The Military Museums

National War Memorial

The National War Memorial in Ottawa was unveiled in 1939 to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War.

National War Memorial

The National War Memorial in Ottawa was unveiled in 1939 to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War.

National War Memorial

The War Memorial has since come to symbolize the sacrifice of all Canadians who have served Canada in time of war in the cause of peace and freedom.

For that reason, the Memorial is now rededicated to their honour. The dates for World War II (1939-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953) have been added in bronze numerals on each side of the memorial.


The National War Memorial, unveiled in 1939 to commemorate the response of Canadians in the First World War, has, over the years, come to symbolize the sacrifice of all Canadians who have served Canada in time of war in the cause of peace and freedom. For that reason, the Memorial is now rededicated to their honour. The dates 1939-1945 and 1950-1953 have been added in bronze numerals on each side of the memorial.

The Response

Following the First World War, 1914-1918, there was a strong sentiment in Canada that a memorial should be erected to those who had served their country in that war. It was a war which called for sacrifice, on a scale hitherto unknown, from the people of a still young and struggling nation. The response was magnificent.

In 1925, a world-wide competition was held to choose a design for a national commemorative war monument to be erected in the capital of Canada. It was to be "expressive of the feelings of the Canadian people as a whole, to the memory of those who participated in the Great War and lost their lives in the service of humanity".

The competition regulations further stipulated that the vision which the government wished to keep alive was "the spirit of heroism, the spirit of self-sacrifice, the spirit of all that is noble and great that was exemplified in the lives of those sacrificed in the Great War, and the services rendered by the men and women who went overseas".

The competition was open to architects, sculptors and artists resident in the British Empire, or who were British subjects by birth but residing elsewhere, or subject of Allied nations. A total of 127 entries was received - 66 from Canada, 24 from England, 21 from France, seven from the United States, five from Belgium, two from Italy, one from Scotland and one from Trinidad. Seven finalists were then chosen to submit scale models of their designs.

In January 1926, the Board of Assessors selected the model submitted by Vernon March of Farnborough, Kent, England. His theme was "the Great Response of Canada", represented by uniformed figures from all services passing through a granite arch. The idea, March wrote, was "to perpetuate in this bronze group the people of Canada who went overseas to the Great War, and to represent them, as we of today saw them, as a record for future generations..." There was to be no suggestion of glorifying war.

Vernon March was assisted by his six brothers and his sister who completed the work after his untimely death in 1930. They moulded the full size figures in clay, then cast them in plaster and finally made the bronze figures in their own foundry.

The figures were completed in July 1932, but it was not possible to commence construction of the memorial arch in Ottawa because the site was not yet ready. In 1933, the figures, mounted on a plaster-covered base were displayed in London's Hyde Park for six months. They were then stored in the March's studio until 1937 when they were shipped to Ottawa.

In December 1937, a contract was awarded to E.G.M. Cape and Company, Montreal contractors, for the construction of the granite pedestal and arch. Work started the following year with Sydney March directing the construction. He was joined later by two of his brothers, Percy and Walter. On Wednesday, October 19, 1938, the memorial was completed, and on its permanent site in the Nation's Capital.

Only the work on the surrounding area remained. Jacques Greber, who had been appointed to prepare plans for the development of the city of Ottawa, was retained as a consultant. A contract was awarded to A.W. Robertson Limited, Toronto contractors, for the terraces, walks and grading of the site for which seven varieties of Canadian granite were used. All was in readiness at the time of the Royal visit in the spring of 1939.

The Unveiling

The National War Memorial was officially unveiled by His Majesty King George VI at eleven o'clock on the morning of Sunday, May 21, 1939. In his address to an estimated 100,000 persons who gathered to witness the ceremony, King George spoke of the symbolism of the memorial and the sacrifice to which it is dedicated:

The memorial speaks to her world of Canada's heart. Its symbolism has been beautifully adapted to this great end. It has been well named "The Response". One sees at a glance the answer made by Canada when the world's peace was broken and freedom threatened in the fateful years of the Great War. It depicts the zeal with which this country entered the conflict.

But the symbolism of the memorial is even more profound. Something deeper than chivalry is portrayed. It is the spontaneous response of the nation's conscience. The very soul of the nation is here revealed.

Surmounting the arch through which the armed forces of the nation are pressing forward are the figures of peace and freedom. To win peace and to secure freedom Canada's sons and daughters enrolled for service during the Great War. For the cause of peace and freedom 60,000 Canadians gave their lives, and a still larger number suffered impairment of body or mind. This sacrifice the National Memorial holds in remembrance for our own and succeeding generations.

This memorial, however, does more than commemorate a great event in the past. It has a message for all generations and for all countries - the message which called for Canada's response. Not by chance both the crowning figures of peace and freedom appear side by side. Peace and freedom cannot long be separated. It is well that we have, in one of the world capitals, a visible reminder of so great a truth. Without freedom there can be no enduring peace, and without peace no enduring freedom.

The Memorial

The National War Memorial stands majestically in Confederation Square in the heart of downtown Ottawa with the Parliament Buildings and the distant Gatineau Hills in the background. Rising 21 metres from its base, the memorial consists of an arch of granite surmounted by emblematic bronze figures of Peace and Freedom. Shown advancing through the archway are 22 bronze figures symbolic of the "Great Response" of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who answered the call to serve.

All branches of the service engaged in the war are represented. The figures are one-third greater than life size, each standing about 2.44 metres tall. Care was taken to place the group in the design at such a height from ground level that it would be possible for the public to see the figures from any point of view without undue fore-shortening of the sculptured group.

Each figure is historically correct in detail of uniform and equipment and typical of the branch it represents. In the faces of the marching figures there is character and purpose, sincerity and good intent. The figures are not shown in fighting attitudes, but rather express movement and the enthusiasm and eagerness of the people.

Leading the way are infantrymen, the mainstay of the army. On the left is a Lewis gunner, on the right a kilted soldier with a Vickers machine gun. They are followed by a pilot in full flying kit and an air mechanic. A cavalryman emerges from the arch, and at his side is a mounted artilleryman. There is a field artillery piece, an 18-pounder in the rear. A sailor marches on the pilot's left. Two riflemen press through the arch, and behind them are the men and women of the support services including nursing sisters, a stretcher bearer and a lumberman with his cant hook.

The pedestal was designed to accentuate the general idea and effect of the central group of figures passing through the archway symbolizing the going forth of the people and the triumph of their achievements overseas. The general lines of the pedestal were kept as simple as possible to allow its execution in Canadian granite, the enrichment of the design in general being left to the sculptured bronze group.

Canadian granite of the rose-grey type, from the Dumas Quarry at Rivière-à-Pierre near Quebec City, was chosen for the base of the memorial and for the arch because this granite is virtually free from iron, thereby reducing the possibility of staining.

The emblematic figures of peace and freedom at the top of the monument are 5.33 metres in height. The sculptor's intention was to create figures which would express the idea that they are "alighting on the world with the blessings of Victory, Peace and Liberty in the footsteps of the people's heroism and self-sacrifice who are passing through the archway below".

The area surrounding the memorial was also carefully planned in keeping with the memorial itself. Seven varieties of Canadian granite were used for the terrace, walks, and grading of the site. These were grey granite from Scotstown, Quebec, for the curbs, lower steps, wide borders and mosaic work; Lacasse white granite from Beebe, Quebec, for the narrow borders and upper steps; pink granite from Rivière-à-Pierre, Quebec, for the square tile panels; pink granite from Guenette, Quebec, for the pink mosaic work; Mackenzie green granite from Scotstown, for the green mosaic work; Rivière-à-Pierre granite for the dark pink mosaic work; and red granite form Vermillion Bay, Rainy River District, Ontario for the red mosaic.

The total height of the memorial from grade to the tip of the wings in the surmounting bronzes is approximately 21 metres. The overall length at the lowest step of the pedestal is 16 metres, and the width, 8 metres. The archway is 3 metres wide, 2.5 metres deep and 8 metres high. Five hundred tonnes of granite and 32 tonnes of bronze were used for the construction. The memorial rests on a massive block of reinforced concrete which in turn is based on steel columns sunk to bedrock.

The Figures

It is fitting that the leading figures of the monument are infantrymen. The infantry, known as the "Queen of Battle" bore the brunt of four years of savage fighting on the Western Front, in a line of trenches which stretched 965 kilometres from the Belgian coast through France to the frontiers of Switzerland. Fifty-four Victoria Crosses, the Commonwealth's highest military decoration for bravery, were awarded to infantrymen in the First World War. This soldier marches forward carrying the "basic load" which weighed 27 kilograms (60 pounds) and included a rifle, bayonet, ammunition, grenades, food, extra clothing, and possibly a shovel or pick axe.

This infantryman stands at the far left just beneath the mouth of the cavalryman's horse. He has his rifle over his right shoulder, and there is a lock of hair falling from under the brim of his helmet. The respirator he is wearing was a significant item in a soldier's kit for poison chlorine gas was introduced by the Germans at Ypres, Belgium in 1915, in an attempt to break the stalemate of the trench warfare. In holding their lines in the face of this deadly new weapon Canadians established a reputation as a formidable fighting force.

On the far left, with a Lewis Machine Gun over his right shoulder, is another infantryman, portrayed as older than the rest. The Lewis Gun was used in the trenches by the infantry battalions whereas the Vickers Gun, as carried by the highland soldier, was used by the Machine Gun Corps in the later part of the war. The Lewis Gun fired a .303 cartridge at a rate of 500 rounds per minute.

Just in front of the cavalryman's horse and to the left of the pilot stands another infantryman. His curly moustache "the soldier's garden" was in vogue during the war and it was tended with pride, sometimes waxed and twisted into spikes! This, however, was in sharp contrast to the conditions under which the men lived and fought. For months on end, in mud and rat infested trenches, they faced the realities of dirt, disease and death.

This soldier stands just inside the arch beside the cavalryman's horse. Outfitted as an infantryman, he might well represent one of the 3,500 native Canadians who served in the war overseas. Although no specific unit was raised and manned by native Canadians, the 114th Battalion - Brock's Rangers was raised in Haldimand County and the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. Two entire companies were formed under the command of native Canadian officers.

This kilted infantry soldier is in the right front position just to the left of the sailor. He is carrying the barrel of a Vickers Machine Gun over his left shoulder. There were 28 Scottish regiments in the war, eight of them in the fighting brigades, the remainder used as reinforcements. One Highland Battalion, the 16th, won four Victoria Crosses, including one by an 18 year old piper who died at the Somme, in France, in 1916.

This infantryman, next to the kilted soldier, is carrying his rifle over his right shoulder. His youthful appearance is appropriate since many of the soldiers of the First World War were still in their teens. Although a soldier was supposed to be 18 before going overseas, many enlisted early and were in action while still underage.

This soldier, with his rifle placed horizontally on his left shoulder, is just back of the artilleryman's horse inside the right side of the arch. He could represent the Motor Machine Gun Corps, a force of some 16,000 who were responsible for devastating firepower on the battlefield. With their speed, mobility and remarkable fire power, the Corps was a vital factor in breaking the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front.

The artilleryman is mounted on the horse on the right of the monument. The role of the artillery overseas was to assist the infantry by means of heavy bombardment of enemy lines. Artillery fire, using guns of various calibres and trench mortars, was directed by officers well forward who sent back corrections by means of field phones, signal lamps and signal flares. The horse shown here was one of a team used to pull the 18-pounder gun that remains at the rear of the monument.

The sailor, located on the far right, wears the "cap tally" of HMCS Stadacona. When the war began, Canada had only an embryonic naval service consisting of less than 350 men and two ships. Nevertheless, the Royal Canadian Navy had an important role in the war, primarily as a coastal patrol force. From a handful of men in 1914, the RCN grew to more than 5,500 officers and men in 1918, with some one hundred war vessels. Canada also made a direct contribution to the war at sea by providing men and ships for the Royal Navy and for other Allied powers.

The pilot and the air mechanic stand side-by-side in front of the mounted artilleryman. The air mechanic is wearing his walking out uniform and wedge cap. Canadian airmen played a particularly significant and brilliant role in the war in the air. No fewer than 25,000 Canadians served with the British air service as pilots, observers and mechanics, in every theatre of the war. Canadian airmen won more than 800 decorations and awards for valour including three Victoria Crosses.

The pilot is shown wearing his flying kit complete with leather helmet and goggles. While mud and shells turned the battlefields of France and Belgium into nightmares of horror, the men who flew the rickety planes with few instruments and no parachutes had a glimpse of the fame and glory once expected of war. The fighter pilot was one of the elite, one of the most daring, and his job was one of the most dangerous. One-third of all the fliers died in combat, among them 1,600 Canadians.

The cavalry soldier is mounted on the horse on the left of the monument. The Canadian Cavalry Brigade fought with distinction with British formations during the war. Three members of the brigade won the Victoria Cross. The role of the cavalry was to disrupt the enemy's rear areas after a breakthrough of the front lines; to seek information by reconnaissance; and to seize the advantage when the enemy was disorganized or retreating. However, the introduction of the machine gun and the tank spelled the end of cavalry warfare. The last Canadian action on horseback took place during the final advance to Mons in 1918.

The sapper at the rear of the arch carries a pickaxe over his right shoulder. He was a member of the Canadian Engineers who were in great demand because the condition of the land in France hampered the mobility of the troops. They were responsible for building roads, bridges and tunnels, and for water supplies and major fortifications. In the face of great danger, engineers, skilled in underground mining burrowed beneath enemy trenches to lay explosives. One engineer won a Victoria Cross by capturing a bridge and preventing the enemy from destroying it.

This soldier, to the rear of the arch, carries a railway spike hammer over his right shoulder. Canadian railway troops, often under shellfire, laid and maintained most of the light railway networks on the Western Front. The railways carried men, ammunition and supplies to the front; on the return journey they brought back the wounded and soldiers going for rest. In most cases the work of the railway troops had to be done at night because they could be seen from the enemy front lines. These men also fought as infantry, especially during the German offensives of 1918.

With his broad-brimmed hat and his cant hook over his right shoulder, this forester is easy to locate at the rear of the monument. The Canadian Forestry Corps produced railroad ties, logs for road building and timber for major fortifications. To supply the much-needed lumber, inaccessible from overseas because of submarine warfare, the Corps began working the forest of Britain. Operations were later expanded to France, and by the end of the war there were 12,000 men of the Forestry Corps in France as well as almost 10,000 more in England.

Inside the arch, at the rear beside the cavalryman's horse stands this soldier. He could represent those who served in the Canadian Army Service Corps. They supplied the fighting troops with food, ammunition and other supplies.

With his dust goggles on the front of his field service cap and his sheepskin coat, the despatch rider stands out at the left rear of the monument. The despatch rider rode a motorcycle, delivering vital messages from one headquarters unit to another.

To the rear of the sailor on the right side of the monument stands a member of the Canadian Corps of Signals. From his shoulder hangs a field telephone that was used to communicate in the trenches and between unit headquarters. The 4,000 members of the corps also used carrier pigeons, telegraphs and radios, to transmit messages.

The stretcher bearer is to the right rear of the monument, just ahead of the nurse. Stretcher bearers had first aid stations in the forward trenches and also accompanied the attacking infantry. At times, because of the mud, it took four men to carry a stretcher. The stretcher bearers in the medical units moved patients into and out of hospitals and hospital trains.

The two nurses are to the rear of the monument behind the arch. The British request for two general hospitals to be sent from Canada opened the way for nursing sisters to be included in the first Canadian contingent to go overseas. Nurses and doctors worked to the rear of the front lines where casualty clearance stations had been established for the sick and wounded soldiers. The more seriously wounded were later evacuated to England where, by 1918, there were over 40,000 hospital beds available.

During the First World War, more than 21,000 men and women wore the badge of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, 3,141 of them nursing sisters. Altogether eight Canadian General Hospitals and ten Stationary Hospitals (as well as three small Forestry Corps Hospitals) served overseas outside of the United Kingdom. Among them were the units which accompanied the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force and units whose duties took them to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

In May 2000, the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier who died in the First World War were repatriated from France and buried in a special tomb in front of the National War Memorial.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was created to honour the more than 116,000 Canadians who sacrificed their lives in the cause of peace and freedom. Furthermore, the Unknown Soldier represents all Canadians, whether they be navy, army, air force or merchant marine, who died or may die for their country in all conflicts - past, present, and future.

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