Every November we pause to remember those who served in war and peace and those who paid the ultimate price for our collective freedom.
This year, this very freedom and the values behind it were tested. Some even attempted to appropriate and redefine them in furtherance of their political agenda. For this reason, this year’s post is dedicated to our National War Memorial who undeservedly got caught in the crossfire during Ottawa’s so-called “freedom” occupation of last February.
Wars and conflicts
War devastation and losses are immeasurable and defy description. Countless lives are cut short and countless more are forever maimed by wounds and grief.
In total, over our short history, 117,000 Canadians gave their lives for our country. Of these, some 28,000 have no known grave. In many of these cases, the remains simply could not be identified due to the violence of the conflict in static battlefields, churned by artillery and subsumed in mud, where battles were fought and refought over the same strips of land.
When guns finally fell silent, despite great efforts to find and identify the remains of those killed in action, inevitably many could only be identified by indicators such as uniform buttons or badges, often only speaking to the nationality of the lost soul. Those identified as Canadians were buried in Commonwealth cemeteries with a single inscription:
“A Canadian Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God“
At home, mothers, fathers, siblings and children were left to continue their lives without the slightest trace of their loved ones. Without a place to grieve and pay their respects.
This would change in 2000. That year, Canada understood that it was finally time to bring home its lost sons and daughters.
On the morning of May 16, 2000, a Canadian and a French delegation stood by Grave 7, in Row E of Plot 8 of the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery in Souchez France, near the Vimy Ridge memorial. There, the remains of an unknown Canadian soldier were exhumed.
This tomb was randomly selected amongst Canada’s 6,846 unidentified soldier casualties of World War I. As such, nothing is known about this nameless soldier, other than the fact that he is assuredly Canadian and that he died in France, near Vimy Ridge, during the first World War. We do not know his name, his age, which town or province he came from, the unit he fought with, his date of death or who he left behind.
The anonymity of this unknown soldier was deliberate as he was to represent all Canadian soldiers who died in all wars. This way, every grieving parent, every orphan child, every brother, sister and friend could recognized their lost one in this nameless soldier.
If the grave was randomly selected, the choice of the cemetery he was taken from was no coincidence. Vimy Ridge is the site of the first major battle where all four Canadian divisions fought together, under Canadian leadership, as a combined force during World War I. Many historians consider the victory at Vimy to be a defining moment in Canadian history; one where the country emerged from under Britain’s shadow to become its own nation. In this deadly and desolate battleground, Canadian troops earned a reputation of being formidable, effective troops because of their stunning success. But it was a victory at a terrible cost, with more than 10,000 Canadians killed and wounded.
Once elevated from the ground, the unknown soldier was carried to the Cross of Sacrifice for a ceremony and then, by French bearers, to the Vimy Memorial. Later that day, the coffin was flown back home aboard a Canadian Forces aircraft headed to Ottawa. It was accompanied by a chaplain, a 45-person guard of honour, veterans and a youth delegation.
Upon its arrival at the Ottawa airport, a motorcade escorted the unknown soldier to Cartier Drill Hall, Ottawa’s oldest military armoury and the home of the Governor General’s Foot Guards. The coffin was then driven to Parliament’s centre block on a motorized gun carriage. There, it laid in state for three days, with thousands of every-day people filing to pay their respect.
On May 28, the vigil was dismounted and bearers from all branches of the Canadian Forces carried the coffin through the arch of the Peace Tower. It was then placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage provided by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was carried to the National War Memorial, a few hundred meters away.
Internment of the unknown soldier
In the morning of May 28, 2000, before a crowd of 20,000 Canadians, during a nationally televised ceremony, our unknown soldier was finally put to rest on Canadian soil with full military honours. Our soldier was finally home.
Veterans from across the country as well as from the First Nations were selected to place on the silver maple casket a handful of soil from each Canadian province and territory as well as from the soldier’s original grave site. The coffin was lowered into a sarcophagus and sealed with a granite stone decorated with a bronze sculpture showing a medieval sword, a First World War helmet, and branches of maple and laurel leaves (symbolizing both victory and death).
The tomb of the unknown soldier is positioned directly in the line of sight of the foremost soldier statue advancing through the arch of the National War Memorial. Its only inscription reads:
The Unknown Soldier
Le Soldat inconnu
Ottawa’s most sacred ground
The tomb of the unknown soldier is Ottawa’s most sacred ground.
The blood of 117,000 Canadians runs below it. The tears of a nation wets its soil. Every year, the National Silver Cross mother stands by the monument on behalf of all mothers who lost a son or daughter in the military service of Canada. There, Corporal Nathan Cirillo was gunned down in 2014 while standing guard over our unnamed hero.
Because of what this tomb represents, every monarch visiting Ottawa bows their heads and places a wreath on it.
Because of what it represents, Canadians of all walks of life drop their poppies on it after the Remembrance day ceremonies in a tradition that started spontaneously after the first Remembrance Day following the dedication of the monument. Since then, flags, pictures, medals, goodbye letters, drawings and other mementos are left on it in commemoration of those who selflessly gave their all for future generations.
Because of what it represents, this sacred ground belongs to all of us and commands respect. It cannot be politicized. It shall not be desecrated. Most importantly, it cannot be instrumentalized or taken hostage by anyone, let alone by petulant rebels without a cause whose self-centered and individualistic demands are the antithesis of the selfless and patriotic sacrifice of generations of Canadians before them.
Lest we forget our true heroes …and let’s forget the others.
The Royal Canadian Legion was founded by Veterans and for Veterans. It advocates for the care of and supports all who served Canada, regardless of when or where they served. The Legion also provides representation and assistance to Veterans, including currently serving Canadian Armed Forces and RCMP, and their families, at no cost to them.
Here’s a link to a couple of pictures I took of the War Memorial on November 11 over the years.
The original grave marker which stood over our unknown soldier for some 80 years in France has been moved to the Memorial Hall at the Canadian War Museum. This hall is designed in such a way that sunlight only frames the headstone once each year… at 11 am on November 11.
Our past Remembrance Day Posts
- Tommy Prince, First Nations Forgotten hero (2021)
- The little known Canadian battle of Otterlo (2020)
- The day Canada became a nation (2019)
- 100 years later, poppies still bloom (2018)
- Remembering those who gave their today for our tomorrow (2017)
- The Christmas battle of Ortona (2016)