Dapper in a dark blue pinstripe suit, his white hair and moustache neatly trimmed, Frank Young of Ponoka, Alta., stood staring into a four-foot-deep shell crater on what had been the Canadian front line one dreadful day 70 years ago. “We’ve got to find some other way of settling things,” the 91-year-old veteran said, his eyes filling with tears. “You can’t put men through that, you just can’t.” The Canadians came back to Vimy Ridge last week—the 70th anniversary of the epic battle that many say propelled Canada from colony status to nationhood.
John Rushbrook, 88, of Fredericton, N.B., stood at the base of the twinpylon monument that stands atop Vimy Ridge. Holding hands with his wife, Marguerite, he studied the names of the dead engraved on the wall and he, too, started to cry. His wife put her arms around him. “Sorry,” Rushbrook said, adjusting his blue beret with the Canadian Legion badge. “It’s hard to get over it, with the old pals you lived with day and night.” As the veterans toured what had been their bloody battlefield seven decades before, they were not ashamed of their tears. For many, the pilgrimage was their first since that sleet-filled April dawn in 1917, when they laid siege to the German defence lines—a massive fortress the Germans considered impregnable.
But in a day of furious fighting, four Canadian divisions, fighting for the first time as a single unit, seized the strategic escarpment in northwestern France. It proved a turning point for the 50-year-old nation —and for the war, helping to maintain control of the Western Front. But it was a costly victory: of the 100,000 Canadians who climbed out of their slimy trenches and fought their way up the mud-covered ridge in a blinding storm that day, almost 3,600 died and another 7,100 were wounded. An estimated 6,000 Germans also died in the battle.
Soon afterward, Canadian forces, previously attached to British units fighting along the Western Front, were united under a Canadian commander, Sir Arthur Currie. And when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, Prime Minister Robert Borden signed it for Canada; without Vimy,
the treaty might not have borne a Canadian signature.
Last week, 11 Canadian veterans of the First World War—as well as Color Guard Unit 32 of the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters and Signals Squadron from Lahr, West Germany—gathered in the chill spring sunshine to commemorate the
battle. “For Canada this is a very emotional day at a place that holds a very special position in our history and in our hearts,” George Hees, Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs, told the veterans and about 400 people assembled on the hillside around the stone and concrete monument last Thursday. The battle, Hees said during the 90minute ceremony, was “one of the most notable days in our development as a nation—that Easter Monday when the Canadian corps scaled the heights of military achievement.”
Later, the medal-bedecked veterans—one in a wheelchair, two more
leaning on canes—listened to more speeches and laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But their minds were very much on the indelible events of the dark days of 1917. “When we were here there were no trees at all,” said Charlie Campbell, 90, of Melfort, Sask. “It’s hard to get my bearings. I can’t see much that I can re-
member from the ninth of April, 1917. I wish they’d left some of it the way it was when I was here. The whole ridge looked like it was on fire; the roar...” Indeed, the deafening noise unleashed that morning by hundreds of artillery and machine-guns could be heard for miles—as far away, according to some historians, as the Downing Street offices of British Prime Minister Lloyd George.
Vimy Ridge is different now. It is dotted with 11,285 pines and maples— one for every Canadian soldier missing and presumed dead in France in the First World War—planted in 1926. The
Vimy monument was built by the Canadian government a decade later. But the reminders of the first major Canadian victory in “the war to end all wars” remain: bits of rusty machinegun mounts and rotting fence posts protrude from a landscape still heaved up and cratered from the murderous artillery barrages of that historic battle. The 250-acre park, a gift from France to Canada, is carefully maintained and neatly manicured, but it is no ordinary park. Although songbirds nest in the trees, violets and small white daisies bloom in the holes blasted by shells. In some areas still closed to the public, sheep are used to cut the grass because of the danger from unexploded bombs, shells and mines.
Memories, too, lie close to the sur-
face. On a guided tour of the partly refurbished six miles of tunnels dug by Canadian engineers to enable the troops to haul ammunition and evacuate casualties, Campbell paused to run his gnarled hands over the damp walls and feel the names and dates his fellow soldiers had scratched into the chalk. “There were a lot of names,” he recalled. “The fellows used to take a nail or anything and just write their names.”
Historians have pondered for years why Canadians succeeded where oth-
ers had failed. Between 1914 and 1916, the French threw three divisions at the ridge—and suffered an estimated 150,000 casualties. Later, British attempts also failed. Few military men expected the Canadians to do better. But they did. The main reason, experts say, was the massive planning that went into the Canadian assault. Under a British commander, Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, the four Canadian divisions spent months in full-scale rehearsal for the battle, digging the tunnels, laying narrow-gauge railway lines and communication cables and installing water pipes and electric lights.
Another key to the victory was the attitude of Canadian troops. All volunteers, they prided themselves on work-
ing together and taking individual initiative, rather than relying on longestablished military structure. About that attitude, Campbell said: “There was dread, but we had a job to do: let’s get on with it.”
The soldiers from across Canada got on with it in a spirit of cooperation and determination, unfettered by the class distinctions and often unbridgeable gulf between officers and enlisted men that existed in the British army. It was that spirit rather than any superhuman qualities that
drove the Canadians to victory.
The pride that got the job done in 1917 was evident on the faces of the men who sat in straight-back chairs in front of the massive monument last week. When James A. de Lalanne, 90, of Westmount, Que., was called to lay a wreath during the ceremony, he let his cane fall by the side of his chair and marched unaided up the stairs of the monument. Bent with age, other veterans stood at attention and gave snappy salutes.
Thursday’s ceremony reminded Canadians—and the world—of Canada’s achievement and its sacrifice. But the week gave more perhaps to the men who fought in the battle than it did to anyone else. As a bagpiper played a mournful lament, more than one veter-
an wiped his eyes. “It was very enjoyable, and awing,” said Archie Glen, 90, from Maple Ridge, B.C., who wore his Military Medal on his blue blazer and held hands with his wife, Joan, after the ceremony. Arthur Beriault, 93, a pipe-smoking veteran from Ville de Laval, Que., said that it had been his ambition to come back, and he was glad that he had. The battlefield had changed, and the veterans were bent with age and handicap, but their memories, undimmed by time, were imperishable. □
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