In July 1946, Regina architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha, then living in southern California, wrote the Canadian Battlefields Memorials Commission, anxious to know whether his “Brooding Soldier” monument had survived the Second World War.
The commission chairman was surprised to hear from Clemesha — he had not been in contact for nearly a quarter century — and assured him that the monument had not been damaged during the Nazi occupation. He also reported that the trees at the site had matured into a small park.
“I have never heard,” the Ottawa official concluded, “but the most admiring comments on the St. Julien Memorial.”
Clemesha was pleased. He always believed that the scarred battleground was too stark for his design. He need not have worried.
Frederick Chapman Clemshaw was born in Lancashire, England, in 1876. He emigrated to Saskatchewan in the early 20th century and opened an architectural practice, Clemesha and Portnall, in Regina. For some unknown reason, he changed his surname to Clemesha during his career as an architect.
In September 1915, Clemesha was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 46th Battalion, South Saskatchewan Regiment. What’s surprising about his enlistment was not necessarily his age (39) or that he was married with children, but that he was a Quaker (Society of Friends).
Clemesha landed in France in August 1916 and took part in some of the major Canadian battles. Yet even though the 46th was known as the “suicide battalion” because of its high casualty rate, he escaped the carnage with only a scar on his left cheek from a bullet wound.
Clemesha returned to his Regina architectural practice after the war. Encouraged by his business partner, another veteran, he submitted a design to the 1920 national competition to commemorate eight Canadian Great War battles in Belgium and France.
The 160 entrants were winnowed down to 17 finalists who prepared final drawings and maquettes (small-scale models). The international jury selected two designs — one by Walter Allward of Toronto, the other by Clemesha. It was also decided that the same monument would not be used at all eight sites.
The major monument, designed by Allward, would be placed at Vimy, France. Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier, on the other hand, would be located at St. Julien, Belgium. That’s where Canadian troops sustained the first gas attack on the Western Front and suffered 2,000 dead during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. The other six sites would be given simple block memorials.
Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier submission was a sharp contrast to Allward’s grand monument. But its apparent simplicity belied the genius of the design.
Rising from a rectangular base, the elongated plinth transitions into the upper torso of a Canadian soldier, with his helmeted head bowed and his hands resting on his rifle in reverse arms. The clean lines of the monument complement the overwhelming sense of solemnness that pervades the memorial. Indeed, it’s extraordinary how the brooding figure rising out the top of the column can be so evocative.
Clemesha travelled to Ypres, Belgium in 1922 to oversee construction of the monument. Once the site was confirmed — just north of the village of St. Julien at a place known as Vancouver Corner — the nearly 11-metre (35 feet, 3 inches) monument quickly took shape with grey granite from Brittany.
The word CANADA appeared in block letters near the front of the base. Metal plaques placed on either side of the column had wording in both French and English:
This column marks the
battlefield where 18,000
Canadians on the British
left withstood the first
German gas attacks the
22-24th April 1915 2,000
fell and lie buried nearby
The formal unveiling was July 8, 1923 — 13 years before the Vimy Monument dedication. French General Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied forces in the closing months of the war, offered words of remembrance at the ceremony. He paid special tribute to the valour of the untested Canadian soldiers in defiantly holding the line during the gas attack.
Clemesha never returned to Saskatchewan. He travelled directly from Belgium to California to take up a position at the Theosophical Seminary outside San Diego.
His brooding figure, in the meantime, garnered rave reviews.
“It does more than command the landscape,” reported London’s Evening Standard after the dedication, “this is the soul of those who fell.”
French architect Paul Cret, one of the jurors for the memorial competition, was equally effusive — albeit in an amusing way.
“What I admire above all,” he wrote after visiting St. Julien in 1923, “is the fact that the lines of the memorial are simple enough to withstand the vastness of the battlefields, where so many others look like a piece of furniture dropped in a field by a moving van.”
Today, Clemesha’s Brooding Soldier is one of Canada’s most recognized war memorials, second only to the Vimy Monument. In Saskatchewan, for example, the image appears on licence plates for veterans.
The monument is also a must-see on Great War battlefield tours. People come away from the site lost in their thoughts.
“There is a mysterious power in this brooding figure,” one early visitor claimed, “drawing you from the things that are to the things that were.”
And it was at the memorial, on April 22, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of Ypres, that the King of Belgium presided at a ceremony marking the battle and decrying the use of chemical weapons.
Ironically, Clemesha almost didn’t enter the monument contest. He wasn’t happy with his initial design for the Brooding Soldier and threw it away in frustration. Thankfully, his partner retrieved the sketch from the waste paper basket and put it back on Clemesha’s drafting desk.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo Source: Bill Waiser
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.