Hamilton’s Vimy connection-Sydney Mewburn
On a recent holiday that took us to Brussels, it was decided to rent a car and drive to Vimy, France to visit the famous Canadian war memorial. Vimy, just a few miles south of the border between France and Belgium is not very accessible except by car. You can take a train to nearby Arras, and pay about 50 Euros for a taxi to the monument, otherwise it’s the car; and from Brussels it is an easy two-hour drive on good motorways. One gets a strange feeling, approaching Vimy, to see road signs that have place names so familiar to Canadians who visit cenotaphs on Remembrance Day—Arras, Lens-Douai, Cambrai and Artois, to name but a few. This is the Flanders fields that Guelph native John McCrae wrote about—mostly a drab flat plain—you could easily be driving through Southern Ontario farm country.
Finally on the horizon you can see the monument at a distance. What first strikes one is how white it is, no doubt benefitting from the $30 Million restoration that was completed in 2007 (the original cost of the entire monument was $1.5 Million.)The monument was the work of Canadian Sculptor Walter Allward who started construction in 1925 and finished the job in 1936. Allward’s work can be seen closer to home in Brantford with the Bell Monument and on University Avenue, Toronto with his Boer War obelisk.
On close inspection the Vimy monument is breathtaking with its twin spires and the various sculpted figures, Even though the original design is over 90 years old, the overall impression is of a moderne school, rather than classical. Sheep graze around the base of the monument to keep the grass short, and to avoid the possibility of mowers triggering an explosion of an unspent shell, as a guide told us—something that still happens in this area 3 or 4 times a year. Regrettably, despite an expenditure of $5 Million, the nearby interpretative centre is decidedly underwhelming. Still, nothing can detract from the monument itself and the nearby reconstructed tunnels and trenches. Original shell craters are left as they were in 1917, except now they are covered with grass and trees.
There is a strong Hamilton connection to this monument. The selection of the site and of the architect was largely overseen by Major General Sydney Chilton Mewburn, a prominent Hamilton lawyer and businessman. In keeping with expectations for upper class men at the time, Mewburn was a lifelong militiaman, who rose to become commanding officer of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. When the Great War broke out Mewburn, over 50, volunteered for overseas duty, but instead was placed in charge of raising a home defence army. His energy and capabilities brought him to the attention of Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden. Mewburn, a Liberal, nonetheless advocated compulsory conscription, something opposed by the Quebec wing of his party. In 1917 Borden decided to implement conscription and in an attempt to maintain national unity, invited several prominent Liberal MPs into his cabinet. One of these was Mewburn who, without a seat in the Commons was appointed Minister of Militia and Defence. As minister, Mewburn made several trips to the European front and was highly regarded for his handling of the portfolio. At war’s end, Mewburn, ever modest, refused an offered knighthood, resigned from Cabinet and was appointed as Chair of the Battlefields memorial Commission—a body established to establish appropriate memorials to Canada’s war dead.
As chair, Mewburn oversaw the competition that ultimately picked Allward to build the monument. During the war, Vimy was known simply as “Hill 145” owing to its elevation 145 meters above sea level. Interestingly, Vimy was not first on the list of possible sites for a Canadian memorial. Indeed, the commander of the Canadian forces in Europe Sir Arthur Currie, was quite opposed to Vimy, writing, “it will confirm for all time the impression…that Vimy was the greatest battle fought by the Canadians in France. In my mind that is very far from being a fact. We fought other battles where the moral and material results were greater and more far reaching than Vimy’s victory. There were other victories also that reflected to a greater degree the training and efficiency of the Corps. Vimy was a set piece for which we had trained and rehearsed for weeks. It did not call for the same degree of resource and initiative that were displayed in any of the three great battles of the last hundred days (of the war).” Mewburn in acknowledging the lack of enthusiasm for Vimy said “that while many of the army officers” held that Vimy was by no means the most important battle fought by the Canadian Corps,” there was something “distinctive about Vimy Ridge that comes very close to the hearts of Canadians.” One of those Canadians who favoured Vimy was newly installed Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, and it may well have been his intervention that clinched the site selection.
Allward began work on the Vimy memorial in 1925 and completed it 11 years later. Roughly 120 feet high, it is adorned by 20 allegorical figures representing faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge, and hope. A key figure, “Canada mourning her fallen sons,” speaks to the country’s wartime losses. Allward found stone for the monument in a Roman quarry near the town of Seget in what is now Croatia. The stone from this quarry had been used by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for his palace at Split.
When the project was ready for unveiling in 1936, Mewburn, aged 73, returned to the site not far from where his own son John had been killed in the war; to participate in the dedication by King Edward VIII, (carrying out one of his few official duties as king before he abdicated). In 1956 Sydney Mewburn died aged 92. His life both as a public man and in business had been an outstanding success, but no achievement would surpass his contribution to the creation of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.