trail of the caribou, from Newfoundland to beaumont-hamel

Canadian landscape architect Rudolph Cochius and British sculptor Basil Gotto collaborate to create a series of monuments in Europe which commemorate the sacrifice of Newfoundland soldiers during World War I.

trail of the caribou

by Ron Williams, 

Suivez ce lien pour la version française.

This article was published in the Fall 2011 issue of Landscapes/ Paysages, the official magazine of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects (CSLA). It was one of a series that I wrote for the quarterly magazine at the invitation of Judy Lord, the Editor-in-Chief, under the overall rubric “Site Specific: Looking at Landscapes and Landscape Architecture across Canada”. These articles provided a personal view of a series of significant Canadian landscapes, while permitting me to develop themes and explore lines of inquiry that would contribute to the writing of my book Landscape Architecture in Canada. I very much appreciated L/P’s invitation and support in this long-term endeavour.

This theme of the issue in which the article appeared was international work by Canadian landscape architects, of which the Canadian war memorials built in Europe following the First World War were early examples. The fall issue of L/P was an appropriate time for its publication, just before Armistice Day, Nov 11 – in fact, 11/11/11. Unfortunately, I could not furnish illustrations at the level of resolution required for magazine publication, so we included several excellent pictures of the caribou in Bowring Park, taken by other photographers. I have since been able to provide my original photos at higher resolution; they are included in the article below, so that the original version as planned is at last a reality. The article was written in English and translated into French by François Couture of Voilà Translations.

As this issue of Landscapes/Paysages shows, Canadian landscape architects have been increasingly involved in international practice during the last fifteen years, and their work has made a major contribution to the landscape character of a host of countries around the world. Previous projects carried out within our borders - Expo 67 is the outstanding example – have attracted international attention and exerted a powerful influence abroad, gaining recognition for Canada on the “world design map”. But even earlier, in the aftermath of World War I, Canadians had already designed outstanding landscape work abroad: war memorials on the battlefields of Europe that were remarkable integrations of landscape and sculpture. Unique among these memorials are five landscapes in northern France and Belgium that honour the soldiers of Newfoundland; memorials that are collectively referred to as the Trail of the Caribou.

I was first introduced to these landscapes during my childhood stamp collecting days back in the early 1950s, when I came into possession of a series of Caribou stamps from Newfoundland, which issued its own stamps prior to becoming a province of Canada in 1949. I asked my father why all those stamps looked the same and he told me about the First World War and Newfoundland's role in it. Along with its fellow “dominion” of Canada, Newfoundland was involved in the War from the first day to the last; both paid a terrible price. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was involved in a series of major battles from Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915 to the final advances of autumn 1918. The regiment always seemed to be “in the vanguard of an attack or in the wrong place at the wrong time”, according to one military historian. Thrown into the offensive at Beaumont-Hamel in the first hours of the gigantic Battle of the Somme on July 1st, 1916, the regiment lost 712 of its 801 soldiers.

Newfoundland stamps
Beaumont-Hamel Cemetery from above
Beaumont-Hamel Cemetery
Beaumont-Hamel Cemetery, the grave of two Newfoundland soldiers

The Chaplain's Dream

Tom Nangle (1888-1972), the regimental chaplain, went through all the harrowing experiences of the War with his fellow citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador. Deeply affected by the courage and dedication of the soldiers, he sought to preserve their memory through the building of memorials on the regiment’s five most important battlefields. To achieve his goal, Nangle campaigned tirelessly to gain support from the people and government of Newfoundland, to raise money, and to purchase land for the memorials. He identified a central symbol that would unerringly identify the memorials with Newfoundland – its native animal the Caribou, which flourishes on the lichens supported by the island’s often sterile soils. Nangle engaged British sculptor Basil Gotto, (1866-1954) to create six bronze sculptures of the caribou, and, in 1922, found the man who could make his dream a reality by providing magnificent landscape settings for these sculptures. This man was Rudolph Cochius (1880-1944), a Canadian landscape architect of Dutch origin, who knew Newfoundland well. Cochius had assisted the celebrated Montreal landscape architect Frederick Todd on the realisation of Bowring Park in St. John’s, that city’s great pastoral public park. Following the pattern of the time, Todd delegated the supervision and carrying-out of the work to his assistant, who stayed on in St. John's from 1912 to 1917, presumably enjoying a degree of autonomy in the execution of the park. Cochius then returned to Montreal, where he worked in partnership with Todd for some years. He was in Holland when Nangle engaged him for the memorials; he and his growing family lived in Albert, France, throughout their construction and then moved back to Newfoundland, where Cochius was involved in a variety of landscape and town planning projects into the late 1930s. His last years were spent in Montreal, once again working with his old friend and associate Frederick Todd.

Beaumont-Hamel, bronze statue of caribou, West view
Beaumont-Hamel, bronze statue of caribou, North East view

a fragment of Newfoundland in europe

Rudolph Cochius designed memorials on the battlefields of Gueudecourt, Masnières and Monchy-le-Preux in northern France, and at Courtrai in Belgium; but the keystone of the memorial sites was that at Beaumont-Hamel, completed in 1924. Here, Cochius placed the Caribou, sculpted in a heroic and defiant posture by Gotto, atop a dynamic and angular rocky crag some 15 metres high. The symbol of Newfoundland and of the regiment was surrounded by the topography of conflict: the trenches and bomb craters were conserved to remain as permanent reminders of the horrors of war, unlike the landscapes of the surrounding countryside, which have regained the bucolic aspect that is characteristic of rural France. The battlefield is approached across a dark, wooded plateau, from which one emerges into a broad, open landscape of battle-lines and no-man’s-land, the terrain falling away to the North. The Caribou stands heroically atop its promontory, right at the edge of the plateau. Other elements within the memorial’s vast 16-hectare precinct include a military cemetery impeccably maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the replica of a single battle-torn tree that somehow survived the carnage of 1916.

The other memorial parks, considerably smaller, follow a similar format: the Caribou is always situated at the top of a fragment of Newfoundland landscape transplanted to Europe, and is always oriented to face the line of trenches that the Newfoundlanders were to attack. Gotto’s sixth sculpture was installed back home in St. John’s, in a key location near the highest point of Todd and Cochius’ Bowring Park. Once again, Cochius designed a dramatic landscape setting for the sculpture; and indeed, for two sculptures by Gotto, whose sculpture "The Fighting Newfoundlander" is located nearby within the park.

Beaumont-Hamel, bronze statue of caribou, distant East view
Beaumont-Hamel, trenches
Beaumont-Hamel, replica of war-torn tree
Bowring Park, St.Johns, Newfoundland, bronze statue of caribou

Cochius' and Gotto's Last Collaboration

The two also collaborated on one final project, more elaborate: the Newfoundland and Labrador National War Memorial, a powerful monument on Water Street in downtown St. John’s, which features bronze figures representing the various civilian occupations and military services of the province, surmounted by an allegorical personification of the spirit of Newfoundland. The monument’s swirling staircase rises from the historic waterfront where Britain's first colony was founded some three and a half centuries before; it stands almost directly opposite the legendary port entrance of the Narrows.

The Newfoundland and Labrador National War Memorial
Statue of the Newfoundland and Labrador National War Memorial
View of harbour, St. John's, Newfoundland

The memorials today

The Newfoundland memorials, like most World War I monuments, went through an extended period of neglect and decay. But in recent times, a growing interest in these unique treasures has led to the extensive restoration of many of them, including Beaumont-Hamel in 2000-2005, under the direction of John Zvonar, landscape architect with the federal Department of Public Works (see John’s article in Landscapes/Paysages, spring 2011 issue, p.14). Today the rehabilitated memorial is beautifully maintained by Veterans Affairs Canada, which administers all Canadian memorials abroad, and ably interpreted to visitors by a staff of energetic and knowledgeable young students from Canadian universities, who also provide similar services for the nearby Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge, also recently and successfully rehabilitated. Still presided over by the Caribou, this war-torn battlefield remains a remarkably striking and moving landscape.

References:

  • Christie, Norm M. For King and Empire: Vol. X, The Newfoundlanders in the Great War, 1916-1918, CEF Books, Ottawa 2003
  • Shipley, Robert. To Mark Our Place, A History of Canadian War Memorials (photos by David Street), Toronto: NC Press Ltd. 1987
  • Versteeg, Edward. “Rudolph H.K.Cochius and the Creation of Bowring Park”, presentation to the Annual Congress of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, June 2004, St. John’s, Nfld. And Labrador
  • Zvonar, John E. “Where Poppies Grow: Protecting One Memory of the Great War”, presentation to the Annual gathering of the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation, May-June 2002, Winnipeg & International Peace Garden, North Dakota-Manitoba