Vimy: Through Generations

July 5, 2012 by Sharon Adams
95th Anniversary

Silence reigns over the fields surrounding the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, about 175 kilometres north of Paris. The pockmarked battlefields where 100,000 Canadians fought 95 years ago have been softened by time, the slumped shoulders of the trenches clothed by grass and surrounded by spring-green forest. It is in stark contrast to the muddy no man’s land, water-filled shell craters and splintered stubs of trees that remained after the metallic rain of more than a million shells during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.

On this day, nothing moves on the undulating terrain. The cold and pelting rain have driven even the birds to shelter. But, bobbing above a green ridge, a thin, dark line appears, soon animated by a chorus of high, excited voices. And around the corner they come, cadets and high school students, wave after wave of them, half a dozen abreast in a line of more than 4,500 that takes 45 minutes to fill the field below the monument.

Another army of young Canadians has come to Vimy Ridge.

Some arrived hours earlier, waiting to play their vital part in the national ceremony marking the 95th anniversary of the battle that helped forge Canada’s national identity. As the rain bucketed down, they huddled in small groups, sharing warmth under a canopy of umbrellas. They were cold. They were wet. And never in their lives had they felt more Canadian. “People just walk up and say ‘thank you for everything you’ve done,’” even though the accomplishments were those of an earlier generation, said Sadie McLean of Courtice, Ont.

Canadians at Vimy today.

Canadians at Vimy today.

“Being right here where they fought… I get so much pride in being a Canadian,” added Haleigh McDonald of Newmarket, Ont.

“You don’t understand the feeling until you get here,” said Victoria Klein of Whitby, Ont., whose father’s uncle carried to his grave shrapnel from a Second World War German tank shell.

“This has made it come alive for me,” noted Christian Bellows of Corner Brook, Nfld. “You can see in real time where the trenches were and what they had to do to get across no man’s land.”  Added classmate Evan Wheeler: “People fought here and died right where you’re standing. It’s a different feeling.” And for Lucas Graham of Newmarket, Ont., “it’s an eye-opener. It’s not just a number any more when you see the graves, the tombs.”

Students visit Beaumont Hamel.

Students visit Beaumont Hamel.

When asked how they will carry forward their commitment to remembrance, the students had a variety of answers: telling friends and family, encouraging other students to take a commemorative tour, passing the word through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, being sure to pass it on to their future children or volunteering at a Royal Canadian Legion branch or veterans’ home.

Throughout the soggy afternoon, the youth shrugged off the discomfort of the miserable weather, saying at least today it was rain, not the snow and sleet of that distant Easter Monday. “It’s cold and it’s wet, but that gives us a little bit of the feeling of what it might have been like 95 years ago,” explained Thomas Littlewood, 20, a Mount Allison University student from Quispamsis, N.B., who volunteered with the Vimy Foundation and EF Tours to help organize the students.

The youth were part of a crowd of more than 7,500 taking part in the poignant ceremony to mark the anniversary on April 9. Included were dignitaries, officials, politicians, veterans, local citizens, Canadians and Britons who made the journey to honour those who paid the price for the freedom Canada enjoys today. Among them were 105 Canadian Forces members representing the regiments, branches and corps that participated in the 1917 battle, including a 50-strong guard and 30 members of La Musique du Royal 22e Régiment. Accompanying cadets from the Ottawa unit of the Royal Canadian Dragoon Cadet Corps was Major Arthur William Currie, grandson of the innovative Major-General Arthur Currie who led 1st Canadian Division into battle at Vimy.

Cadets march towards the Vimy Memorial.

Cadets march towards the Vimy Memorial.

The Veterans Affairs Canada delegation included piper Sergeant Matthew MacIsaac whose great-grandfather John A. “Black Jack” MacDonald played the pipes on Vimy Ridge 95 years ago. “It’s such an honour,” he said after the ceremony. “The memorial feels like such a Canadian place. You hear about it, you read about it, but until you see the monument and see the battleground and the shell holes and all the craters… It didn’t really strike home until I’d seen it.”

There is no living veteran to share memories of the events of that distant Easter Monday, and so this anniversary focused on the youth who are counted on to carry commemoration forward. Young Canadians were involved throughout the event; groups of cadets led the youth procession onto the grounds of the memorial; students Jonathan Brennan and Shannon Maili-McAleer recited In Flanders Fields; standing next to Mother Canada on the monument, students from each province and territory read aloud the name of a soldier killed during the battle; Lizzy and Sarah Hoyt performed their aching song Vimy Ridge; Matt Michon and Laura Williams recited the Commitment to Remember; the voices of youth were heard loud and clear proudly singing O Canada during the service and extemporaneously at the Birth of a Nation Celebration and concert later in the evening.

The students and cadets wildly applauded the arrival of The Royal Canadian Legion’s Torch of Remembrance. It had been lit at Essex Farm in Belgium, near the place where Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields. Young Canadians representing each province and territory marched in procession, bringing the torch onto the monument where it was placed next to Mother Canada. It was a symbol of remembrance for the 4,500 students on the EF National Student Tour to Remember, each of whom researched and represented a soldier who fought or died at Vimy.

Governor General David Johnston and Thélus Mayor Bernard Milleville with children.

Governor General David Johnston and Thélus Mayor Bernard Milleville with children.

“Yes, 95 years later, Mother Canada still cries,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, referring to the monument’s iconic statue, mourning her dead. “We have the responsibility to keep the torch lit. Canadian youth are the ones who will keep the torch lit. It is your commitment to that that ensures the legacy will live on through the years to come.”

“We stand on hallowed ground,” said Governor General David Johnston, “a place of agonized conflict, a site of appalling loss of life, a vessel of sorrow, a crucible of courage, a hallmark of ingenuity, collaboration and resolve undertaken by men in arms in the cause of peace.”

During the ceremony wreaths were placed to honour those who fought and died—by Johnston, Blaney, Marc Laffineur, French secretary of state for the minister of defence and veterans and other French dignitaries including local mayors; on behalf of the Canadian Forces, New Zealand, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and by Patricia Varga, Dominion President of The Royal Canadian Legion on behalf of veterans. Also placing wreaths were Gene Heesaker of the National Council of Veteran Associations, Neil McKinnon of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans, J. Robert O’Brien of the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping and Reno St. Germain of Veterans NATO UN Canada Group. Heesaker, St. Germain and Jack Wynne recited the Act of Remembrance in English, French and Cree.

RCMP Constable Jason Lilly, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and veteran Reno St-Germain at Canadian Cemetery No. 2.

RCMP Constable Jason Lilly, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and veteran Reno St-Germain at Canadian Cemetery No. 2.

In recognition of Canada’s national sacrifice, the French granted forever 117 hectares of the battle site for the monument designed by Walter Allward. Its two soaring pylons represent Canada and France and can be seen for miles; from a distance they resemble hands raised in prayer. Inscribed on its walls are 11,285 names of Canadians who died in the First World War but have no known grave. Vimy Ridge is also the final resting place of 3,600 Canadians, “a much-revered, far-flung patch of Canada some 4,000 kilometres from our closest shore,” Johnston said.

The battle that took place here “is an unfading, undying symbol of who we are,” Johnston added. Canada’s allies had failed to take the ridge at a cost of 300,000 dead and wounded, he explained. The Canadian Corps recognized “radically different steps needed to be taken.” They devised and rehearsed the creeping barrage, which provided troops a moving, protective curtain of artillery shells. General Arthur Currie also “did something ingenious and highly risky” in entrusting every soldier under his command with the whole battle plan. “Every Canadian soldier—from colonel to private—was given the big picture,” explained Johnston. Currie’s trust in his troops “tapped deeply into the authentic Canadian experience of equality, collegiality, community and interdependence.”

These words particularly touched Master Corporal Graeme Barber of the British Columbia Dragoons of Vernon, B.C., a member of the guard, who had toured the site earlier. “I could see where my regiment had fought on the big map there. Seeing the battlefield, I realize it was not an easy go. Wow, this would be terrible to advance across today, let alone almost 100 years ago. I’m amazed they were able to go over that pockmarked ground as quickly as they did, with mud, snow, pits, short-rounds from friendly artillery. Even with all the preparations.”

Veterans Robert O’Brien, Reno St-Germain, Dominion President Pat Varga, Neil McKinnon, caretaker Edward Corbett and Gene Heesaker at the memorial in Thélus.

Veterans Robert O’Brien, Reno St-Germain, Dominion President Pat Varga, Neil McKinnon, caretaker Edward Corbett and Gene Heesaker at the memorial in Thélus.

Months of careful planning and rehearsal paid off. Prior to the attack, massive explosions were set off in tunnels beneath German lines. Other tunnels hid thousands of Canadian troops, arms and supplies prior to the battle. At 5:30 a.m. the first wave attacked through wind, snow, sleet and a hail of machine-gun fire. They advanced at a measured pace behind a rolling barrage. Some positions were captured easily; others required savage hand-to-hand fighting. Overhead, military aircraft fought enemy aircraft and destroyed observation balloons.

Most of the high ground was in Canadian hands by the end of the first day. The ridge was completely in Canadian hands by the morning of April 12. Together the Canadian Corps and the British Corps, fighting just to the south, had captured more ground than any other British offensive to date. Four Canadians—Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Pte. John Pattison earned the Victoria Cross, the most esteemed of all military honours.

After Vimy, the Canadians never lost an important battle during the remainder of the war. They cemented their reputation in August by capturing the strategic Hill 70 overlooking Lens, hampering German efforts to send in fresh troops. The enemy suffered some 25,000 casualties in the battle while the corps lost a little over 10,000 killed and wounded. The Canadians, however, had proved themselves an elite fighting force and in the fall—at Passchendaele—they inched their way at tremendous cost around mud-soaked craters, eventually holding on to the town for five days under heavy fire and rain.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge is often referred to as the birth of the nation, as it brought together, for the first time, troops from communities from every province and territory, fighting for common objectives of a Canadian plan and under Canadian leadership. Their actions during these battles and the Last Hundred Days leading up to the end of the First World War secured Canada a seat in her own right, not just as a dominion of Great Britain, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.

Canada enlisted more than 620,000 during the First World War. Of these more than 66,000 were killed and 170,000 wounded—at a time when Canada’s population was approximately eight million. This service and sacrifice prompted many of those who witnessed or participated in the Vimy ceremony to venture further afield to other Canadian battlefield sites. Ceremonies were held at the Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood Memorial, where the Canadian Corps fought in the spring and summer of 1916; the St. Julien Memorial, where the Canadians encountered their first enemy gas attacks of the war; and at the Passchendaele New British Cemetery. Veterans placed wreaths at the Canadian Corps Artillery Memorial in Thélus near Vimy, captured by Canadians on April 9, 1917. The delegation also participated in the unveiling of a plaque marking the liberation of Thélus.

Formal ceremonies were held with the youth delegation at the Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, on the site where the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was decimated July 1, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Canadian officials also participated in ceremonies at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, where the names of 55,000 First World War Allied soldiers with no known grave are inscribed. Here, every day at 8 p.m., a simple, yet poignant sunset ceremony honours Allied soldiers who fought and died in the area during the Great War.

Legion Dominion President Varga said commemorations at battle sites all around Vimy were particularly meaningful, not only in her position representing veterans on behalf of the Legion, but because her great-grandfather L.Sgt. Patrick Rudden of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles is buried “surrounded by peaceful countryside” in Drummond Cemetery near Raillencourt, France, along the Arras-Cambrai road. He was killed Sept. 29, 1918. Varga, along with the other veterans in the Veterans Affairs Canada delegation toured the Commonwealth War Graves Commission workshops in Beaurains, France, for a behind-the-scenes look at how the cemeteries and gravesites are so meticulously kept.

For the thousands of participating students, this was the beginning of a lifetime of commemoration. “It’s surreal to walk around here and hear what had to happen for our freedom,” said Kyle Hiscock, a Grade 9 student at Xavier Junior High in Deer Lake, Nfld., who spoke during the ceremony at Beaumont Hamel. His great-grandfather and great-grand-uncle fought with the Newfoundland Regt. at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. “It’s humbling.”

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