This April marks the 94th anniversary of Battle of Vimy Ridge, the first instance during the First World War when all four Canadian divisions fought as a unified formation. The significance of the Battle of Vimy Ridge was not immediately recognized, but has certainly increased with time. Today, Canadians embrace the battle as a defining moment of our national identity.
By the early 1920s, plans were underway to develop a national memorial on a 250-acre portion of the former battlefield site outside of Arras, France. The monument, officially known as the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, was designed by Canadian sculptor and designer Walter S. Allward and is Canada’s largest overseas war memorial. It was unveiled on July 26th, 1936 by King Edward VIII.
The monument and the battle are the subject of the painting The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge which holds its place as one of the more prominent paintings within the House of Commons. The work was painted by Australian artist William Longstaff c. 1929 and is one of a number of highly popular and emotive paintings created by the artist that feature ghostly apparitions marching or walking near First World War memorials in Europe. The first of the group was entitled Menin Gate at Midnight (The Ghosts of Menin Gate) which he completed in 1926. The Menin Gate was purchased by Lord Woolavington and subsequently donated to the Australian Government.
Vimy Ridge (The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge) follows a similar allegorical theme to Longstaff’s highly successful work. A distant Vimy Ridge monument, which was still under construction when the painting was produced, is shown at night with spectres in uniform moving back toward the Canadian lines. The work was painted sometime prior to November 1930, based upon information obtained from correspondence between the Right Hon. R. B. Bennett, Prime Minister of Canada (1930-35) and Sir Frederick Williams-Taylor in November 1930. Mr. Williams-Taylor, General Manager of the Bank of Montreal, had been invited to view the painting and informed the Prime Minister that it
is one of the most impressive pictures I have ever seen and I feel sure it would prove of intense interest and pride to all Canadians. The purpose for Mr. Williams-Taylor’s letter was to inform the Prime Minister that Capt. John Arthur Dewar had proposed purchasing the painting and donating it to the Canadian Government.1
Dewar, an Englishman, had many connections with Canada in large part to his family’s distillery business. The painting was accepted by the Prime Minister on behalf of Parliament and subsequently installed in the Railway Committee Room in February 1932.
The facinating connection between Parliament and the Vimy Memorial does not end there. In 1920, the Canadian Government established the Canadian Battlefield Memorials Commission as a preliminary step to creating war memorials on eight battlefield sites in Europe. The Memorial Commission sponsored an architectural design competition for these monuments. The 17 finalists exhibited their maquettes or models, in the Railway Committee Room in October 1921; it was at this time that Allward’s design was selected.
Also, Speaker Rodolphe Lemieux played an instrumental role in negotiating with the French government on the acquisition of additional land on the site. In 1922, Speaker Lemieux concluded an agreement with France that assured Canada the use in perpetuity of the 250 acres that now form the site of the Vimy Memorial.
As one can imagine, a painting with such historical significance is in high demand. Consequently, The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge has not spent its entire life within the precinct. For most of the 1970s, the painting was on loan to the Canadian War Museum. In 2005, on the occasion of the opening of the new Canadian War Museum and coinciding with the Year of the Veteran, the Sergeant-at-Arms agreed to place the painting on loan to the War Museum for a period not exceeding five years. In 2001-2002, the painting was on loan to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra where it hung with other examples of William Longstaff’s work. After returning from the Canadian War Museum in July 2010, the painting now hangs, in the Railway Committee Room where it, once again, serves as an important reminder of the sacrifices made by Canadians to preserve our democracy and Parliamentary institutions.
To fully experience this powerful painting, you are invited to take a look at it in the Railway Committee Room.
1“Frederick Williams-Taylor to R.B. Bennett, 27 Nov. 1930,” LAAC, R. B. Bennett Papers, MG 26, Reel M-1106.