First World War memorial
Friday, 09 January 2015

My mother, the face of remembrance

How one woman’s mother became the model for an evocative First World War memorial.

Written by Sue Jennings
The Battle of Vimy Ridge started on 9 April 1917, Easter Monday, and finished four days later with appalling loss of life.

‘It is probable that with the exception of the Krakatoa explosion of 1883, in all of history no human ears had ever been assaulted by the intensity of sound produced by the artillery barrage that launched the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917,’ writes Pierre Burton in his book, Vimy.

At the end of the First World War, the Canadian government launched a competition for the design of a major war memorial to commemorate the loss of 60,000 Canadian soldiers. Sculptor Walter Allward won and, living in London, he planned to create plaster figures before taking them to France to transform into stone.

VImy-Jan09-02-176Edna Alice MoynihanMy mother, Edna Alice Moynihan (1902-1995), was not a happy child. Sent away to boarding school where she was incessantly bullied, her dream in life was to become a professional dancer, which was not an activity or career encouraged in the early 20th century, especially for women. Nevertheless, as soon as she left school she attended classes with the world-famous Edouard Espinosa and soon graduated to professional status.

She toured in the first production of the musical Rose-Marie and also Hassan. However, disaster suddenly struck: while performing in Plymouth, she developed typhoid fever. In those days it was believed that typhoid fever left one with a weak heart and she was told that she must never dance again.

My mother was heartbroken; the one thing she had wanted to do in her life had been cruelly snatched away – even more so when she later realised this had been spurious medical advice. She had no idea what to do next and although she had known my father, Charles Jennings, since childhood, they were not yet ‘walking out’.

But then something remarkable happened. She was sitting around at home one day when she had an unexpected visit from a dancer friend named Joy. They had danced together in Rose-Marie and Joy was waving The Stage newspaper. She said excitedly that there was an ideal job for Edna: a sculptor’s model for the Vimy War Memorial. France had given a large piece of land for the memorial ‘in perpetuity’ and Walter Allward was looking for a model in order to create the main feature: ‘Mother Canada mourning her fallen Sons’.

Needless to say, she got the job. I recall her saying that she was measured with calipers across her shoulders and back, and Allward said she had the broad shoulders he was seeking for Mother Canada and the burdens she carried. Her work for Allward lasted more than two years, and eventually the fi gures were shipped to France to be created in stone.

King Edward VIII unveiled the memorial on 26 July 1936 but my mother didn’t see it until many years later. I was taking my three children to see ‘Grandma’s statue’ and my three-year-old went up to a group of visiting war veterans and said, ‘That’s my grandma’!

The elderly soldiers asked me for more information, and one said, ‘We have been in love with your mother for all these years but never knew who she was.’ Subsequently they wrote charming letters to Edna, in appreciation of who she was.

I took my mother to see the Vimy Memorial in 1972, 36 years after ‘she’ had been unveiled and it was very moving to see her come face to face with herself!

Renovated and restored in recent years, her statue will continue to gaze over the battlefields long after we have gone. 

Sue Jennings PhD is an author and storyteller, who, like her mother, was once a professional dancer. Do you have a remarkable wartime story? Write to us at the usual Bedford Street address or email letters@lady.co.uk



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