Old soldiers revisit the battlefields that helped forge Canada's identity
THE LESSONS OF WAR
Old soldiers revisit the battlefields that helped forge Canada's identity
The rains have come to northern France, the kind that arrive in late autumn each year, falling in cold, hard sheets. They sweep in from the English Channel, driving across Picardy into Flanders in neighboring Belgium, churning the low chalk hills and looping river valleys of the region into a vast sea of mud. The towns and villages that dot the plain on both sides of the FrenchBelgian border bear names once capable of evoking strong emotions in many Canadians. Ypres, St. Julien and Passchendaele in Flanders. Further south, across the French frontier, Beaumont-Hamel and Bourlon Wood,
Courcelette, Gueudecourt, Cambrai and, especially, the 14-km-long ridge that rises 61 m above the quiet hamlet of Vimy. More than 60,000 Canadians are buried in and around these towns, 20,000 of them in unmarked graves. Most perished in the thick mud where they now lie entombed, casualties of the great conflict that, when it began in 1914, was supposed to be the war that would end all wars.
Much has changed since the First World War drew to a close on Nov. 11,1918, the chill autumn day when the armistice ending hostilities was finally signed. On the old battlefields in northern France and southern Belgium, few traces remain of the terrible destruction wrought by a concentrated mass of nearly five million men under arms. Superhighways and high-speed rail links now crisscross the undulating plain. Church steeples rise from groves of beech and willow, marking the sites of once devastated towns and villages. But
here and there among the fields of sugar beet and shimmering wheat, there are grim reminders of an earlier epoch, when human savagery bathed the rolling hills of Picardy and Flanders in blood. Close to 2,000 military cemeteries and wartime memorials are scattered across the region. Twelve of them commemorate the 66,655 Canadians who never returned home from the war, more than one of every 10 young men—and some women—who donned a Canadian Army uniform to serve in Europe.
Eighty years later, there are few remaining survivors—no more than 800 Canadian veterans of the trenches of the Western Front. Paul Métivier, a still spry 98-year-old, is one. The former Montrealer, now resident in Nepean, Ont., lied about his age to join a unit of the Canadian field artillery when he was only 16. On arriving in Picardy in 1917, he was struck by the utter desolation that greeted him. “It’s hard to believe now, but back then, the whole place was just mud,” he says. “Not a single living tree, not one blade of grass in sight. Just mud as far as the eye could see.”
This week—on Nov. 4—Métivier will travel to France as part of a delegation of 17 First World War survivors who are accompanying Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin on a pilgrimage to the old battlefields to mark the anniversary of the 1918 armistice. Walter Foudon is another vet joining the tour. Now 99 and a resident of the veterans’ hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., Foudon altered his age, also at 16, to join the Canadian Army’s Alberta-based 10th infantry battalion. He arrived at the front in 1916, in time to take part in
the murderous Battle of the Somme, when British and French forces suffered 615,000 casualties in the space of five months to advance their front lines by 10 km. Loudon survived the slaughter, but only barely. “I was in the trenches when the man beside me asked for a smoke,” he recalls. “I loaned him my pipe. The moment he lit it, a shell came in and blew him away. Not nice.”
Loudon went on to fight at Vimy Ridge, where Canadian troops helped change the course of the war, and Cambrai, when the first massed tank attack in military history occurred. He harbors bittersweet memories of his wartime experience. “It was tough but also not tough,” he says. ‘You went in knowing that some of you would get hurt and killed. It’s the way it was.” Despite his years, Loudon has never been back to France. And he is not at all sure of his reaction when he finally returns. “It will probably hurt,” he concedes. “But it won’t hit me until I get there. And it might not. Who knows?” Of one thing, however, he is quite certain. “I wish the young people in this country knew more about those battles where so many of their forefathers died. They should know what happened over there.”
On that point, Loudon will get no argument from the Canadians who tend the country’s war memorials in France and Belgium. There are not many of them—a pair of full-time resident directors and a rotating band of 15 Canadian university students who serve as guides at the imposing Vimy Ridge memorial and the smaller facility commemorating Newfoundland’s war dead 35 km to the south at Beaumont-Hamel. But what they lack in numbers, they make up in enthusiasm.
“I love this job,” confesses 21-year-old Sabrina Heinekey of Vancouver, on her third three-month tour as a Vimy guide while managing at the same time to earn a political science degree from the Uni-
versity of Ottawa. “But there’s one thing that really bothers me,” she adds, taking shelter from a driving rain beneath the towering Vimy monument. “There’s all this talk at home about Canadian identity. Well, what happened right here 80 years ago helped build that identity. But there’s an awful lot of Canadians who don’t know anything about this place. Many don’t even know it exists.”
It is certainly true that Canadian troops achieved much more than a tactical victory when they stormed out of their trenches in blowing sleet and snow on Easter Monday, April 9,1917. The assault marked the first time in the war that all four divisions in the Canadian Corps— 100,000 troops in all—had fought together as a single unit. When those troops drove the Germans from the ridge three days later, they accomplished something that had evaded successive attempts by other Allied forces. The Canadians captured more ground, more prisoners and more guns at Vimy than any British offensive in the previous 2lh years. The victory helped turned the tide of the entire war for the Allies. In Europe, it won for Canada a separate place at the table at the Versailles peace conference. And at home, it united a country then barely 50 years old, sowing the seeds of an emerging nationhood.
The achievement carried a stiff price, however, paid by the 3,598 soldiers—out of a total Canadian casualty list of 10,602—who sacrificed their lives to take Vimy Ridge. It is, perhaps, one reason why the battlefield continues to draw visitors. This year, by the end of October, 51,000 guests, including 2,500 Canadians, had visited the massive monument on top of the ridge, toured the tunnels and the trenches that still exist below, or simply strolled beneath the 11,285 trees that have been planted at the site, one for each Canadian still officially listed as missing, presumed dead, in First World War action across all of France.
Many of the visitors are schoolchildren, the vast majority from the United Kingdom. ‘We get busloads of British kids here,” says Clermont Chamberland, the 59-year-old retired army major who has been resident director of the Vimy memorial for the past seven years. “It seems to be a regular part of their curriculum. Too bad we can’t do the same for our own kids.”
At least one Canadian school is planning to do just that, even if the students involved can hardly be classified as kids. Beginning next March, 400 adults enrolled in the public executive program at Queen’s University’s school of business will be touring both First and Second World War battlefields in Europe. “The idea is to remind our students, all of whom are working executives, of Canada’s close ties with Europe,” explains Don Macnamara, director of the program for public-sector officials, as he tours the trenches at Vimy. A retired Canadian air force brigadier-general, Macnamara has recruited three former Canadian officers to squire his students around Europe—retired army brigadier-general Ernest Beno, retired navy captain Robert Thomas and retired air force colonel Glenn Brown. “There’s quite a few lessons to be learned over here,” says Beno. “A lot of Canadian blood has been spilled in Europe.”
Not least in the chalk uplands and winding river bottoms of Picardy and Flanders. When the First World War began, Canada was as much a colony as a country, inhabited by fewer than eight million people. The entire peacetime army consisted of 3,110 regular soldiers. By the time the war ended four years later, it had expanded into a force of 619,636, ineluding more than 3,000 nurses. Canadian casualties 1 in the war would reach 239,605, fully one-third of k those in uniform. The fields where the wounded fell g may no longer bear the scars of conflict. And the I names of those battles long ago may now lack the 5 power to move many people deeply. But the graves 1 are still there, embedded in the enduring mud, reI minders of another time.
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