author: Denny Manchee
Honouring the lost with pen and chisel
All over Ontario boys were being worshipped and wept over as they covered themselves in khaki and marched toward a collection of similar brick train stations, part of a massive reverse migration. As if engaging in an act of revenge, Europe had demanded that the grandsons of the impoverished hordes that had left her shores a few generations before now cross the ocean to mingle their flesh with the dust of their ancestors.
A few weeks after the news reached Shoneval, Eamon told Klara that he felt compelled to go, “and who knows,” he added, “if I go they might let me fly an aeroplane…they will be crucial from now on in any war. Then when I come back I’ll keep one in the barn.
THE STONE CARVERS, BY JANE URQUHART 2001
THERE IS FACT and there is fiction, and sometimes they conjoin in powerful works of art that resonate across generations. Such is Jane Urquhart’s 2001 novel The Stone Carvers, which combines the facts of World War 1 and the design and construction of the Vimy Memorial in France, with an incongruous Ontario church partly funded by mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, into a narrative that teaches history and illuminates larger truths in equal measure.
With the centenary of The Great War upon us, and all its attendant commemorative events in Ottawa and across the land, The Stone Carvers remains a lyrical point of entry into comprehending the seemingly incomprehensible. Oh, and there are love stories, too.
Fact: On August 4, 1914, the front page of London’s Daily Mirror roared “Great Britain Declares War on Germany.” And when the British Empire went to war, so did the Dominion of Canada. What started with a shot fired in Sarajevo on June 28, assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led to four years of unutterable trench warfare and human carnage unlike anything the world had ever seen: 9,000,000 dead on the battlefield, 20,000,000 wounded. Canada’s contribution to these appalling numbers was 66,000 dead and 172,000 wounded – this from a total population of about 8,000,000.
Fact: In 1861, Reverend Archangelus Gstir arrived in the predominantly German settlement of Formosa, Ontario (Shoneval in the novel) and saw the need to expand the original wooden church built in 1857. He appealed to King Ludwig for funds to help build a larger stone church and received a total of 3,000 Thalers (about $2,000) for the cause. The church took many years to build and was finally consecrated in 1885, 15 years after Father Gstir’s death. It still dominates the landscape of Formosa.
Fact: Toronto sculptor Walter Allward won the design competition for the Vimy Memorial in 1921. It took him two years of hunting to find the right stone – a luminous limestone from a village called Seget near the Dalmation coast – and the monument was not finished till 1936. Long overdue, way over budget and utterly spectacular.
For those who have stood before its towering columns and heroic figures, now beautifully restored, the feeling is unforgettable. Profound, aching sorrow washes over your body when you stare up at the central female figure, Canada Bereft. It pours forth from her cloaked form and spills over the Douai Plain, pure anguish cast in blinding white stone. As Allward intended, this is a memorial to sacrifice, not a monument to victory.
Jacqueline Hucker and Julian Smith talk about this in their 2012 book Vimy: Canada’s Memorial to a Generation, and say that Allward’s concept for the monument was inspired by a dream. Asked about his winning design in 1921, apparently the sculptor related: “When things were at their blackest in France, I dreamed that I was in a great battlefield. I saw our men going by in thousands and being mowed down by the sickles of death…Suffering beyond endurance at the sight, I turned my eyes and found myself looking down at an avenue of poplars. Suddenly through the avenues, I saw thousands marching to the aid of our armies. They were the dead. They rose in masses, filed silently by and entered the fight to aid the living. So vivid was the impression, that when I awoke it stayed with me for months. Without the dead we were helpless. So I have tried to show this in this monument to Canada’s fallen, what we owed them and will forever owe them.”
Allward was shaking his head. “They all believed, every one of them believed there would be something romantic about it, some notion of adventure. They all wanted it to be beautiful in some way, noble, I suppose. What they got instead was a living hell with nothing resembling beauty or nobility in it.
The Stone Carvers
MIND OF A NOVELIST
“I can’t even remember when I took the decision to focus on that memorial to write The Stone Carvers,” says Urquhart, “but it probably came about as a result of me being interested in both architectural structures – the Formosa church and the Vimy Memorial – at the same time.” Sitting in her century home in Colborne (a house that had belonged to her parents), the award-winning writer laughs as she says, “I had to write a novel pretty much to figure out what on earth was going on in my head!”
Urquhart’s mom might have had something to do with it, too. Marian Quinn was born in 1911 and grew up on a farm near Colborne with six brothers and one sister. “My mother was a very small child during the First World War and never, ever got over it,” says the author. “She collected books on the war, artifacts, things made out of shell casings. She was the one who really connected me with it, and with the whole tragic side of it.”
Urquhart saw the memorial for the first time with her husband artist Tony Urquhart when she was in her mid-20s. “He was so avidly trying to get me there, and I remember thinking this was a very masculine thing, to want to see the battlefields, but boy it sure had an effect on me. It’s one of the most moving sights.”
Then when the couple was living in Stratford, Urquhart found a brochure for the Formosa church in the local library and was fascinated by the connection to King Ludwig. “Who knew mad Ludwig had anything to do with Canada? I immediately leapt into my car and drove out to look at it. And in this little hamlet was this thing sitting up there like a cathedral.
“Part of what fascinated me about the building of the Formosa/Shoneval church was that the area had been settled by German Canadians whose children and grandchildren (I conjectured) would have been sent back to the homeland to make war in some cases against their own cousins.”
Urquhart returned to Vimy in the early 1990s while researching her novel of whose characters also dwell in the darkness of WW1. “It was in bad shape, the names were falling off,” she says. When she discovered Allward’s papers were at Queen’s University in Kingston, and “next to no one had taken a glance at them, nobody cared,” she was deeply moved. The sculptor had been forgotten, and his major work was disintegrating into the cratered landscape of Vimy. Urquhart was impelled to delve into the papers, which took her directly into the mind and hand of the sculptor. Yes, there were drawings, some of them disturbing.
FARMERS TURNED WARRIORS
The Battle of Vimy Ridge began at dawn on April 9, 1917, Easter Monday. The ridge was a strategic stronghold, with commanding views northeast to the coalfields of Lens and southwest to the city of Arras. The Germans had held it from early in the war, despite repeated attempts by the French to recapture it. The Canadians, moving over from the ravages of the Battle of the Somme in late 1916, worked for months to prepare for the attack, building extensive tunnels leading up to the German line.
The whole labyrinth seemed a parody of the world above as soldiers had chiseled into the passageways and underground rooms the names of places they had been fond of, or places they had imagined. One oval space had been called Centreton Ball Park, and another Convocation Hall.
The Stone Carvers
As Pierre Berton wrote in his 1986 book Vimy, many of the soldiers were farmers, ranchers and trappers. “Such men were used to hard work, long hours and rough conditions. At Vimy, far more time was spent in back-breaking toil – endless digging with pick and shovel, toting heavy loads over difficult ground – than in firing any weapons. The Canadians adapted easily to these familiar conditions, made the best of them, and used age-old Canadian devices, such as the Indian tumpline, to alleviate the work load….
“Trench life in France was appalling for everybody, but at least a good proportion of the men at Vimy had known what it was like to sleep out in the mud and rain, to eat a cold meal in the wilderness, and, in many cases, to knock over a deer with a rifle.”
Although the well-orchestrated attack paid off in capturing the ridge, and has entered our national consciousness as a great Canadian achievement, it was a bloodbath: there were more than 10,600 casualties, including almost 3,600 deaths. Many of the men were literally blown to bits, leaving no fragments by which to identify them.
“I thought Vimy was our great victory,” Giorgio looked at Tilman, who was squinting in the face of
“That may be,” Tilman said, turning to climb out of one of the craters, “but I don’t think a single one of us who was there knew whether or not there was a victory. We barely understood where we were when it was all over. And let’s not overlook the fact that thirty-five hundred guys died, and three times as many were injured.”
The Stone Carvers
“Missing” was the dreaded word delivered into the hands of mothers and fathers and sisters. Their beloved young men were nowhere to be found, presumed dead. To honour these men and offer comfort to their grieving loved ones, an unprecedented act of remembrance was introduced after WW1: engraving the names of the lost on war memorials. In villages, towns and cities across Canada cenotaphs rose like sturdy oaks to be constant reminders of those who had given their lives but whose bodies were never found. (The village of Colborne is currently raising funds to restore its cenotaph in Victoria Square.) Back in France, the largest of these was Allward’s memorial, with more than 11,000 names carved into its plinth with exquisite precision. The missing, as he expected, were listed alphabetically in the Master File, so it was necessary for him to read every town name in the adjacent right column. Grimsby, Maple Creek, Ferney, Clinton, Levis, Vernonville, Rimouski, Colborne, Truro, Humbolt,Walkerton, Parry Sound, Lila, Medicine Hat, Moosejaw.
Who were the settlers who had titled these places? Could they have imagined the names they had invented would lie, as the result of an immense slaughter, in an official document on a foreign desk?
The Stone Carvers
Urquhart introduces the art and craft of carving early in The Stone Carvers in the character of Joseph Becker, a German immigrant to Shoneval who is a skilled woodcarver. Over time, he passes on these skills to his two grandchildren, Tilman and Klara, who in turn become as adept with chisels as their opa, and end up working on the Vimy Memorial. It is Klara who insists they go, driven by the loss of her lover Eamon and needing to understand more about why he had abandoned her and how he had died.
“The carving research was difficult,” admits Urquhart. “But while I was working on the novel they found some of Allward’s original plasters underneath the monument, and I was able to meet the men who were restoring them. That was very instructional, but I found I really had to go back to old weird library books from the 19th century to be able to read something about the physical activity of it.”
As for putting these tools into the hands of a woman, that wasn’t so unusual since there were many women sculptors working in the early 20th century. In fact, the Dominion Stone Carver from 1961-1993, responsible for all the carving in the Parliament Buildings, was a woman named Eleanor Milne, whom Urquhart met on the Vimy restoration committee. She was born in 1925 and died just this past June.
“You are going to carve his name, Klara,” Giorgio said, “and I am going to help you, show you how.”…Klara knew this would be the last time she touched Eamon, that when they finished carving his name all the confusion and regret of his absence would unravel, just as surely as if she had embraced him with forgiving arms.…Allward came up beside Klara and put his hand on her arm. “This is him then?”
“It’s him,” said Klara, not looking up. Giorgio did not take his hand away from hers, his forearm resting on her thigh, the chisel emerging from their joint fists…
“Carve it with your heart then,” Allward said, speaking to them, to himself. “Let it go out of your
heart and into the stone.”
The Stone Carvers
As Klara did in the novel, so did Allward in real life, pouring his heart into the Seget stone of the Vimy Memorial and creating not only a monument to the fallen, but a singular work of art, as is Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers. It seems only art can help us comprehend this wreckage of war. Four years of battle, 15 years to construct the Vimy Memorial, four years to write the novel – boys into blood into stone into literature – this is the math and the path of remembrance.
COLBORNE’S HERO: Charlie Rutherford Decorated with the Victoria Cross
On August 9, 1918, 16 months after the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge, 26-year-old Charlie Rutherford, a farm boy from the Colborne area, went into battle near Amiens on the Western Front and, with his company, captured two towns held by the Germans, receiving the Military Cross for his bravery.
The company then moved to the Arras Front on August 26, charged with protecting the Arras-Cambrai Road and taking the village of Monchy-le-Preux. They advanced on Monchy at 3 am in the rain. “When we got in front of Monchy, our guns were still firing,” Rutherford recalled in a story he wrote called, The History of the Gun of Charles Smith Rutherford. “I said to my Sergeant that I would run over to A Company to see how they were getting along. I was gone about 10 minutes. When I came back I couldn’t see any of my men. I thought they had gone into the town as the barrage had lifted. I ran there as hard as I could…but when I got within 100 yards of the town, all I could see were Germans. I decided to go and do the best that I could with them. All I had was a loaded revolver in my hand. I walked right up to the band of Germans who had come out of their dugout and demanded that they surrender as my prisoners.”
Miraculously, they did! Lt. Rutherford, at just over 6 feet and stick slim, continued taking German prisoners and their guns over the next few days and, for his valour, received the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry a British and Commonwealth serviceman could achieve.
Unlike so many who returned from the war damaged psychologically or physically, Charlie was able to move on from the horror he had witnessed. He married Helen Haig, had four children – Andrew, Isabel, Rosemary and Dora – and for many years ran a successful dairy farm of Ayrshire cattle northeast of Colborne.
“He was a good father, fun to be with, he whistled a lot,” says 91-year-old Isabel, who’s as sharp as ever and lives in Toronto, walking daily and spending hours tending her garden. “He never talked about the war. He was a happy, positive man, very social and I never thought of him as being affected in any way by that war, though he probably was.”
After asthma drove him from the farm, Charlie served as Colborne’s postmaster for a couple of years in the late 1930s. “He didn’t like that job at all,” laughs Isabel. “He liked to be his own boss. But things worked out beautifully because when the Second War came along, he joined up again and my mother took over as postmaster and loved it!”
In 1940, WW2 took Charlie to the Bahamas for a year as a Veteran Guard, protecting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He spent the remainder of the war at Military Headquarters in Kingston and then returned to Colborne. After Helen died, he lived with his daughter Dora for 15 years. He died on June 11, 1989 at the age of 97, a hero to his family and so many others right to the very end.