’t be forgotten.
In some places the community is gone while the memorial remains. “In London (Ont.) on the site of the Simcoe Street school in 1920s there was a simple memorial. The school is long gone, but this memorial is still there,” Vance said.
Vance believes Canadian remembrance practices are consistent with counties such as Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
“Countries like the United States and France have totally different experiences,” he said.
“The States have more wars that are essential to their collective vision, like Vietnam, Korea and the Civil War, the latter still very much a current issue in many parts of the country and playing an enormous role in American memories,” Vance said.
“In parts of France and Belgium, people live with the residue of war all the time, surrounded by cemeteries and one-time battlefields.”
As for the 75th and 100th anniversary celebrations, both Vance and Olley, the war veteran, ponder whether they will have any effect.
“I think the anniversaries could heighten public interest, but I’m not sure they’ll change the emotional direction of things,” says Vance. “Commemorating a multi-year event is always a challenge, because people can get anniversary fatigue.
“The Canadian approach is about individuals, less about conventional jingoism. Local memorials are more about those six young men who ventured from this town and never came back, which has more impact, is more heartfelt, more emotional.”
For Olley, it’s simple and probably along the lines of what many Canadians feel: “The meaning is the same for me, no matter the year. We should remember those who died to give us the lives and freedoms we have today — more than other countries, I would say. I’m happy with Canada’s approach to remembrance.”
Three words ring true every time he comes upon a cenotaph, simple or ornate: “Lest we forget.”
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6,696 known cenotaphs in Canada; thousands may be unrecorded
National War Memorial designed by Vernon March of England. March’s design, with the theme “the Great Response of Canada,” was chosen from 127 entries from eight countries
Cenotaph Monument Restoration Program, within Veterans Affairs Canada, provides money to fix crumbling monuments