Canada and the First World War


Canada repatriated the remains of an Unknown Soldier from France in May 2000 and laid them to rest at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The idea originated as a millennium project of the Royal Canadian Legion and was coordinated through the government by Veterans Affairs Canada.

What the Unknown Soldier Represents

The Unknown Soldier was originally intended to represent all war dead whose remains had not been identified, a common problem along static First World War battlefields frequently churned by artillery and subsumed in mud. Since 1920, a single Unknown Soldier in London’s Westminster Abbey had represented the unidentified war dead of Canada and other Commonwealth states. The original ceremony, presided over by King George V, had included many of the British Empire’s Victoria Cross winners, and a group of 100 women, each of whom had lost their husband and all their sons during the war. France and the United States followed Great Britain’s example in 1921, as did numerous other countries in subsequent years. These tombs and memorials gradually assumed broader significance, becoming sites of memory and mourning for all war dead, and for civil ceremonies of broadly based remembrance instead of simple military commemoration.

Canada’s Unknown Soldier

In 1993, Australia marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the First World War by repatriating from France the remains of its own Unknown Soldier, the first Commonwealth country to have done so since 1920. He was buried in the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Memory in Canberra.

Canada followed the Australian example in 2000 at the suggestion of the Royal Canadian Legion and other groups. A single set of remains was selected from among Canada’s 6,846 unknown soldiers of the First World War for return to Canada and re-interment at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. The Unknown Soldier ultimately came from a cemetery near Vimy Ridge and was flown home to lie in state in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block of Parliament from 25 May to 28 May 2000, where tens of thousands filed past to pay their respects.

The Unknown Soldier was buried on the afternoon of 28 May 2000 in a nationally televised ceremony. The site has become an important focus of commemoration, especially in the national Remembrance Day service held at the National War Memorial on 11 November.

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