Sport is about many things. Camaraderie, overcoming adversity and challenges, the agony of defeat and exultation of success, and along with those things, honours and trophies.
A team wins a championship trophy by overcoming all obstacles and achieving victory, and thus immortalizing themselves within the annals of their sport. Their accomplishment stands as a monument to their effort and success and it is often said that when a team wins it all they will walk together forever. It is said that once a team wins it all they will forever walk together.
Soldiers are immortalized through sacrifice and the championship trophies that bear their names are offered to memories and ghosts of the fallen as monuments. We might even say that what athletes gain by winning on the field, soldier do by losing their lives. Those monuments carry the names of sometimes seemingly countless men who fought and died together.
It is said sometimes that those who fought and fell shall forever walk together.
This is a sports blog and through all the various topics we discuss here they all essentially revolve around one thing: winning a championship trophy, specifically the Stanley Cup.
Today is Remembrance Day, one year removed from the centennial of the end of the Great War from which this holiday sprang like the poppies from that hallowed mud of France and Belgium. Today I am leaving off discussion of defensemen, goaltending, scoring on the man-advantage, possession metrics and draft depth.
Today we are taking a moment to think about monuments – those structures we build to honour those we’ve asked to sacrifice themselves for our benefit, those edifices we erect to salve the wounds over the loves ones lost, to stifle the guilt of a society who asks this of their citizens and to remind ourselves of the cost we endure.
Most everybody knows the Vimy memorial. It is today an emblem of Canada’s efforts during the First World War and is often a symbol both of sacrifice for the fallen and at the same time considered by some to be the marker of Canada’s birth as a nation.
Entrusted to architect Walter Allward, the monument itself was, in truly Canadian fashion, delayed and nearly aborted because of cost concerns, political interference and labyrinthine bureaucracy. Once begun, construction and artistry on this scale takes considerable time and when it was finally finished, in the summer of 1936 and the eve of the next great conflagration, it was lauded for the mood and sombre peacefulness of its design. When war once again broke out in Europe, despite fears of being helpless at the hands of the invading German forces, it was left untouched as Adolf Hitler, himself an aspiring architect, admired and remarked upon its serenity.
The Vimy Memorial itself marks those who lost their lives in that offensive, the Battle of Vimy Ridge, with 10,602 casualties including 3,598 dead.
The Canadians had, to that point in the war, largely been a support force, used in auxiliary with the British Expeditionary Force to bring their numbers up and hold the Western line. They had, of course, already seen their share of significant combat notably at the Ypres salient as well as many other points across the northern stretch of the Allied line. They were given the assignment of taking Hill 145, Vimy ridge, late in the war after repeated attempts by the French and British had failed to either take or hold on to that strategic position. Canadian general Arthur Currie (whose civilian profession was in real estate, for all the soldiers at this time were civilians as Canada hadn’t yet fully established a standing, professional army) took to this task with a level of caution and attention to detail that was sorrowfully lacking amongst much of the rest of British leadership.
Under Currie’s guidance, the Canadians took careful note of all German gun emplacements along the line, kept track of troop movements and replacements, and carefully catalogued all the obstacles that had been encountered by previous assaults and devised strategies to overcome them, each in turn. Most notably, Currie arranged for a “creeping barrage” timed to his assault, something which hadn’t been fully adopted in the war at that time. Typically, a trench assault began with a prolonged artillery barrage on the enemy line, designed to destroy machine gun emplacements, pill boxes, barbed wire strings, communication cables and otherwise thoroughly annihilate the trench line itself.
It was often ineffective as the Germans quickly caught on to the strategy and would simply fall back to a reserve position outside the range of the Allied guns and then rush back to their trench once the whistles blew for the infantry assault. The barbed wire lines were rarely cut and more often than not simply became even more chaotic entanglements upon which countless men would become caught up and left die in slow agony. The German trenches were typically repaired and ready by the time the Allied soldiers even came within rifle range and their pillboxes were so well fortified that they were usually operational as well.
In short, up to that point the entire process of an assault on a trench was an exercise in sending young men to be butchered by as many means as the enemy could devise.
Currie decided to use his artillery in a different fashion, having them fire and adjust aim continually to create a slow, creeping wall of shellfire ahead of his troops, thus giving them something akin to covering fire for at least a portion of their walk across No Man’s Land.
It was this and many other small innovations based on Currie’s attention to detail, not to mention the sheer will and sacrifice of so many soldiers, that helped the Canadians to take Hill 145 in Easter of 1917.
The monument itself, as mentioned above, was at the time and is still today considered one of the finest memorials on the Western Front. Allward devoted himself to this project and the symbolism of the sculptures reflect his investment. The hooded woman who greets you at the center of the monument represents the grieving nation, saddened at the loss of so many of her young sons. Alongside her are mourners, a man and a woman, and above them the figures that represent Truth, Knowledge Gallantry and Sympathy – four estimable qualities upon which to build any monument to the fallen.
The Vimy Memorial is one of the finest of its kind to be found, in no small part because it balances the acknowledgement of victory against the terrible price paid and the unrelenting sorrow that such a loss had to occur. It is a war memorial that seeks to remember the fallen without glorifying the reasons for their death and I can think of no better reason for such a structure to exist.
The Newfoundland Memorial Park in Beaumont Hamel, France
I’ve spoken previously on the actions of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in July of 1916 as they played their sad, gory part in the opening act of the Somme offensive. Still a part of Britain proper, not yet having joined Confederation, in 1914 Newfoundland raced to demonstrate their loyalty to King and Crown during the Great War by raising a regiment of 800 men to serve in the British Expeditionary Force.
These men saw their first significant task when they were deployed along with the rest of the BEF in preparation for the disastrous Somme offensive prepared for the spring campaign of 1916. By way of what had become typical among the British Generals, specifically Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the calculations for the offensive primarily involved more. More men, more guns, more explosives, more mines, with little thought to their best use. An artillery barrage that lasted a week before the offensive tipped off the Germans that the British were going to try to push at that point allowing them to fortify defenses and adjust troop deployments. Several large mines were detonated, including two massive blasts at La Boiselle and what is today called Lochnagar after the mine itself, which had limited effect but essentially announced the opening of the offensive to the Germans, giving them time to prepare.
By the time the Newfoundlanders were called up for their turn to assault the German position on the opening day of the offensive, the trenches leading up to No Man’s Land were thick with dead and wounded, leaving the soldiers no recourse but to go over the top while still, technically, in their own territory. They were cut down before even getting within sight of their objective. Hundreds died before getting to their own front lines as German artillery and machine guns opened up on the helpless men walking across open ground and in profile against the horizon.
Within 20 minutes of leaving the support road trench and entering the open terrain the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the best that that small but hardy little island could offer up for Mother Britain, had been all but wiped out.
Approximately 780 men in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought that day. 710 were listed as wounded or killed. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment effectively ceased to exist.
Newfoundland commissioned five memorials for Europe in France and the Netherlands following the war, all featuring the same forlorn caribou, the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, with a sixth located in Newfoundland itself. The monument in Beaumont Hamel is part of that series, and was opened in June, 1925 in a ceremony presided over by some of the same men who commanded and fought in the battle.
The monument at Beaumont Hamel strikes a different tone than many of its First World War brethren, featuring a lonely caribou calling out atop a great mound shaped like a grave barrow, and below her the names of the sons of Newfoundland lost there that day. She looks out over the trenches which still run across the verdant green fields, hideous scars carved deep into the flesh of the land that have been left there as reminder. The caribou is at once both defiant and fiercely sorrowful, the cairn on which she makes her stand could easily stand in for any rocky promontory from Newfoundland or as a great funerary barrow beneath which lie all the bodies of her sons.
John Oxenham, English poet, penned the following as an epitaph for those soldiers buried there:
Tread softly here! Go reverently and slow!
Yea, let your soul go down upon its knees,
and, with bowed head and heart abased, strive hard
to grasp the future gain in this sore loss!
For not one foot of this dark sod but drank
its surfeit of the blood of gallant men,
who, for their faith, their hope, – for life and
here made the sacrifice – here gave their lives
and gave right willingly – for you and for me.
From this vast altar-pile the souls of men
sped up to God in countless multitudes;
on this grim cratered ridge they gave their all,
and giving, won
the peace of Heaven and immortality.
Our hearts go out to them in boundless gratitude;
if ours – then God; for his vast charity
all sees, all knows, all comprehends – save bounds,
He had repaid their sacrifice; and we – ?
God help us if we fail to pay our debt
in fullest full and all unstintingly.
You can read more on the battle and monument from the British WWI site here, and Gordon Pinsent narrates a chilling summary of the events of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on that July day in this video.
This year marks the countdown to the centennial anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War. It may seem distant, almost irrelevant in today’s world, to pay such attention to a long-ago conflict but we lumber along even today beneath the wreckage it wrought and the peace that sought to bring it to an end. As well, we see worrying signs today of historical similarities to those events over a century ago that gradually, almost imperceptibly piled up, one upon the other, until the path to peace was blocked completely and nations tumbled forward, headlong into destruction.
Through the first 50 years of the previous century the world did not lose civilization entirely but it did nearly depart with what was civilized about it. This was fed initially by fear, enclosing walls, narrowing of minds and a foreshortening of horizons that denuded man of the delicate coverings of empathy and shared responsibility.
It has been said countless times but loses nothing by being repeated, to truly honour the fallen it is imperative that the generations that come after take heed and avoid the twin perils of fear and laxity that once before courted so many young men to their doom. We can no longer take it for granted that there will always be someone left to build monuments to us should we once again travel down that road.