Today (July 30) in London History – Canadian Pilgrims

6,000 Canadian “pilgrims” were in London on July 30, 1936. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Sometimes rummaging around in London history, it’s like drawing to an inside straight in a poker game.

I’d been reading about Winston Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty. In the first four months of the war Britain and France suffered a million casualties. The Western Front was a graveyard of trenches, a charnel house of industrialised slaughter. The war was at a stalemate. Churchill asked the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith,  “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?”

Churchill thought he had an alternative: a navy-led drive several hundred miles to the east. At a place called Gallipoli. And then from there on to Constantinople. Capture Constantinople and the Turks, the Ottomans would be out of the war. Germany could be outflanked. 

Well, that was the idea. 

Churchill said the price to be paid would no doubt be heavy but the gains would far outweigh the sacrifice of troops.

How easy it is to sacrifice someone else’s son. 

In the event, they never found out whether that fatuous, back-of-an-envelope calculation was right, never found out whether the gains far outweighed the sacrifice. They didn’t find out because there were no gains. Just sacrifice. Ten thousand of those sacrificed boys were ANZACs. Australian and New Zealand soldiers. 

The great man moved on. Got that one wrong. Mistakes happen. Mustn’t let it hold us back. Forget it. Onwards and upwards. 

Australia and New Zealand have never forgotten. Nor has India forgotten. 2,000 of the Gallipoli dead were Indian soldiers.

Somehow all of that put me in mind of Rudyard Kipling – put me in mind of his campaigning, calling in favours, pulling strings, to get his terribly near-sighted only son John into the army and up to the front. John was killed at the Battle of Loos. All they found was his spectacles. Kipling later wrote, “if any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Maybe that’s the difference between sacrificing your son and somebody else’s son. 

Anyway, that was some of my background reading earlier this week and I’d got to July 30th, what happened on this day in London history, July 30th? 

And, yes, there it was, I’d drawn to an inside straight and hit it. 

4,000 Canadians in Westminster Hall on July 30th, 1936. 

The Canadian pilgrims, as they were known, were in Europe for the unveiling – on July 29th – of the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. The Vimy Ridge memorial commemorates the more than 10,000 Canadians who were killed and wounded in that battle and the more than 11,000 Canadians killed in France throughout the war who have no known graves.

There to greet the Canadians – and pay his respects – British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. For me the main takeaway to this story is one of Stanley Baldwin’s remarks to the Canadian pilgrims. To my ear what he said is every bit as trenchant, as shiver-up-the-spine, as sobering as Kipling’s line about fathers lying and sons dying. Stanley Baldwin said, “If the dead could come back today, there would be no war.”

From Westminster Hall the Canadians – their numbers swollen to 6,000 – moved on to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace.

And sure enough, there was something in the way of a bagatelle there, something that jumped out at me, compliments of a fine press photograph. King Edward VIII made a surprise visit to the garden party. The King had unveiled the memorial the day before at Vimy Ridge in the presence of 50,000 people. The Buckingham Palace garden party was hosted by the Duke of Gloucester. The King had the day off. But he changed his mind. He went out to welcome the 6,000 Canadians to his green acres in SW1. And yes, there was the slightest frisson seeing him there because he was king for less than a year. Come December 1936 Edward VIII would abdicate. 

Finally, and this is very London Walks – since cosa nostra – our thing – is about making connections – I was personally pleased to find out that the Vimy Memorial – Canada’s greatest war memorial – was designed just a long stone’s throw from where I live. In a huge studio in a house at 16 Maida Vale. Canadian Walter Allward was the foremost sculptor of his day. He won the commission in 1921 and came to London in 1922. Found his way to16 Maida Vale and that perfect-for-his-purposes studio.

It took him 12 years. He made many trips to Vimy Ridge.  The monument rests on a bed of about 15,000 tonnes of concrete reinforced with hundreds of tonnes of steel. The excavation had to be done with great care because the ground was littered with live bombs and shells. The deepest part of the foundation goes down 13 metres. Yes, it’s a deep, vertical trench. The base and twin pylons contain almost 6,000 tonnes of a special type of extremely durable limestone brought to the site from present-day Croatia. 

Allward said the inspiration came to him in a dream. The pylons reach 27 metres up into the sky from the base of the monument. And because the monument is at the top of the ridge, the topmost figure, Peace, is 110 metres above the Douai Plain to the east. It’s been said that the pylons are like twin sentinels, silently guarding a peaceful world. Or, if you prefer, they’re a gateway to a better world, a world at peace. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Goes without saying, doesn’t it? The Canada Gallery at Canada House in Trafalgar Square.

I love what they say about themselves. There’s no breast-beating, no cock of the walk strutting. Just the dozen coolest words in central London: The Canada Gallery is a showcase for Canadian contemporary art in London.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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