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War history: The Brooding Soldier watching over the battlefields of Ypres

11:29 28 June 2014

The Brooding Soldier commemorates the Canadian 1st Division action during what is known as the Second Battle of Ypres, from April 22 to 24, 1915.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates the Canadian 1st Division action during what is known as the Second Battle of Ypres, from April 22 to 24, 1915.

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What’s the story behind an imposing memorial-cum-sculpture in Belgium with the power to stop us in our tracks? Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, tells all as he continues his look at the Ypres Salient.

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One of the advantages of taking a tour with a Guild of Battlefield Guides member is the level of knowledge they can share. For example, there is so much more to the many memorials dotted around Ypres than meets the eye. Each has its own symbology and story to tell. This week we look at one of the most popular memorials in the salient: “The Brooding Soldier”.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates the Canadian 1st Division action during what is known as the Second Battle of Ypres, from April 22 to 24, 1915. The Canadians held their position on the left flank of the British Army after the German Army launched the first-ever large-scale gas attack against two French divisions on the left of the Canadians.

From the start of the battle at 1700 hours on April 22, and for the next few days, the Canadians were involved in heavy fighting, incurring close to 2,000 casualties.

The original design for this memorial was submitted to a competition in 1920 looking to find a single design for a national monument to be constructed on eight Canadian battlefield memorial sites granted to Canada by France and Belgium. Five sites were in France and three in Belgium.

The Canadian Battlefields Memorials Committee had been set up in 1920 by the Canadian Government. The task of the committee was to co-ordinate the organisation and administration of the design competition; 160 designs were submitted, of which 17 were shortlisted. All the shortlisted designs were made as plaster models by the artists, sculptors and architects.

The winner of the competition, announced in October 1921, was Walter Seymour Allward. His design was for a stone memorial of epic proportions, with twin towers or pylons and 20 sculpted figures. It was decided that Allward’s design would be constructed as a national monument on the Vimy Ridge battlefield memorial site.

Frederick Chapman Clemesha, an architect from Regina, also submitted a striking design for the competition. Clemesha himself had served in the Canadian Army during the Great War and had been wounded.

His design comprised a single tower of stone with the head and shoulders of a soldier at the top. The design came second and was chosen to sit at the battlefield site of St Julien in memory of the Canadians who fought during the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915.

The sculpted figure at the top of this tower of granite is the head and shoulders of a Canadian soldier in his steel helmet. His head is bowed and his hands are resting on the butt of his rifle in the position of “reversed arms” – that is, with the rifle barrel pointing down. The ceremonial custom of reversing soldiers’ weapons in salute occurs at military funerals and is believed to have been introduced at the funeral of the Duke of Marlborough in 1722.

The now-iconic memorial − The Brooding Soldier − was constructed from a single shaft of granite. It is 11 metres tall.

Even the stone it is made from has its own symbolic message. It was quarried in the Vosges mountains, the scene of bitter fighting between the French and Germans during the early months of the war. The granite stone block for the shaft was transported directly to St Julien in Belgium and the stone block for the bust was taken to Brussels, where it was carved.

The brooding Canadian now dominates the road junction known as Vancouver Corner, where it has become one of the most well known sites in the Ypres Salient.

• The next commemorative day excursion to the Ypres Salient departs on Tuesday, September 23. More details can be found at www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary. Keep up to date on the centenary and Galloway battlefield tours on Twitter @GallowayBattles

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