The speeches were done, the dignitaries gone. The ranks of soldiers had marched away. Now sculptor Mary-Ann Liu had one final task at Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was nearly 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 28, 2000, six hours after the solemn ceremony had begun. An enormous crane lifted the granite lid over top the open tomb.
Liu, the winner of a national competition to design the tomb, and Maurice Joanisse, the Dominion Sculptor who created the granite sarcophagus to Liu’s design, spread a thick layer of epoxy resin to permanently fix the cover in place.
Liu expected the work party to be alone for this final, intimate act, but hundreds of spectators still pressed against the barriers surrounding Ottawa’s National War Memorial as the crane swung the lid into place. The unnamed First World War soldier would not be alone when his tomb was sealed.
What happened next caught Liu off guard.
“When the barriers came down people just flooded in,” she said in a phone call from her Vancouver studio.
“I wasn’t expecting that. It really struck home what sacrifice meant. People were kneeling and kissing the bronze and touching it. I was really, really floored by it. It was a very touching experience.”
What began spontaneously that spring evening has carried on ever since, a ritual of Canada Day and Remembrance Day when the Unknown Soldier — Le Soldat Inconnu — is covered in a mantle of crimson poppies or Canadian flags. People place letters and photographs on the tomb, and, at least once, a real officer’s ceremonial sword.
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, who was born more than 70 years after the First World War ended, literally gave his life while guarding the tomb, drawing his final breath as he lay at the Unknown Soldier’s feet after a terrorist attack.
The tomb has become so central to Canadians’ remembrance, it has in many ways surpassed the National War Memorial that soars over it as this country’s ultimate symbol of war and sacrifice. Serge Durflinger, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Canada’s military history and the memorialization of veterans, is among the thousands and thousands who have placed their poppies upon the tomb.
“It was like an instant tradition. I see it every year. I take part in it every year on Remembrance Day,” Durflinger said. “The Memorial itself is a wonderful evocation, but you can’t really engage in it. You can only look at it and admire it. But with the tomb, it’s interactive. You become part of the ceremony itself.”
That reverence — the laying on of hands to the tomb — is part of a resurgence in Canadians’ interest in the military and military history. In the years after the Vietnam War, Remembrance Day ceremonies were sparsely attended. The Canadian military was rocked by scandals, like the shameful beating death of a young Somalia teen at the hands of a Canadian soldier. Canadians’ interest in the country’s military past waned.
That began to change in 1995 when Canadian veterans returned to Europe for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, said historian Tim Cook of the Canadian War Museum.
“A lot of people attribute that resurgence to the war in Afghanistan, but I don’t think that’s right,” Cook said. “In 1995, thousands upon thousands of veterans went back to Europe. They were treated as liberators again by the Dutch.
“Then, five years later the Unknown Soldier returns and there is the very powerful act of reclaiming one of our own. That spontaneous act of personal commemoration, it isn’t scripted. It’s not being forced on us by government. It’s that personal act that is so powerful.”
Canada’s last First World War veteran, John Babcock, died in 2010. The children of Great War veterans themselves are in their 80s and 90s. How will we remember the First World War once this year’s centenary of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice has passed?
“Think about Vimy,” Cook said. “There were 25,000 Canadians there last year for the 100th anniversary. This year, there was almost no coverage for the 101st.”
Yet as the First World War fades deeper into history, the Tomb of the Unknown soldier will remain, an immutable stone and bronze tribute to Canada’s war dead.
More than 600,000 Canadians fought in the 1914-18 “war to end all wars” and 59,544 would die. The war would kill another 1,305 Newfoundlanders, then still a British colony. All but a handful of those dead are buried near the battlefields where they died, mowed down by machine-guns, asphyxiated by gas, ripped to pieces by exploding shells and shrapnel or simply succumbing to disease in the filth and mud of trench warfare.
It was the task of the Imperial War Graves Commission (renamed the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1960) to record the seemingly endless rolls of the dead, identify the bodies as best they could and mark their graves.
In previous wars, the bodies of foot soldiers usually ended up in a mass grave beneath some suitably grand war memorial. Wealthy families, however, were often able to bring the bodies of their sons or brothers, who were usually senior officers, home for burial in the family plot.
The war graves commission was determined not to let that happen. The commission grew from work its founder, Fabian Ware, began in the first weeks of the war alongside other upper crust volunteers with the British Red Cross’s mobile ambulance unit. Ware was a 45-year-old former newspaper editor who was a staunch believer in the British Empire. But he was also a reformer who believed in equality and social justice.
Those beliefs would lead to one of the most moving aspects of Commonwealth war graves: the row upon row of identical grey granite headstones, with the bodies of generals lying shoulder to shoulder with privates — the commanders and the commanded — equal in death.
Tracking the dead became a nearly impossible task as the slaughter increased and the war bogged down into the stalemate of trench warfare.
“Human remains in varying degrees of disintegration littered the landscape,” Cook writes in his 2018 book, The Secret History of Soldiers. “Shellfire dismembered men, while those killed in No Man’s Land were often lost in the shell craters and slowly rotted away.”
At war’s end, the war graves commission began the grim job of combing through the battlefields and consolidating the Empire’s graves.
Canadian soldiers wore twin identity discs made of fibre that could be separated, with one part left with the body and the other turned in to officially register the death. But often there was little left to identify a man vaporized by an exploding shell or a grave site churned over and over as the fighting see-sawed back and forth across the devastated landscape.
Of Canada’s 60,000 First World War dead, 19,660 have no known graves.
The decision to bury soldiers near battlefields was controversial. The American government allowed families the choice of bringing their dead home, although Durflinger notes the result was often a “catastrophe of logistics” with remains arriving stateside with no one really certain whose body was inside the coffin.
“It was that American idea of private property. There was no sense of a collective ideal,” he said. “But in Britain there was this tradition of Empire where you would give up your son and you might never see them again.”
Nevertheless, the policy of not repatriating war dead was criticized, even though for many Britons, the war cemeteries were still within reach. The cemetery at Wimereux, France, for example, is less than 50 kilometres across the English Channel from Dover.
But what of Canadian families far across the Atlantic Ocean? Should they not have the right to have their loved ones brought home?
In her history thesis on Canada’s relationship with the CWGC, University of Ottawa student Karine Landry cites a 1919 letter from Ontario MPP Thomas Preston to his Member of Parliament:
“Those Canadians who, like myself, have given their sons for Country’s sake ought not to be asked to make the additional sacrifice of having the remains of their loved ones left on foreign soil,” Preston wrote.
Some families were so bereaved they tried to bring the remains of dead soldiers home on their own, despite the strict ban on exhumations. Most attempts failed. In 1921, the family of Pvt. Grenville Carson Hopkins of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry managed to dig up his body from Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium, and smuggled it out in a suitcase. Authorities eventually found Carson’s remains stored in a mortuary in Belgium and had them reburied.
But a handful of other families were successful. One of them, Maj. Charles Sutcliffe, a Canadian pilot in Britain’s Royal Flying Corp, was brought home in secret and is now buried in the family plot in Lindsay, Ont.
“It’s quite mysterious how they did it,” says Ottawa’s Cynthia Sutcliffe, the great-niece of Charles Sutcliffe, who has done her own research on his death.
Charles was the son of wealthy merchant Frederick Sutcliffe and his wife, Anna. Charles was born in Toronto, but enlisted in Ottawa where one of the family stores was located. He served as an army officer in the trenches before being seconded to the Royal Flying Corp (Canada had no air force at the time) where he trained as a pilot.
He disappeared on June 6, 1917 after flying over German lines in his Sopwith Scout biplane. A few days later, his war records note that a German plane dropped a note over the allied lines saying that he had been captured and “lightly wounded.” That line was later scratched out and a note that he was dead pencilled in without elaboration.
“My theory is that the Germans interrogated him, then shot him,” Cynthia Sutcliffe said.
The Sutcliffes never recovered from their grief. In 1919, Frederick and Anna visited the churchyard crypt where he had been buried by his German captors “with full honours.” Six years later, Frederick returned to France, and with the help of a mysterious man named “Mr. Pitts,” had his son’s body exhumed and shipped to New York.
It’s believed the family convinced officials that Charles Sutcliffe was an American and could be repatriated.
“I guess my great-grandfather knew the right people and had the financial resources to bring him back,” Cynthia Sutcliffe said.
“My great-grandmother was apparently absolutely devastated. She never recovered from the loss. For her, that he was brought home probably made her feel better. And as a mother, I would have wanted him home too.
“It probably wasn’t right. He probably should have been buried with the people he served with … but at least they had closure.”
There would be no closure for tens of thousands of other Canadian families. Though Britain interred its own Unknown Warrior with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 1920 — a soldier who was meant to represent all of the Empire’s dead — Canadians would have to wait another 80 years to welcome home their own Unknown.
The idea of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Canada had been around almost since the 1918 armistice, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the idea gained traction. In 1993, Australia had buried an Unknown in its capital, Canberra, leaving Canada as the last of the great First World War nations without an Unknown Soldier.
Curiously, the first proposal came from a pair of Quebeckers who saw the project as a way to promote national unity in the wake of collapsed Constitutional talks and a looming Quebec referendum. Almost simultaneously, the Royal Canadian Legion began working on a similar plan as a Millennium project.
It took three years of meetings between the legion, the federal government and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to hammer out the details. From what war would the Unknown come from? Where would he be reburied? Who would design the tomb? Who would speak? Would he tour the provincial and territorial capitals or lie in state in Parliament?
Eventually it was decided the soldier would come from the Cabaret-Rouge Cemetery in France, not far from the Battle of Vimy Ridge, so mythologized in Canadian history. The cemetery contained 8,000 graves, 750 of them Canadian and 425 of those contained unidentified remains. The land was well-drained, which officials hoped would help preserve the body.
On May 16, 2000, working in utmost secrecy, officials from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began to exhume the remains from Grave 7, Row E, Plot 8. The remains were nearly complete, more than eight decades after his burial, and included bits of cloth and leather from his uniform. Buried with him were two glass eyepieces from a gas mask, two boot soles, various buttons and metal bits and two brass CANADA shoulder titles. There was also one bullet.
A week later, a Canadian delegation arrived in Vimy for the official handover ceremony. By coincidence, a French farmer had unearthed the body of another Canadian soldier, identified as Pvt. David John Carlson, and he was buried with full military honours at the same time. Retired Brig.-Gen. Larry Doshen, who was part of the legion’s Unknown Solider project, was there for both ceremonies.
“It was bitterly cold and it was pouring down rain,” Doshen recalled. “The pallbearers and guard were there with the rain dripping off them and it struck me, ‘We’ve only been here for an hour or two. These soldiers spent days and weeks and months in conditions that were a lot worse than this.”
When the Unknown Soldier arrived in Ottawa, he lay in state in Parliament’s Hall of Honour for three days, before his final interment. Thousands of Canadians lined up to file past his polished coffin of silver maple.
On the day of his interment, 20,000 people crowded around the National War Memorial to watch. The CBC provided four hours of live coverage.
The crowd hushed as the Royal Canadian Legion commanders spread dropped soil from every province and territory on the coffin. Grand Chief Howard Anderson of the Assembly of First Nations offered tobacco and an eagle feather.
“It is a frightening thing for human beings to think that we could die and that no one would know to mark our grave, to say where we had come from, to say when we had been born and when exactly we died,” Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson said in her eulogy.
“In honouring this unknown soldier today, through this funeral and this burial, we are embracing the fact of the anonymity and saying that because we do not know him and we do not know what he could have become, he has become more than one body, more than one grave. He is an ideal. He is a symbol of all sacrifice. He is every soldier in all our wars.”
The Unknown Soldier’s tomb so perfectly complements the National War Memorial, many assume it has always been there. The memorial, a soaring arch with 22 lifelike bronze figures marching through, was designed by sculptor Vernon March. King George VI dedicated it as Canada’s official memorial to the First World War in May 1939, ironically, less than six months before Canada was thrust into the Second World War in which another 44,000 Canadians would die.
“It’s increasingly a difficult memorial,” said the War Museum’s Tim Cook. “It’s a powerful memorial, but it’s so overtly First World War.
“After the Second World War, a group of Second World War veterans said, ‘It’s a nice monument, but we would like our own.’ But that idea fell apart.”
In 1982, the National War Memorial was rededicated to honour Canadians who served in the Second World War and the Korean War. In 2014, the South African War of 1899-1902 was added along with the recent war in Afghanistan.
Canada’s Unknown Soldier is meant to represent all Canadians killed in wars and peace-keeping actions since the beginning of the 20th Century.
Though the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey also represents Canadian and Commonwealth war dead, it’s appropriate for Canada to have brought its own warrior home, Cook said.
“I’m glad that the Unknown Soldier is there and for what he represents. It’s a powerful focal point to the national monument.”
Liu’s design echoes the altar at the massive Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. It weighs 10,000 kg and is so heavy Public Works had to reinforce the area before it was installed. The bronze casting on top is of a First World War helmet, a laurel of maple leaves and a battle-battered crusader’s sword.
Liu has been to Ottawa several times since and visited the tomb. She asks friends visiting the capital to send her pictures of themselves at the site.
“I never thought that people would be crying and kissing it. It’s really wonderful that the response to my work is so emotional,” she said. “That’s exactly what I would dream of, being a sculptor.
“I’m immensely proud of that piece.”
Across the city, there is one more tribute to the Unknown Soldier. His grave marker of grey, Portland stone is mounted in the Memorial Hall at the Canadian War Museum, nearly 6,000 km from his original plot in Cabaret Rouge Cemetery.
A narrow window illuminates the marker in a sunbeam at precisely 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, the moment of the Armistice.
It bears the same stylized maple leaf and brief inscription of so many other unknown graves.
A Soldier of the Great War
Known Unto God
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