Voices in the Mist (2)

(Above: The Canadian WW1 monument at Vimy Ridge as it first appears from the car park)

Continued from Part One.

From a distance it looks too stark to be a monument. The eye is, initially, disappointed as the form makes its modernistic impact. Both the height of the pylons and the width of the base ( a massive 6,000 tonnes of steel-reinforced concrete) look devoid of detail… but this is an illusion, for the Canadian National Monument on Vimy Ridge is designed to have many faces; some of them literal, others spoken of in bare symmetry.

The icy mist had continued to haunt us. Our last-minute dash to see Vimy before heading for Calais was a gamble. The damp and misty air made it almost impossible to hold the camera, making the fingers numb after only a few seconds of exposure.

But, if anything, the weather was perfectly aligned with the emotional goals of Canadian architect and sculptor Walter Seymour Allward (1876-1955), who, in 1921 won a competition set up by the Canadian government to create a national monument commemorating its soldiers killed in the First World War. His winning design became the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, established on the peak of Vimy Ridge – the site of one of WW1’s most horrific battles.

Walter Allward said the idea for the monument came to him in a dream:

“I turned my eyes and found myself looking down on an avenue of poplars… I have tried to show this in the monument to Canada’s fallen, what we owed them and will forever owe them.”

Walter Allward
(Above: The mourning mother figure looks down at her empty womb)

As you draw closer along the path that appears to be the entrance, two figures stand out from the base of the shining stone (6,000 tonnes of the purest limestone, quarried from a disused Roman mine in what is now Croatia). The first is a mother figure, naked from the waist up and looking down at her empty womb. The symbolism of her forlorn breasts stabs at the heart; it warns you that this monument is not for the faint-hearted, and marks the place where thousands of young Canadian soldiers died storming the ridge against the well-armed German army.

(Above: The father figure’s fingers are clenched in anguish and impotence…)

To the right along the base of the monument is the father figure, also half-naked and seated in anguish with his left hand clenched in anguish along the skin of his thigh; his right hand supporting the organ of thought and regret – his head.

The sheer poignancy of these two figures brings home the central story of the monument, which is one of time and events. We were not at the front of the sculptures but at the back. But there are no signs to say so… The visitor centre was closed for maintenance, so only exploration and understanding would bring that knowledge.

And, suddenly, you realise you are not only in story but a process of consciousness…

The two grieving figures represent the sorrow and mourning that comes after the deaths of the young men of their nation on an unprecedented scale. Though compelling, it is desperately sad… and immediately changes your consciousness. From here on across the monument, you are going backwards in time and events, in order to see what led to such loss.

Our eyes were beginning to grasp the design. There are figures high on the pylons at the front and in the rear of the central twin-structure. They represent Peace and Justice, Knowledge and Truth. We would only come to understand them in the context of what lay on the other side of the pylons…

(Above: The figures of, left, Peace and Knowledge; and right, Justice and Truth)

Beyond the vast base of the monument is the edge of Vimy Ridge; the downward slope is the site of most of the battle. A story was opening up before us, told in classical figures worked with beauty and precision in shining limestone – each one carved by Walter Allward in situ, even those at the top of the near-100ft pylons!

I looked up and wondered, given the state of my fingers here at ground level, how cold it was up there… That sense of having gone beyond and into the unknown must have been one of Allward’s main intentions. It’s beautiful and chilling at the same time; and speaks of the power of youth to go where it is guided – in this case into into the hell of war and isolation found at the top of those towers… the place of death in the wall of bullets from the German machine guns. But that is telling the story on the physical and not the moral level.

(Above: the first view of what was now revealed as the front of the monument. The wide-angle lens masks the height of the pylons – nearly 100 feet
(Above: for a brief moment, as you cross the stone floor of the upper level’s terrace, there is only the far wall and the slope of Vimy Ridge below)

Inscribed on the far wall of the terrace is: ‘The Canadian Corps on 9th April 1917 with four divisions in line on a front of four miles attacked and captured this ridge’

Having understood the physical layout of the whole monument, we realised that we could not penetrate the symbolism further without descending to the lowest level and looking back from the perspective of the ridge being ‘attacked’ by the Canadian Army and defended by the German forces.

(Above: the whole of the newly revealed ‘front’ of the Vimy memorial flows down the slope and is dominated by the solitary figure in the middle)

Knowing what was on the opposite face, we could now appreciate the whole of the monument. Visually, we were ‘advancing’ from below – just as the four divisions of Canadian soldiers did, as told in the words of the visitor plaque:

“After two unsuccessful Allied attempts to dislodge the Germans from this heavily fortified height, the four Canadian divisions, fighting together for the first time, seized the ridge on 12 April 1917 after four days of intense fighting. Meticulous preparation, the use of advanced technology, teamwork and the sacrifice of thousand of Canadian lives produced this remarkable result, It was an important turning point for Canada in the war.”

(Above: As you approach from below, the solitary female figure of ‘Canada’ looks down in sorrow at the slaughter taking place beneath her gaze…)

The single, central figure is revealed to be that of ‘Canada’. She gazes down Vimy Ridge, moved beyond words… but unmoving. Directly beneath her, at the base of the tall wall, is a tomb.

(Above: the figures of ‘Sympathy of Canadians for the Helpless’)

To the right of the downward-gazing figure of ‘Canada’ are the multiple figures of ‘Sympathy of Canadians for the Helpless’. It’s a beautifully carved sculpture and leads the eye to the twin pylons above – representing higher principles and forces at work in the human consciousness. This is an important point – the whole of the monument is about the human mind and heart, and their capacity for greatness or war – the ultimate failure of humanity’s communication and learning.

(Above: The full set of figures of the ‘Sympathy of Canadians for the Helpless’ sculpture

The basal wall is massive and runs the whole width of the monument. On the left of its face is an enigmatic piece known as “Breaking of the Sword’.

(Above: the full length of the basal wall, with the ‘Breaking of the Sword’ sculpture in the leftmost position)

Beyond the guardian figure of ‘Canada’ the upper level can be gained by either set of stone steps. We returned to this and faced the complete set of figures on the twin pylons.

(Above: The full suite of sculptures on the Front (downward) face)

The middle two figures, between the bases of the pylons, are ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘The ‘Torch Bearer’. Both stare upwards into the heights of the cold sky… The demands of society and civilisation will carry a high price…

(Above: The top of the pylons on the Front (down-ridge) face)

The figures here are curious. They are listed as (left) ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’, but my eyes saw three ‘headless’ figures on the left (see photo) They may have been weather-damaged and in the process of restoration, but I definitely see three!. The figures on the top of the right pylon are listed as ‘Honour’ (top) and ‘Charity’.

Together, these are the focus of the figures of the Torch Bearer and Sacrifice – the very centre of the monument. These two are the ‘centre of the pillars’ – spiritually significant on any level. They tell the story of the whole of mankind, embarked on a near-impossible struggle between the inheritance of the animal nature–and its evolutionary ladder back to matter, and the inner flame of the divine; that which fights entropy by creating its own gradients.

The one quality I found to be unreferenced was ‘Will’. But then, I looked again and could see how Walter Allward had created the perfect tableau, one which took all his own willpower, but left the final ‘stone’ to the future observer. Only in our own hearts and minds will we find the inner will to gaze upwards, with the Torch Bearer and the Sacrifice our witnesses, and seek the peace that encompasses all differences.

I think Walter Allward, and, hopefully Canada, might echo that…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Voices in the Mist (1)

We had never been to the First World War monuments and graves in northern France. As a young man, I considered them part of a national mindset that glorified war. But, over the decades, that view was moderated and I realised that such places are the result of something much deeper in the national psyche.

And not just national. Like a vast whirlpool, WW1 drew in polarising forces from across the world as the British Commonwealth and its allies faced the might of the armies of Wilhelm, the last Kaiser and Emperor of Prussia. The opening picture is from the deeply moving Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge – to which the second post in this series will be dedicated.

But the first part of our journey was the road up the hill from the small town of Amblain St. Nazaire to the French monument of Notre Dame de Lorette. As we climbed the hill the mist thickened. It was fitting weather to come face to face with a part of France that has been the focus of such intense emotion and international remembrance.

(Above: Notre Dame de Lorette Basilica with its lines of war graves is only part of this hilltop cemetery)

Notre Dame de Lorette is the name of the French Military Cemetery on top of the ridge which was the scene of so much conflict and death in the ‘Great War’. The name applies to the ridge, the basilica and the French national cemetery building. The hump-backed ridge stands nearly 170 metres above the surrounding land and the nearby town of Arras, which I wrote about in the last blog. This hill and Vimy ridge are the most dominant features of this otherwise flat part of northern France.

(Above: It would be hard to describe how cold the freezing mist was…but the sense of ‘rightness’ was complete – the cold horror of what happened along this ridge, and what happens when mankind forgets the power of the dark side of our nature)

Two buildings appear on the left-hand side of the road as you approach the cemetery. First the basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette, then, behind it, a tall tower, known as the Lantern Tower. They form an odd pair… until you stand in the space between them and something dramatic happens.

This part of the ridge has long been consecrated ground. Centuries ago, it was the site of a miraculous cure and gained the name of Notre Dame de Lorette because of the association of the miracle with the Virgin Mary. The present building is really a basilica built in the Romano-Byzantine style but retained the name of ‘chapel’ to honour the older tradition. It is unusual in that the small altar of the chapel is located outside the building at the entrance to the east door. The Notre Dame de Lorette statue of the Virgin Mary with Jesus stands next to the main altar inside the chapel.

Sadly, the basilica was closed for maintenance during our visit, so we had to be content with a tour of the exterior and the space between chapel and tower. But this did give us time to consider several of the beautiful inscriptions on the walls of both buildings.

(Above: the twin stone date markers flank the approach to the ‘chapel’ (really Basilica) of Notre Dame de Lorette)
(Above: up close, the Basilica is much larger than it looks on the approach. Sadly, it was closed for maintenance on the day we visited..)

Between the Chapel/Basilica and its associated tower is what can only be described as vast ‘plain’ paved in the same sandstone as the entrance walkway. Nearer the chapel, but dividing the two structures is what appears to be mausoleum which draws the eye from both in a way reminiscent of Egyptian temples..

(Above: the proximity of chapel to ‘mausoleum’ belies the relationship to the lantern tower, which is only appreciated when you look the other way…)

The ‘red plain’ – whose symbolism is later obvious, but not immediately grasped, is a completely flat surface and draws the eye outside of a human frame of reference and into the ‘spiritual’ world, beyond. Before turning to look at the tower, a larger context needs to be held in the mind and heart: that given on the side of the basilica in the photo below. Bearing in mind its religious link with the Virgin Mary; no stranger, herself, to suffering…

(Above: the engraved message from the eternal self fighting to stay sane in a world of seemingly endless violence)

My French is limited, but Sue has lent a hand: “To thee who from the heart of pain gave birth to Holy Hope, to thee this temple born of tears… Offered by the women of France…”

It just gets to you… In the freezing fog, with tears in my eyes, having grasped some of the import of the inscription and with my un-gloved hands hurting with cold while I held the camera, I turned, in order to look across the ‘red plain’ to grasp the importance of the Lantern Tower. But my eyes were captured by the ‘mausoleum’ building next to where I was standing.

(The ‘mausoleum’ reveals itself as something more…)

The significance of the supposed mausoleum becomes apparent at this point. The sheathed crossed-swords of valour are stationed outside this portico, whose purpose is solely to house the external altar of the ‘Mother Mary’. The relationship is to the words written on the facing walls of the ‘chapel’.

(Above: the twin swords of valour are sheathed in the stone)
(Above: Finally, the eyes are drawn to the Lantern Tower in the near-distance)

The Lantern Tower has, as its name suggests, a light at the top. Louis Cordonnier designed it to revolve five times each minute, once darkness falls… It’s a very poignant monument, and sits 150 feet high, above what is already the highest point on the ridge. The Lantern Tower was inaugurated in August 1925. Until recently, the 200 internal steps could be climbed by visitors, but the viewing gallery at the top has been closed for security reasons.

(Above: the Lantern Tower – light from a dramatic structure…)

The light from the Lantern Tower can be seen for 45 miles – encompassing all the local battlefields at the time of WW1. The base of the tower is a 25 metre square which frames a crypt containing the remains of 6,000 soldiers and a chapel of rest.

A container for relics was placed in the tower in April 1955. It contains soil and ashes from the concentration camps of World War II.

But the left-hand side of the road does not encompass the whole of the monument. Across the way, and only opened in 2014, is a vivid reminder of the horrors of war, and a moving memorial to all those who died in WW1. The French government decided that a monument of total inclusion was appropriate. This means that the names of the fallen among the ‘enemy’ were included in the monument’s role to the casualties of WW1.

(Above: the first of the alphabetic panels in the ‘Round Monument’ : L’Anneau de la Memoire

Such an inclusive approach may be our only hope to prevent such catastrophes in the future: to regard all people involved in wars as victims, and thereby point back along the chain of causality to the real causes… ego, power and bullying in human nature.

The name of Wilfred Owen, one of the most celebrated of the ‘war poets’, who died one week before the end of WW1.

Written on the entrance to the circular monument is written this:

“The 580,000 names are listed in alphabetical order, without distinction between rank or nationality, former enemies and friends side by side……. This memorial was erected in a peaceful Europe in memory of a terrible tragedy which devastated a generation of young men, who for the most part could read and write.

L’Anneau de la Memoire”

“Who for the most part could read and write…” a poignant and telling end to the dedication to an entire generation.

Our time had run out. We were due in Calais in a few hours. But we had found out that, nearby, was another major memorial site: that of the Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge – the site of one of the major battles of WW1. We decided to steal some time and make the short journey.

It was to be one of the best decisions we could have made… and brought us face to face with what I’ve come to think of as one of the most dramatic of monumental sculptures in the world.

The Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge. See Part Two of this series.

To be concluded in Part Two.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.