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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with architectural historian Jacqueline Hucker on the Vimy Monument

By Scott Kennel

A photo from the book VIMY: Canada's Memorial to a Generation.

Jacqueline Hucker is co-author of VIMY: Canada’s Memorial to a Generation, a book about the history of Canada’s World War I monument that lies on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge. Hucker will be at the Canadian War Museum on April 12 for the launch of the new book, which she wrote with Julian Smith, and will be giving a short lecture with the monument’s restoration architect.

It seems like this book has a lot of different elements to it. Is this a history book, an art book, or something else?
This is mostly an architectural history or art history book. It talks about the construction of the Vimy Ridge monument. The monument was built in France and took over 15 years to complete, so this was a very big affair as far as memorials are concerned. This book tells the history of the architect and the people involved.

What can readers expect to learn from reading this book?
First of all, they will learn about how Canada ended up building a national memorial on Vimy Ridge, they will learn about the history of the war, and about the very long process of building the monument. Essentially readers will learn that this is a new kind of memorial, one that honours the ordinary soldier. That form of monument only came about after the First World War because so many soldiers died, including 65,000 Canadians. Memorials used to honour only military leaders. But imagine Canada at the time, a country of 7 million people, losing 65,000 young men. It’s such a tragedy and somehow Canada had to respond more honestly than it had in the past and try to pay homage to the soldiers that died. We take it for granted now that memorials honour soldiers, but that was all created after the First World War. I think this reflects an enormous strength on Canada’s part.

This book contains a lot of photographs. Why did you decide to include so many?
Yes, it contains a lot of new photographs. There is no point in having an important monument if people can’t see it, and not many people have a chance to go to Vimy Ridge. It’s just difficult to get to, even when you’re in France. This way we have tried to capture the beauty of the monument and the site.

Why is this project significant to Canadians today?
This is something I had to really think hard about, because not only was it 100 years ago, but also not as many Canadians today have their roots in Europe. In 1920s’ Canada, a lot of people were coming from Britain so we had closer ties than today, but the Vimy Monument transcends that. It speaks about the horror and the waste of war, and it speaks to the fact that war is in us and only when we learn to live properly will it end. The Vimy Monument is about returning to calm after chaos, but it recognizes the chaos within us, within all human beings. We’re the murderers, and that’s why it has meaning for every generation.

Did you travel to the Vimy Ridge Memorial while you were researching this book?
Yes, several times. It’s very imposing and very beautiful. It has 22 larger than life sculptures on it. But the most wonderful part is that they saved the battlefield, and the architect placed the symbolic tomb directly on it. Usually with memorials they create gardens around them, they suggest Eden, a paradise. But what is so wonderful about Vimy Ridge is that this is the battlefield. This is where so many people disappeared. Did you know that during the restoration they dug a foot down at the edge of the site to create a quick parking lot for the all the big trucks that had to come in, and they found two huge unexploded weapons there, and they found two German bodies? So you see this really is a killing field. It reminds us that the 11,285 names on the monument belong to the Canadians whose bodies could never be identified or who had just simply been blown to pieces.

What will be taking place at the book launch?
Well, I will be giving a short lecture along with the restoration architect. He is a leading conservation architect and he led the restoration process. After that there will be a little reception and a book signing.

What can we expect to learn at the launch?
I would like to talk about how this was not just the work of an architect on his own. This monument was a communal response on the part of Canadians to a catastrophic event. It was the military who decided the monument would go on the ridge, it was the government who funded it and preserved the landscape, and it was the veterans — 8,000 of them — who went there to lay claim to it. This is Canada’s communal effort.

For information on the event, which takes place at the Canadian War Museum at 7 p.m. on April 12, see www.warmuseum.ca/event/book-launch. To purchase the book visit www.sanderlingpress.com.

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