Behind Closed Doors: Soldiers' Tower War Memorial

Exploring the history and meaning of University of Toronto's war memorial

Soldiers' Tower at the University of Toronto

On the same day Hart House, part of the University of Toronto in Canada, opened their doors to the public in 1919 the cornerstone of the Soldier’s Tower was also positioned into its final resting place. The Soldiers’ Tower stands to commemorate members of the university who lost their lives in the Great War, also known as World War I. Finished in 1924, the tower is Canada’s second tallest war memorial after Ottawa’s Peace Tower. Over time the memorial has expanded in significance and dedicated to the memory of the 1,184 individuals from the school that did not return home after both the first and second world wars. Today the towers stands as an iconic landmark for the university and also as a grim reminder of the efforts of these past alumni while hundreds of students continue to pass underneath the memorial on their way to classes.


Designed by the same architects of Hart House, Henry Sproatt and Ernest Rolph, the Soldiers’ Tower is a definite focal point of the campus with its striking architecture. Built with grey ashlar stone and trimmed with limestone the tower houses a mechanical clock along with a carillon consisting of 51 bells. Open to the public, the Memorial Room resides directly above the archway and contains many artifacts focused on University of Toronto’s involvement with wartime service during the wars. Along with the engraved names of the men and women who lost their lives, the tower stands as a humbling reminder to how the sacrifices of the past protected many of the freedoms still enjoyed today.

The Memorial Wall has the names of all 627 individuals from the university who lost their lives in World War I

The names of every person from the university lost in the world wars are engraved in the memorial. Bridging the gap between University College and the Soldiers' Tower is the Memorial Screen, displaying the names of the 627 who died in the First World War. Attention to detail in the intricate limestone carvings decorating the walls and ceiling of the Memorial Screen easily grabs the attention of those passing by, especially at night when floodlights illuminate the bright white stone. Students walking under the tower through the Memorial Archway today will pass by the engraved names of the 557 university members who lost their lives in the Second World War. Every year on Remembrance Day reefs are laid within the Memorial Screen in remembrance of these people.

Inside the tower itself is the Memorial Room located on the second level of the tower, which houses mementos of the wartime services of students, staff, faculty and alumni. Decorating the walls and display cases are medals, memorial books, portraits, photographs and flags providing a glimpse into the past. The most noticeable feature of the Memorial Room is a twelve-panel stained-glass window commanding the entire southern wall. Based off John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields", the window was commissioned and dedicated in 1995. Leading up the staircase to the room are eight additional stained glass windows honouring different aspects of the Canadian forces wartime services. Over the years most of the artifacts have arrived at the tower through donations by alumni and their family members.

The twelve pane stain glass window depicting John McCrae's poem 'In Flanders Field' is reflected off of a display case inside the Memorial Room

Walking through the Memorial Room it is hard not to notice the German machine gun taking up a corner of the room. How does this relate to the university's war service exactly? During the battle of Vimy Ridge Major Thain MacDowell, a member of Victoria College, and two others were out scouting the surrounding land alone when they stumbled across an encampment of two machine gun nests manned by 77 German soldiers. MacDowell managed to convince the Germans that the main army was arriving soon to attack leading the Germans to surrender. He was one of two individuals from the university to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest possible military decoration one can be awarded in Canada.

The clock in Soldiers' Tower is rather unique as it is one of the few remaining working installations from the early 20th century. Built by the British firm Gillett and Johnston who also supplied the first 23 bells, this clock has the potential to continue running indefinitely. Unlike modern electric clocks, if maintained properly mechanical clocks can operate for a very long time. The tower has two clock faces, one on the north and south facades, both driven by this clock mechanism. Recently the four gothic spires on the tower were rebuilt; over 80 years of wind and weather were pushing the spires out of position! It was promised that there would always be a place of honour for the fallen at the university, and through generous donations and fundraisers the continued maintenance the Soldiers' Tower is able to remain that place.

The 51 bronze bells span four octaves and range in weight from 23 pounds to four tons

The tower originally contained 23 bells donated in memory of those who lost their lives in the Great War. These dedications are engraved high in the walls of the Memorial Room for each bell. The bells can be played with an organ-like console called a carillon by one person, who sits in the tower and depresses pedals and pegs that in turn control the movement of iron hammers to strike a bell producing a note. After the Second World War an additional 28 bells were donated to the tower, however playing the 51 bells together was quite difficult. These new bells were unfortunately out of tune with the original bells and were eventually replaced in 1976 where the current 51-carillon was rededicated. Cast in bronze, the 51 bells span four octaves and range in weight from only 23 pounds to 4 tons. One can hear the Tower Carillon play throughout downtown Toronto during special events such as convocation and Remembrance Day ceremonies.

Walking in-between bells the size of pick-up trucks as the wind and rain whistles through the open archways at the top of the tower a sense of amazement can easily grab hold of you. It is a combination of architectural wonder, intricate details, and vivid sense of the past that occupies your mind as you climb the iron spiral staircase past the mechanical clock towards the top of the tower. Unfortunately the carillon is not open to the public, but a quick search online can find the hours where the Memorial Room is open for viewing. Alternatively one can still get lost within a time from the past if an afternoon is spent visiting the tower and exploring the surrounding stone buildings to find a quiet enclave where a book can be enjoyed. If you are lucky enough maybe the bells will be ringing in memory of those who never returned home as well.

Soldiers' Tower Gallery: