A war memorial in the Peace Tower: The Books of Remembrance

Article / November 11, 2016 / Project number: 16-0281

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By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

This article describes the history of the Memorial Chamber and the Books of Remembrance found in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.

The next installment in this series is a close-up look at the Turning of the Pages Ceremony that takes place every day at precisely 11 a.m. and describes the recent event that resulted in the only time the Ceremony has been delayed since it began in 1942.

Ottawa, Ontario — The National War Memorial is the most well-known of Canadian war memorials – but just down the street in the heart of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill is a different kind of monument to those heroic Canadians who fought for our freedom but never made it home.

Located on the second level of the Peace Tower, which itself was dedicated to the Fallen of the First World War, is the Memorial Chamber, where the Books of Remembrance are kept.

The walls of the Chamber display many stone carvings depicting the symbolic history of the war, including all of the cap badges of the overseas battalions of the First World War. The floor is inlaid stone brought from Flanders (Belgium and France) in the form of a cross, echoing the Memorial or Silver Cross that was received by mothers and widows of the dead. Brass plates inscribed with the names of major battles, such as the Somme and Passchendaele, were made from spent shell casings from the war. Stained glass windows of great beauty and heraldic symbolism soar on three walls, entitled The Call to Arms, The Assembly of Remembrance and The Dawn of Peace.

The Books are on solemn display under glass cases on intricately carved stone altars, seven of which were recently created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. These replace the previous wooden ones and are modeled on the First World War altar. The Books contain every name of the more than 118,000 Canadians who died for Canada dating back to Confederation and includes those who died in times of conflict, during peacetime training exercises, peacekeeping deployments abroad or other military duty.

The Books are administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of Canadians and the Speaker of the House of Commons is the keeper and protector of the Books in the Tower. The Speaker’s role is supported by the Sergeant-at-Arms office.

“We are still, to this day, adding names,” said Gilles Gervais, Assistant Deputy Sergeant-at-Arms, who is in charge of the security of the Chamber and the Books. Some of the names are historic, such as when remains from earlier conflicts are identified today, and some are new deaths. The very first name in the First World War book is that of Sapper John Allen, a member of the Royal Canadian Engineers, who was killed on October 19, 1914. The most recent name is Corporal Christopher Webster, who was with the 5th Canadian Division Support Group Signals Squadron. Cpl Webster died on May 24, 2016 during a training incident.

When the Memorial Chamber was conceived in 1917 as the Parliament Buildings were being rebuilt after the great fire of 1916, the intent was to honour those who died defending our freedom in the First World War. It was also known as the Great War, which was to have been the war to end all wars.

It was not possible to return all the remains of the Fallen for burial in Canada for various reasons, including cost and concerns at the time about hygienic transport. As well, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission felt that “a higher ideal than that of private burial at home [was] embodied in these war cemeteries in foreign lands, where those who fought and fell together, officers and men, lie together in their last resting place facing the line they gave their lives to defend or fight through.”

In light of this, the original plan was to carve all of the names of the war dead on the interior walls of the Chamber to provide a way to honour those lost and a place on Canadian soil to mourn them.

But as the First World War’s horrific death toll mounted, it was realized that there were just too many names – more than 66,000 lost sons and daughters.

The solution was to create a resting place for the names within carefully crafted books, handwritten on vellum, a very durable parchment made from calfskin. Not only are the names preserved, but every name sees the light of day at least once a year – as they have since 1942 – through the Turning of the Page Ceremony that follows a perpetual calendar allowing families and friends to plan a visit to view the name of their sailor, soldier, airman or airwoman. There is a video of this Ceremony on the Parliament of Canada website.

Mr. Gervais estimates that about 100 groups of family, friends and comrades-in-arms visit the Chamber to view their friend or loved one’s name each year. Veterans Affairs estimates that more than half a million visitors view the Chamber and Books annually.

Time and conflicts have marched on since the creation of the original Book, and now the Chamber holds seven completed Books of Remembrance, created through painstaking research and artistic dedication and containing a total of more than 118,000 names of the Fallen. One Book is still being researched. The books are:

First World War Book of Remembrance

The first Book is the centrepiece of the room. It is the largest and was not completed until 1942 because its design required many rare materials and tools from the British Empire. This Book holds more than 66,000 names in two volumes.

Second World War Book of Remembrance

This Book was begun in 1948 and installed in the Chamber on Remembrance Day 1957 and contains more than 44,000 names.

Newfoundland Book of Remembrance

This Book honours the men and women who gave their lives in defence of human liberty during both the First and Second World Wars before Newfoundland became a province in 1949. Unveiled in 1973, this Book contains 2,300 names. A second copy resides in St John’s Confederation Building.

Korean War Book of Remembrance

This Book was dedicated in the Memorial Chamber on Remembrance Day, 1962 by the Governor-General Major General Georges Vanier. During the Korean War (1950 to1953), 516 courageous Canadians lost their lives.

South African War/Nile Expedition Book of Remembrance

This Book commemorates the approximately 300 Canadians who lay down their lives during the South African War (1899-1902), which was the country’s first overseas mission and the Nile Expedition (1884-1885), which was the first time Canada sent large contingents of troops abroad. This Book was dedicated and installed in the Memorial Chamber on May 31, 1962 on the 60th anniversary of end of the war in South Africa.

Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance

Dedicated in 1993, The Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance commemorates the men and women of the Merchant Marine, who were not members of the Canadian Armed Forces but who came under fire on the high seas. More than 570 gave their lives while serving Canada at sea during the First World War and 1,600 were killed in action during the Second World War.

In the Service of Canada Book of Remembrance

This Book lists the names of more than 1,800 members of the Canadian Armed Forces who have fallen while on duty in Canada or serving abroad since October 1, 1947, not including those commemorated in the Korean War Book of Remembrance. This includes those who died in times of conflict or during peacetime training exercises, peacekeeping deployments abroad or other military duty, including lives lost in Afghanistan. This book is expected to continue into the future.

War of 1812 Book of Remembrance

In 2012, to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the War of 1812, a new Book of Remembrance and altar were added to the Memorial Chamber. Special commemorative pages are currently displayed in the Memorial Chamber until the Book is completed.

 

In 1970, the Government’s policy on returning the remains of our war dead home was changed and now all Canadian military personnel who die abroad can be returned to Canada for burial, as we have seen beginning in 2002 with the Fallen from Afghanistan.

This change means that members who died in the service of Canada are honoured in this Book and may be buried on Canadian soil.

Only those who died after 1970 may be repatriated, with the notable exception of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War whose remains lie in the tomb at the base of the War Memorial in Ottawa.

Canadian Virtual War Memorial mirrors the Books of Remembrance

The names inscribed in the Books of Remembrance can also be found in the Canadian Virtual War Memorial. To find a name in the Books of Remembrance or when a page will be displayed in the Memorial Chamber, see Search the Books. If you wish to obtain a copy of a page from the Books of Remembrance, see Request a copy of a page. Family and friends are encouraged to provide photographs that can be added to the records.

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