A Family Trip to Vimy Ridge, 1936

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52C 3 6.1  20100116-002, Canadian War Museum Archive

Last semester, you may recall I was working on a project on the subject of the Vimy Ridge sculptures, which involved my own experience as a tourist to Vimy Ridge as well as archival research here in Ottawa.  I have also already written about another interesting find in the Canadian War Museum archive.  Often, in the course of performing archival research, the juiciest of finds are completely accidental; they happen to be place in the same fond as something else your search terms (or friendly neighborhood archivist) pulled out for you. It’s the pleasant surprise of running across something so unexpected that can really make these documents so memorable to individual researchers.

This is one such document. Now, to refresh your memory, the Vimy Ridge monument in North-Eastern France was meant to commemorate those Canadians who died in France during the Great War but whose bodies were never found. It was not completed and unveiled until 1936. (Incidentally, the dedication of this monument was one of the few major public events that King Edward VI performed during his short reign that year.) Several thousand Canadian veterans and their families attended the unveiling ceremony, travelling vast distances by boat and train. Called the Vimy Pilgrims, they were shown around England and Northern France in grand style in highly scheduled programs, ending with a visit at Buckingham Palace in London. This photo album documents one such journey of the family of a Canadian veteran, Corporal Henry Botel.

In many ways, particularly in the poses and “types” of images, these photos resemble the same sort of ones that would be taken on a family holiday to Europe today, for all that they were taken 77 years ago. There are shots of famous monuments from the ferry/steamship, triangles of family members photographed in groups in front of various landscapes, the family with their luggage, photos of travelling acquaintances, and of course crowds of other tourists swarming an “important” site with the relevant friend or family member in the foreground.

Paging through the album, it was odd for me to retrace these family’s steps in photographs. I do not know these people, but I know these places. That is my personal connection to this album. I have unwittingly visited most of the locations pictured in their album, just over seventy-five years later. I have followed this route, which is roughly depicted in chronological order (which was easy to verify, as the War Museum’s archive also contains their printed itinerary.) After a series of images of them leaving Montreal by ship, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu when I turned the page and suddenly saw a photograph taken at train station in Amiens (pictured above, centre). I have visited this city before, and I have distinct memories of pacing up and down the platform (and, once, racing down it to make a connection, after my train got in late) in between transfers. The look and style of the trains and the passengers may have changed, but the backdrop hadn’t. The structure of the platform, and even the sign announcing the stop’s name, hasn’t changed overmuch in the last seventy years. The Botel family also visited Rouen, a city to which I feel particularly attached after living there for seven months last year. I recognized the style of housing and the city’s coat of arms immediately, though the foreground contained many more smartly dressed men in caps that I remember being there. And of course there are the photographs of the Vimy memorial itself; then, recently built, but when I visited it, recently restored. The marble gleams like new in my own memory and my photographs, matching these images from three quarters of a century ago. I felt like the photographs in this album could have been taken by me. Minus, of course, the tremendously large crowds of men in uniform and their neatly-dressed wives and children.

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Then there are pages like the above. Again, I recognize the place – or at least the type of place. Military cemeteries in Europe tend to resemble each other very closely, with their rows upon rows of near identical gravestones. My great uncle fought in the Great War and survived until the 1970s (though he made it out with one less leg than he had gone in with). I had no grave to visit, and three quarters of a century later, I had very little personal or familial emotional connection to these cemeteries. That was very much not the case for the Botel family. Often, the compiler of the album scribbles a quick explanation – sometimes just a date, or a place – to accompany the photograph. In this case, the photograph is of the little girl who is so often pictured elsewhere in the album: Frances Botel, the veteran’s daughter. She is pictured here next to a neat row of war graves. The caption reads “Charlie’s grave, Aubigny, France.” (Likely Aubigny-au-Bac, which is in the Nord Pas de Calais, a very war-torn region.) The girl smiles awkwardly, head tilted at an odd angle, squinting in the sun. The site is important to the family; Charlie’s identity would have been self-evident for the photographer and for the compiler. She would be too young to remember the war or this long-lost Charlie, but it was felt to be important to visit and be photographed visiting this site. To me, it is odd that they should be smiling in a graveyard, but perhaps that’s just what you do when someone points a camera at you: you smile.

Martha Langford in Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums speaks of photo albums almost in the same terms of oral histories; they are performances. Photo albums are ideally understood when it is mediated by someone who knows its contents intimately. These unpublished albums are generally compiled for a very small, private audience: friends, family, and those who would appreciate its contents. Because of this limited audience, often photo albums have few, if any captions, and the people and places that appear most often are often the least labelled, because their names would have been obvious to the observer. It was the odd locations and passing acquaintances, those who wouldn’t necessarily be immediately recognized, that are labelled. Ironically, in the very act of preservation, by donating a family photo album to an archive, one divorces this set of images from much of its meaning, because the album is separated from that source of oral, unwritten information.

That being said, under what circumstances are albums acquired by archives? Are they donated by family members who want their family history preserved? Or are they donated, alternatively, by family members for whom the album no longer holds any meaning or personal memories? Or do they find their way into the archive in a more roundabout way, through antique markets and specialty collectors, as mere examples of intriguing or “typical” examples of an age?

Henry Botel died in 1977. Judging by the control number, a large collection of his documents from the time of the war through to the Vimy Pilgrimage were donated en masse to the War Museum in 2010.  Taken together, the curator and researcher can learn from the additional documents that the mysterious “Charlie” whose grave was visited was Charlie Murphy of the 75th Battalion. Such information can only be found by reading through the supplementary documents provided with the album, which could also have been missing this and other crucial information. These documents together tell a very  compelling and fascinating story, full of at times surprising, contradictory reminders of the era: an advertisement in their Vimy Pilgrimage Guide for the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Berlin appears alongside ads for European tourism with captions like “This time… in peace”. However, are these supplemental textual documents any substitute for an oral narrative? Reading photo albums is really a performance, best done by someone who was there, or who knows the people picture, pointing and explaining throughout all of the little details that might otherwise be overlooked or remain unknown.

Further Reading

This photograph album is only one of many holdings on the subject of Corporal Botel’s family’s trip to Vimy Ridge held by the Canadian War Museum. Inquire with your friendly neighbourhood archivist to take a look at them for yourself!

Chambers, Deborah. “Family as Place: Family Photograph Albums and the Domestication of Public and Private Space” in Picturing Place: Photography and the geographical imagination. Edited by Joan M. Schwartz and James R. Ryan. London: I.B. Tauris, 2003.

Hucker, Jacqueline. “‘After the Agony in Stony Places’: The Meaning and Significance of the Vimy Monument.” Vimy Ridge: a Canadian Reassessment. Edited by Geoffrey Hayes, Michael Bechthold and Andrew Iarocci. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.

Langford, Martha. Suspended Conversations: the afterlife of memory in photographic albums. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

Scott, Jill. “Vimy Ridge Memorial: Stone with a Story.” Queen’s Quarterly 114, no. 4 (Winter 2007): 506-519.

“The Vimy Ridge War Memorial Unveiled.” The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1936. (If anybody is desirous of a PDF scan of this edition, I happen to have one! Feel free to message me.)

The Statues of Vimy: at the Ridge and in the Museum

I have been oddly silent for the past few weeks, as most grad students tend to be at this time of year. I have been buried beneath a pile of books, peering at microfilm, or lugging texts about. Occasionally I have eaten and slept.

One of my current research projects involves a comparison of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge in France and the “original” plasters of those statues by Walter Allward at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Here are a few of my reference photographs, taken by myself this past December.

Evidence of Bombardments near the Vimy Memorial

I would like to begin by showing this first image, involving greenery without any glimpse of marble, is from the Memorial Forest that surrounds this monument. In fact, the land all around it is legally Canadian soil. You may notice that it looks quite strange; those are scars from bombardments that occurred on this site during the battle for Vimy Ridge in 1917 as well as failed military manoeuvres before and after the Canadians took the ridge in April of that year. When they began work on the site in 1922, it took them two and a half years to remove the majority of the dangerous unexploded bombs, shells, and undiscovered bodies, but even today visitors are not permitted to walk beneath the trees because it was impossible to remove everything.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

Here is the memorial itself. The two pylons were meant to represent Canada and France, and the sacrifices they made during the war. The base and the pylons are covered with allegorical figures representing such things as Charity, Peace, Knowledge, the Spirit of Sacrifice, etc. However, the most prominent of these figures is set aside from the rest. She is the one featured in two of these photographs: Canada Bereft, mourning her fallen sons. She overlooks the Douai Plain. Visiting the site, you can immediately grasp the strategic value of commanding the ridge. However, in this case, Canada looks out over a landscape in mourning.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

Vimy Ridge Memorial

I will, of course, go on at length in my research paper on the intended symbolism of the architect of the monument, Walter Allward. I hope that you can get a sense of the scale from these photographs (taken in amazingly opportune lighting due to the weather: bright sunlight directly above, but with storm clouds in the distance). From the fourth photograph in particular, I feel that one can get a sense of the importance of place for this site; it would not have nearly the same effect, say, in downtown Toronto. The monument is dependent upon its location upon the highest point of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, for which so many Canadians and others gave their lives.

I will also be examining the Allward plasters, which were used to construct these massive marble statues; the latter are more than twice the size of real human beings, giving them a grave, intimidating status. Seventeen of the twenty plasters are on display in Regeneration Hall, a specially constructed room at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Most notably, the plaster for Canada Bereft is absent. Instead, the figure of Hope takes pride of place, though many of the other figures stand shoulder to shoulder in a line, relatively equal and approachable.

 

Regeneration HallThese plaster casts of the original clay statues sculpted by Allward himself were used as a reference tool for the Italian carvers at Vimy Ridge. They are covered in small pencil markings and even pegs, used to double the ratio from life-size to larger than life in the final product. They were never intended for display but make for a quite interesting one regardless.

I am struggling to compare these two spaces and displays of the “same” sculptures. The Vimy Memorial in France is designed around the landscape, as a testament to the sacrifice that occurred in that locale. Regeneration Hall was designed to house these sculptures, and contains its own, modified symbolism. It is a lofty room, almost reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals in atmosphere, though the asymmetrical walls are constructed of rough metal. An eerie, artificial sound of wind (recorded in the room before windows were put in, capturing a fluke of design) permeates the hall. At one end, there is a tall, triangular window facing East, towards Parliament Hill. If one stands on the loft, facing the allegorical figure of Hope, one can barely make out the Peace Tower, but only if one stands in precisely the right spot: a metaphor for the straight and narrow path that one must not deviate from to achieve peace.

Walk the knife edge of peace. Should you waver, war will ensue.

In design, these two spaces and displays are quite different. However, how have the memorialisation and symbolism of the Allward statues changed in this new space? These are the ideas that I am currently grappling with. There may in fact be more continuity than I had originally believed. Breaking with tradition of the time, Allward seemed to have designed his memorial at Vimy not to commemorate the great victory that occurred there, but to memorialise the dead and give the living a sense of hope.

What is it about 1936?

The year 1936 just keeps popping up in my research in the most unexpected of places.

  • While researching the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in 1914, I have run across numerous references to the successor of her sister ship, the Empress of Britain II, which undertook her first and most famous round the world cruise in 1936. 
  • Researching the memory of Vimy Ridge – as portrayed in the Canadian War Museum, at the memorial in France, and its place in the formation of Canadian national identity – I have since learned that the massive monument at Vimy was dedicated in 1936… by King Edward VIII, in his one year as king. In fact, it was his first public role after becoming king; the significance of this was not lost on the Canadian veterans, who cheered him at the memorial and spontaneously sang “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. 
  • Researching newspapers for tourist advertisements to Western Canada for thesis research, I must have run across at least half a dozen news articles and ads encouraging Americans and Brits to visit Canada this year (1936). Faux-headlines include “See Something Different This Year!” (British Columbia), “Cruises on Lake Ships: “Unsalted Seas” Expected to Attract Numerous Summer Voyagers” and “Canada Holds Winter Court” (for American tourists). It makes me want to visit 1936 Canada!
  • These newspaper ads sometimes share space with talk of the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, too. 

Anyway, the year just seems to come up a lot; it appears to have been a momentous one. If I was more keen on the 1930s/the interwar period, I might consider writing some sort of retrospective article using the year 1936 as a microcosm of Canadian/British culture or current events… or something. I think that that idea got away from me. 

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Illustrated London News, February 22, 1936, pg. 343.