At 5:30 in the morning on April 9, 1917, the battle of Vimy Ridge began with an artillery barrage never before witnessed on earth. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps, fighting together for the first time, parlayed four months of tireless training and military innovation to do what neither French or British forces had been able to do. They took Vimy Ridge from the Germans; and in doing so, defined what it meant to be Canadian.
The Great War Wasn’t So Great
When war broke out in August of 1914, Canadians rushed out into the street with pots and pans, proud that the British forces were finally going to teach the German bully, Kaiser Wilhelm II, a lesson. Canadian men flocked in unseen numbers to volunteer for a war that they saw as an adventure; one the papers said would be finished by Christmas. Barely out of their teens, when they finally arrived in Europe after surviving the disorganized chaos of the Canadian military mission, soldiers faced terrible conditions in Europe. Trenches and new weapons changed the face of war. They were “lousy”, literally; their clothes teeming with lice. Rats the size of otters roamed the foul smelling trenches, and their feet turned black with trench foot, after weeks standing in the mud and water that the terrible weather left in its wake. It wasn’t the war they signed on for.
On top of the appalling conditions they lived in, the Canadians were discounted at every turn. Their poor reputation for carousing, coupled with the British command’s prejudice against the uncouth colonials put them in the worst positions, on the front lines, doing what no one else wanted to do. Yet, despite this or maybe because of it, the Canadians proved their worth as courageous fighters at Ypres and The Somme, even holding ground against a gas attack at the second battle of Ypres that had other forces fleeing. By Christmas of 1916, the Canadian forces were given their biggest challenge yet, Vimy Ridge, along with the chance for all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces to fight together.
The Battle for Vimy Ridge
Recognizing the opportunity, and loath to commit the errors the French and British had made at Vimy all ready, the Canadian commanders- Byng and Currie- decided that the Canadians would do it differently. So, for four months 100, 000 Canadian troops practiced their movements till they could do them in their sleep, while command ensured the latest military technology and innovation would be used to the Canadian advantage. On Easter Sunday, April 8th, word went out that the attack would begin the next day and every man was given an envelope and a stamp to write a “just in case” letter.
The battle began at dawn, with a creeping barrage and pounding artillery. When it was done three days later, 3,598 men were dead and another 7000 wounded. April 9th still stands as the bloodiest day in Canadian military history. But, they succeeded in taking the ridge, shaping the Canadian way of making war. Amid the muck and ruin of the battlefield, soldiers looked out and felt, many for the first time, what it meant to be Canadian.
From Battlefield to Memorial
When the war ended in November 1918, Canadian casualties rang up to 66,000 people. 172,000 soldiers returned home wounded, either in body or mind. For the fledgling country of 7 millions souls, this was a significant loss. Some towns lost an entire generation of young men. In 1922, in honour of Canadian sacrifice and bravery, France ceded 107 hectares of parkland around Vimy Ridge to build a Canadian memorial. It took fourteen years to clear away the bombs and the bodies, but in 1936 the iconic memorial designed by Walter Seymour Allward was unveiled by King Edward the VII in front of a crowd of 100,000. The names of 11, 285 Canadian souls whose bodies were never found inscribed on the white marble, beneath the gaze of the key figure of “Canada”, mourning her fallen sons.
It is a stunning place- a true place of pilgrimage. It is considered Canadian soil, the people working at the museum and giving tours of the tunnels and trenches are students from Canada. When I stood on the hill overlooking the now peaceful French countryside, or stood in the trench just metres away from where the enemy trench, I finally understood what the act of remembrance means, and I felt so proud to be Canadian.
This Sunday, April 9th, marks the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge. This is significant for Canadians because we need to remember that our nation was built on the sacrifice of courageous young men and some 2800 women, who went looking for adventure, and then lived through hell. Our story is one of immigrants coming together to form first an army, then a nation, on the tenets of hard work, determination, innovation and the courage to be the ones who step up when no one else is willing. Canadians are at their best when times are at their darkest. This is something we must never forget.
But, there are no longer any First World veterans alive to tell their tale. So, it falls to us. My great-grandfather, David H. Keay, newly emigrated from Scotland, signed up on January 4, 1915 and fought in the battle of Vimy Ridge as part of the newly minted Canadian Light Horse Division. He was one of the lucky few who made it back to Canada, to build the country his comrades had fought so valiantly for.
This Sunday, some 100,000 people, including 25,000 Canadian children, are expected to attend an anniversary memorial at the Vimy Ridge Memorial, which will be live streamed www.facebook.com/CanadaRemembers. Anniversary celebrations are also lined up across the country, check out www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/events. This Sunday, I will be remembering my great-grandfather and thinking about the sacrifice of the 66, 000 who didn’t make it back.