Salute to the Men of Vimy
By Douglas W. Smith
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
On April 9th heads will bow as the solemn words of Laurence Binyon will be intoned and revered by thousands of Legionnaires from coast to coast.
Starched shirt fronts will sparkle at head tables, and gleaming lights will reflect shines from much-pressed Sunday best serges. Millionaires, truck-drivers, bookkeepers, farmers, mechanics, salesmen, padres, labourers will gather for a few hours to once again relive the imperishable hours when the Canadians stormed Vimy Ridge 31 years ago.
The bald and the fat, the skinny and the gray, the young and the old will rekindle a flame of immortality that seems to have room for none other than those who shared those glorious days.
I have attended such dinners and felt that this was a moment. Their moment. Though strife and hardship may be their lot … though pain and misery may rack their bodies … this moment of theirs was something that no foreign mortal who had not bled upon that sacred ridge could dare intrude.
* * *
It is difficult to define the miraculous grip that the memory of Vimy holds upon all veterans. It seems to be symbolic of all Canadians who in different parts of the globe gave their lives.
The thrill of D-Day, while a frightening thing, does not as yet reflect the glory and tradition of Vimy. Yet brave men died on D-Day just the same. They fought as nobly and courageously as their fathers. Perhaps time will enhance likewise this memorable occasion.
If anyone were to ask a Canadian soldier of World War II what was one of his greatest thrills, I think he would include his first sight of the Vimy Memorial among the major ones. I can well remember the rat-race across France following the Falaise Gap debacle. Then the spine-tingling sensation as looking from Arras the mighty monument stood like a clear gem against the blue sky line.
One of the first things that thousands of World War II Canadians did on leave was to make a pilgrimage to Vimy. How relieved were these lads to find, contrary to rumours of German exploitation, that outside of a chipped hand the memorial was unharmed.
The colossal monument to a gallant corps of fighting men was respected by the Germans. While monuments and halls of fame throughout Europe were being vandalized by the Hun, they too came in their thousands on leave to Vimy and bought souvenir post cards. A tribute without parallel.
Surprisingly enough it remained for a distorted Frenchman to commit a sacrilege on that altar of remembrance. I don’t think this story has ever been published.
* * *
It was April 1945. The Hun was on the run and we were well into Germany.
A memorial service was planned for Vimy Day. New flags were unfurled and tested. The grounds were cleaned and the grass manicured. All the celebrities of Arras, Vimy, Lille, Thelus and Calais were invited. General Crerar would be the top-man.
Two days before the service was to commence someone smeared the monument with tar and dirt. The local Frenchmen were both horrified and incensed. I am certain that if they could have laid their hands on the vandal or vandals they would have killed them.
A working party went into action scrubbing night and day. A guard of honour of 140 French soldiers stood on 24-hour duty. And when the sun shone brightly on April 9th, few present were the wiser as to what had happened.
* * *
The average age of the veterans of World War I is 60. In another ten years the crowds around the festive boards will have thinned considerably, although Valhalla will be enriched.
What will take its place? D-Day, Ortona, Hong Kong, Dieppe dinners? Scheldt and Hochwald reunions? Perhaps time will ripen and endow these occasions with a more hallowed atmosphere. Just now they are still quite fresh in memory. The scars have not quite healed over.
Yet, often at these dinners I wonder just what is the purpose we serve when we commemorate the occasion. If one is honest with oneself, well might the question be asked. Am I here tonight honouring the sacred memory of my fallen comrades? Or am I celebrating the fact that I am alive myself?
Some will reply that it serves a dual purpose. To which the thought arises that it is very difficult to do both and contain oneself while so doing.
There is an old saying that the water which has passed under the bridge cannot turn the mill. Yet, without the traditions of the past we would have little to build upon. A generation that ignores the deeds of its ancestors will in its turn leave little for posterity.
No doubt on the night of April 9th the God of War will look down and ponder. Greatly has he tried to vanquish man, but always man rises again triumphant.
Yet Thor will not be sated. Already his rumble can be felt around the world. Perhaps it is the lot of man to be his servant until Armageddon reunites all comrades. And Thor will be stricken by a greater General. A God of Peace.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain. No act of man diminish one wit the cherished memories of a gallant band. April 9th is your night, old soldier. We of another generation salute you.