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The Armistice Tree — Beechwood Cemetery’s tribute to the Allied sacrifice of the Great War of 1914-1918

November 8, 2018
Brian McCullough, Ottawa Citizen

On Sunday, Remembrance Day, when the bell on the Peace Tower tolls 11 a.m. to indicate the beginning of the two-minute period of silence, it will also mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that restored a blessed, peaceful silence across the grim landscapes of the First World War battlefields in Europe and elsewhere.

Five kilometres to the east, at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, an unusual sentinel — the twisted remains of a century-old maple tree inscribed and preserved with the symbols of war, victory, peace and remembrance — will also be standing in silent tribute to the sacrifice of the brave and victorious Canadians and their allies who made that peace possible. It is Beechwood Cemetery’s “Armistice Tree,” a unique commemorative sculpture that is giving a second chance at “life” to a tree that was ready to be cut down.

The idea for the project grew from Beechwood’s desire to preserve some of the cemetery’s great trees that have reached the end of their natural life cycles. In recent years, two other trees identified by Beechwood horticulturalist Trevor Davidson have been recreated into beautiful works of art by Kemptville master woodcarver and chainsaw artist Peter Van Adrichem.

For the Armistice Tree, which stands about seven metres tall, Beechwood community outreach director Nick McCarthy teamed up to create an overall concept with Steven Dieter, a serving public affairs officer in the Canadian Armed Forces who volunteers as a historian at Beechwood. The only instructions they gave to Van Adrichem were to include the iconic Brodie helmets as the ubiquitous symbol of our soldiers, three maple leaves to represent Canada’s contribution to the First World War on the land, at sea and in the air, and poppies to signify the battle honours earned by Canada’s forces from 1914 to 1918.

“The poppies are symbolic of remembrance,” Dieter said. “We identified 58 officially recognized battle honours of Canadian and Newfoundland regiments, and Peter sculpted them out over the height of the tree in a pattern that roughly mimics the time line, with more clustered toward the top of the stump as the victories mounted during the final three months of the war — Canada’s Hundred Days.”

On Sept. 12, Van Adrichem fired up his chainsaws, three different sizes of them depending on the level of detail he wanted to pull out of the wood, and got started. The work took about a month to complete, and to say his process was organic is a bit of understatement. Apart from the basic instructions on what to include, Van Adrichem, 62, simply drew on his decades of experience to read the wood and go with the flow. He made no drawings, and had no idea what he was going to end up with.

“The design evolved as I carved the stump back,” he said. “There were a couple of limbs sticking out, so I took advantage of them.”

He transformed one of those limbs into a large maple leaf, and turned another into an arm and hand holding a sword in salute to those who sacrificed so much. Near the top of the sculpture, one of his most evocative design-on the-fly features is the preservation of some of the rot that eventually killed the tree.

“There’s a duality in that war is sometimes necessary,” he said, “but that it’s also such a waste. That’s why near the top you have some nice carvings on the one side, and rotten wood preserved on the other.”

Van Adrichem, whose parents survived the war as children in Holland, said he felt honoured to do the sculpture. “It was an inspiration to do it right there at the National Military Cemetery,” he said.

Dieter added that the sculpture symbolizes the growing column of nations that came together in what turned out to be victory 100 years ago.

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