PHOTOS: NATALIE SALAT
“In any national story there are moments and places, sometimes far from home, which in retrospect can be seen as fixed points about which the course of history turns—moments which distinguish that nation forever. Those who seek the foundations of Canada’s distinction would do well to begin here at Vimy.”
—Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Ninety years to the day that 100,000 Canadians began their legendary World War I assault on Vimy Ridge, Queen Elizabeth II ad-dressed a crowd of 20,000 Canadian and French citizens on that hallowed battlefield in northern France.
Behind her, the newly restored Canadian National Vimy Memorial gleamed in the sun, looking as fresh as it did in 1936, when her uncle, King Edward VIII, dedicated it for the first time. And in front of her were 5,000 Canadian high school kids who had made the pilgrimage to Vimy for the 90th anniversary commemorations.
The presence of The Royal Canadian Legion was also strong, with Legion uniforms visible among the official government delegation as well as throughout the crowd.
The Queen was joined on the podium by Prince Philip, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his family, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his wife, as well as two Canadian veterans, two youths and two Canadian Forces (CF) chaplains.
The beautiful spring day bore no resemblance to the weather of April 9, 1917. Back then–on a snowy, sleet-filled day, on terrain that looked like a muddy lunar landscape–the four divisions of the Canadian Corps emerged from their tunnels to launch a stunning attack on the German forces that had held the ridge for two and a half years. It was the first time that all four divisions were fighting together, and they accomplished something the French and British forces before them had been unable to do. They took the ridge in four days.
The Queen paid tribute to the Canadians’ valour, and to the 3,598 who lost their lives in reclaiming that very ground. “To their eternal remembrance, to those who have so recently lost their lives in Afghanistan, to Canada and to all who would serve the cause of freedom, I rededicate this magnificently restored memorial.”
What many Canadians in the crowd did not know, as they had been away from home, was that six of their countrymen had died the day before in Afghanistan, killed by a roadside bomb in the deadliest week for the CF since the Korean War.
The night before, at Easter Sunday dinner, an audibly shaken Harper shared the grim news with members of the delegation, which included Deputy Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken, Royal Canadian Legion Honorary Grand President Charles Belzile, Dominion President Jack Frost, the leaders of several other veterans’ organizations, and more than 30 veterans and their companions.
“It is you, our veterans, who give real meaning to our journey here,” Harper told his audience. “As young Canadians, you took (Lieutenant-)Colonel John McCrae’s famous command to heart, and you took up the torch for our country….We still live in a dangerous world. As prime minister, my thoughts these days are never far from Afghanistan, where a new generation of Canadian soldiers carry (Lt.-)Col. McCrae’s torch.” He then spoke of the six soldiers who had been killed. “Our hearts ache for them and their families.”
Afterwards, the dominion president commented on the latest loss of Canadian servicemen. “It’s a different scale proportionally (to Vimy), but they’re fighting for the same reasons,” said Frost. “They’re putting themselves on the line for the same reasons, for freedom and democracy and the civil rights of peoples of oppressed nations.”
Service and sacrifice go hand in hand, and for more than a few Canadians who travelled to France for the 90th anniversary commemorations, they also cross generations. Among the official delegation, as well as among the 300-plus members of the RCMP and the CF who formed the guard of honour, there were descendants of Canadian soldiers who had fought at Vimy. In the case of RCMP Constable Tammy Ward of Fredericton, her great-grandfather Leo John Donovan returned. In the case of fellow New Brunswicker Corporal Tim Belliveau of Chatham, his great-uncle Frederick Joseph did not.
Belliveau’s mission, besides serving in the honour guard, was to visit his great-uncle’s grave. He would be the first family member to do so.
The pilgrimage to Vimy would be a whirlwind, five-day affair, replete with joy and sadness. Along with marking the 90th anniversary of the battle, the Easter events would include a dedication of Toronto sculptor Walter Allward’s restored masterpiece memorial and the burial of a WW I soldier whose remains were found in 2003; Private Herbert Peterson of Berry Creek, Alta., was the first Great War casualty to be identified through DNA testing. The city of Arras would also grant a special honour to the CF.
Veterans Affairs Canada had overseen the $20-million restoration of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial with the help of several federal departments, including Public Works and Government Services Canada. Now, Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson’s department was leading the pilgrimage.
The entire contingent gathered in Ottawa on Thursday, April 5, and began its journey at the Canadian War Museum. There, Thompson, museum CEO Joe Geurts and Royal Canadian Mint CEO Ian E. Bennett unveiled a commemorative coin in honour of Vimy.
Thompson noted that they would be presenting the coin to Canada’s last two recognized surviving Great War veterans–Percy Dwight Wilson (now deceased) and John Babcock–both of whom are more than 105 years old. He declared, “This trip, more than anything, is about our veterans. It’s about paying solemn tribute to the more than 600,000 ordinary Canadians who did extraordinary things for our country.”
At the ensuing lunch, one of the liveliest of the veterans was raring to get on the CF Airbus to Lille, France. “This is a dream,” enthused Thyra Read, 89, who had served as a nursing sister in England during World War II and recalled Victoria Cross recipient Fred Tilston as one of her patients. The Winnipeg resident also fondly recalled meeting her first husband (now deceased) at an officers’ dance in Canada, just before both went overseas. Thirty years later, the couple spent a day at Vimy Ridge while on vacation. “My husband was very interested in history. That’s why I wish so much that he was still living, and that he could come to this.” Her son and daughter-in-law were also travelling to France so they could watch her read the Act of Remembrance in the Queen’s presence.
The Vimy Memorial bears the names of some 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France during WW I. One of those individuals, of course, is no longer missing. Nearly 90 years after his death on the battlefield at age 22, and four years after his remains were discovered, Pte. Herbert Peterson would finally be laid to rest.
In 2003, workers digging a trench for a gas pipeline near Avion, France, found two sets of human remains intertwined. Although there was little to identify them with, there were enough scraps of evidence to show they were Canadian.
The discovery of buried remains is not uncommon in a country that has so often been ravaged by war. As usual, the authorities were alerted, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission–which handles all such cases–provided a report to the Department of National Defence.
DND historian Dr. Ken Reynolds then set about establishing a list of possible individuals who went missing in that area. “We always rely on artifacts that were found at the scene,” he noted. “In this case, there were four buttons and a collar badge from the 49th Battalion, a very distinctive insignia.” The next task was to determine whether the unit had indeed been near the place where the remains were found, and how often. “It turns out that the only time the battalion was in that area was on the ninth of June (1917) during a trench raid, during which they suffered 36 casualties, 16 of whom were not recovered.”
It would take nearly four years of genealogical sleuthing and highly sophisticated DNA analysis to identify Peterson; much of that was a volunteer effort by dozens of genealogists, scientists and DND historians. Genealogist Janet Roy of Thunder Bay, Ont., explained, “It was my job to build the family trees of each of the 16 ‘missing-in-action’ soldiers.” From there, she had to identify suitable DNA donors.
When Roy contacted the families, she couldn’t let them know the specifics of the project, but piqued their interest by mentioning their relative’s name. All of the family members she reached were willing to give their DNA samples–from a cheek swab–to identify the remains.
Dr. Carney Matheson, chief of forensic research for Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA lab in Thunder Bay, Ont., took over from there. The lab is a world leader in the forensic identification of DNA samples that are highly degraded and therefore difficult to analyze. Matheson and a colleague extracted DNA from teeth and a bone sample from the soldier’s remains. “You want to make sure that the skull and the body are associated,” he noted.
Then, the scientists analysed the DNA of the donor families, using both mitochondrial DNA (passed from the mother to the offspring) and Y-chromosome DNA (passed from the father to his sons). “Sometimes we couldn’t find paternal DNA donors, sometimes we couldn’t find maternal DNA donors. Having two lines of DNA will help identify the remains and back each other up,” noted Matheson. “In the case of Pte. Peterson, we only had Y-chromosomal DNA, but fortunately it’s the more reliable of the two for identification.” The DNA sample came from Herbert Peterson, who was named after his fallen uncle.
Matheson and his collaborators have set up a Centre for Missing soldiers’ Identification, www.cmi-canada.org, and aim to identify every Canadian soldiers’ remains uncovered from past military conflicts. They are seeking donor DNA samples to make identification faster and easier.
As for Pte. Peterson’s commemoration, although he is no longer missing, his name will remain on the Vimy Memorial. Canadian architect Julian Smith, who was involved in the Canadian Battlefield Memorials Restoration Project, observed that there was debate about whether to remove all the limestone name panels on the memorial and redo them all. However, only the sections that could not be read were replaced. “The decision was made that this was a historic record and that the only real change that would be made would be to add names that were missing.”
On a bright Saturday morning, Pte. Herbert Peterson’s descendants held a private funeral ceremony for him at the Chapelle St-Louis in Arras. They were joined by Veterans Affairs Minister Thompson, as well as the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, former governor general Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul, and others.
Afterwards, the official delegation and a crowd of local citizens and visiting Canadians gathered at La Chaudière Military Cemetery. The mood was solemn as Chopin’s poignant Funeral March became audible from a distance, played with gravity by the CF band. Then, Peterson’s flag-draped casket came into view, carried slowly and carefully towards the cemetery by eight pallbearers from the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. As his family watched, Peterson was buried with full military honours.
Herbert Peterson, who received the flag that covered his uncle’s casket, was overwhelmed by the emotion and intense media coverage. “I don’t know what to say,” he said quietly. “A lot of mixed emotions….” His son, Kevin, expressed gratitude for the ceremony and for the opportunity to be part of the historic pilgrimage to Vimy. “It’s so fantastic to see all of this come together. Three or four weeks ago, we had no idea this was going to happen.”
His aunt, Doreen Bargholz, a longtime member of Summerland, B.C., Branch and Ladies Auxiliary, shed more than a few tears, but nonetheless observed, “We’re very happy we have closure for my uncle. My dad talked a lot about him. They were very close.”
Her husband, Douglas, a WW II veteran who spent four years overseas as a mechanic in the Royal Canadian Air Force, marvelled, “To think all these people turned up.”
One of the most dedicated attendees was Germaine Dupayage, a lifelong citizen of Vimy who came bearing photos from the Canadians’ repatriation of the Unknown Soldier in 2000. “I have tears in my eyes,” she said afterwards. Her father had been taken hostage at Verdun in 1916, and was a prisoner of war for two years in Germany. Vimy had been demolished during WW I, so when her parents arrived in the area in 1922, they lived for some time in a makeshift camp. Dupayage expressed a love for Canada, which was reinforced when she went overseas for a visit. “I’ve always wanted to go back.”
Later that day, the citizens of Givenchy-en-Gohelle and Thélus showed their appreciation by naming a square and a street, respectively, in honour of “les canadiens.” In the former, it was the Place des Byng boys, in tribute to the soldiers who served under Canadian commander Sir Julian Byng at Vimy Ridge, and in the latter, it was the Rue des artilleurs canadiens.
“You read about the gratitude the French people have for the military, but (you don’t know) unless you’re there to experience it,” observed RCMP officer Belliveau afterwards. “When you have older people coming up and they have tears in their eyes, and you’re marching down the same streets our soldiers marched down, it’s very humbling.”
Visiting his great-uncle’s grave also left its mark. “My father’s named after him, so it was very strange to see that.” While the grave itself was “very peaceful,” he added, “you have a whole bunch of emotions when you see what the military had to go through. It’s hard to comprehend.”
That night, the CF contingent put on an unforgettable sunset ceremony at the Vimy Memorial. With the sun descending beneath dramatic clouds and a multicoloured sky, the 300-strong group–comprising the CF band, naval gun and troops representing all four divisions of the Canadian Army that fought at Vimy–marched from the entrance of the battlefield tunnels to the memorial. There, a massive crowd watched a musical performance along with military manoeuvres, including the beating of the retreat. Holding candles, a long procession walked to the front of the monument, where Thompson unveiled the new lighting concept for the memorial.
Standing in front of Allward’s illuminated statues, Isabelle Doré said she and her family were attending all of the events at Vimy because “this is our corner of the world and we won’t see an event like this again. It’s a memory, but also a thank you.” Referring to the fact that France had granted the battlefield to Canada, she commented, “We’re on Canadian soil, so it’s like we’re travelling.”
Easter Sunday began with an ecumenical service attended by Harper and the delegation. Then there was fanfare as the citizens of Arras, along with hundreds of foreign visitors, amassed in the Place des Héros to witness the granting of the Freedom of the City to the CF.
Before allowing the impressive parade of RCMP and CF members through a symbolic gate that stood in front of Arras’ city hall, Mayor Jean-Marie Vanlerenberghe declared to his fellow citizens: “Your presence in such great numbers is an homage to the country that defended our city… I suggest that we should all offer entry to the city together, to Canada in thanks and homage to those veterans who sacrificed themselves to protect the city of Arras and Vimy Ridge 90 years ago. Since that time, there is a piece of Canada in our country, and also in our hearts.”
After his troops marched through the gate, Hillier beamed. “Being here with all these Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen, RCMP and veterans, and young kids from across Canada, makes you proud to be Canadian. It makes you realize the great things on which our country is based…A country is not built by happenstance, and it continues to need men and women in uniform.”
John Colton, a fighter pilot during WW II and a member of Col. John Bourque Branch in Sherbrooke, Que., commented, “I’ve never seen (a parade) like this before. It was terrific.” He paid tribute to those who came before him. “We are a band of brothers and we never forget.”
Later, joy turned to sorrow with news of the six deaths in Afghanistan.
It was with mixed feelings that the delegation came to the Vimy memorial on Easter Monday. Tom Eagle, chairman of the Northwest Territories/Nunavut Aboriginal Veterans Associations and an active Legion member, participated in a sunrise ceremony at the monument. “This morning we honoured our fallen warriors,” he said. “I’ve been praying for our soldiers in Afghanistan and other parts of this troubled world.”
By 10 o’clock, the memorial was bustling. Canadian high school groups were busy capturing memories on their digital cameras and cell phones, while Legionnaires such as Jack Moxam of Pender Island, B.C., and Ewart Wannamaker of Bancroft, Ont., spent time chatting with members of the honour guard. CF dental technician Kathy Trotter listened to WW II veteran Wannamaker’s reminiscences of landing in France with the recovery unit and told him, “When I’m standing on parade today, I’ll be thinking of you.”
Michael Ignatieff, who was visiting the activity tents set up a short walk away, observed, “The story is the crowd–the number of Canadians. This is going to anchor the 90th anniversary in our history in a way that I don’t think anybody quite expected.”
With the impending arrival of the Queen, Harper and de Villepin, the memorial was off limits after 11 o’clock. During the several hours it took security staff to screen thousands of visitors, Canadian students and entertainers performed tributes to WW I soldiers with poems, speeches and song.
To further honour those who fought there under the Red Ensign, Canada’s former flag was flying alongside the Maple Leaf.
The different elements of the Easter Monday event captured the emotions of the day. There was the flag-waving of 5,000 enthusiastic Canadian youths, the roar of French fighter jets flying past an awestruck crowd, and the triumphant descent of two Canadian SkyHawks parachuting towards the memorial bearing the flags of both Canada and France.
There was also quiet, tearful reflection, particularly during the Last Post and moment of silence. When Métis teenager Sierra Noble stood atop the memorial and played her Warrior’s Lament, the sounds of her fiddle resonated across the battlefield with a bittersweet tenderness.
The Queen, Harper and de Villepin gave speeches that were heartfelt and pitch perfect, with the French prime minister proclaiming, “On this Artois soil that has suffered so much, and where our allies were our liberators, France says thank you to Canada.”
Harper declared, “We Canadians here today are a long way from home, but there may be no place on Earth that makes us feel more Canadian, because we sense all around us the presence of our ancestors.”
As the Queen prepared to greet the veterans in the crowd, the sun re-emerged from the clouds to shine on the memorial.