Vimy Ridge

Canada is a country with no military ambitions. Yet war has played a large part in our evolution as an independent nation. We won recognition and respect in two world wars, and peacekeeping gives us a distinctive role in the world.

July 1 1999

Vimy Ridge

Canada is a country with no military ambitions. Yet war has played a large part in our evolution as an independent nation. We won recognition and respect in two world wars, and peacekeeping gives us a distinctive role in the world.

July 1 1999

Vimy Ridge



Canada is a country with no military ambitions. Yet war has played a large part in our evolution as an independent nation. We won recognition and respect in two world wars, and peacekeeping gives us a distinctive role in the world.

The Canadians who went off to war in August, 1914, were mainly untrained soldiers. They had enlisted for many reasons, most honourable, some not. Many were patriots or adventurers, but there were also men fleeing their wives or evading the law. There were vasdy more English-speakers than francophones, for this “British” war appealed more to some in Canada than others. Indeed, it appealed most ^ to those who had been born in Britain it■4^ self—in fact, two-thirds of the first conO tingent to go overseas had been born s* there. Not until the end of the war did the Canadian-born composition of the Canadian Expeditionary Force exceed 50 per cent, and regretfully few were French-speaking.

But the war made all the soldiers who served into Canadians. The experience of the trenches helped erase the differences that separated the Nova Scotia fisherman from the Vancouver salesclerk. Even if he had been born in Edinburgh, the private in the 42nd Battalion discovered he was no longer British. He thought differendy, he employed different fighting tactics, and he became closer to the man in the Canadian regiment next in the line than to his brother in the British Army.

Raising the Canadian Expeditionary Force and creating the Canadian Corps at the front

was Canadas greatest achievement since Confederation. To recruit 650,000 men, equip and train them, and weld them into an effective fighting force took a massive national effort. To do this in the face of the huge casualties in the trenches made it even more challenging. But Canada did it—and in the process, Canada became a nation.

The key event occurred on Easter Monday, 1917. Fighting with four divisions together for the first time, the Canadian Corps launched a perfectly planned and executed assault on the German position on Vimy Ridge in the northern industrial area of France. The high ridge looked out over German-occupied France, and the enemy, seeing its value, had fortified the line so strongly that earlier assaults from the British and French had been hurled back.

Not this time. The Canadian artillery, using techniques developed by a McGill University engineering professor and lieutenant-colonel named Andy McNaughton, targeted German gun positions and destroyed them in the days before the assault. Using new tactics largely developed by the general commanding the First Division, a Victoria militiaman named Arthur Currie, the soldiers of the Corps had been trained to perfection, briefed on what they faced and instructed on

3 how to overcome the enemy positions in front of them.

B The Corps’ early morning attack, 19,200 men in eight I brigades, directed by Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, their British § commander, went in under cover of a creeping artillery I barrage, and the Corps swept everything before it along I most of the line. The Germans, their front-line soldiers I unhinged by the explosions or killed in their dugouts, s fell back, giving up their hitherto impregnable position.

I In Britain, the United States and Canada, the victory i was hailed as the greatest set-piece battle of the war.

The Canadian Corps had done something the British and French could not do and, even if the 10,602 killed and wounded had been a terrible price to pay, the soldiers’ pride was enormous. So, too, was Canada’s. The

headline on The Globe in Toronto on April 10 said it all: “Canadians lead in triumph.” As Macleans reader Roy Bartlett of Windsor, Ont., observed in response to the editors’ request for suggestions for this July 1 issue, “Other nations suddenly took notice that this quiet, orderly country was for real.”

The taking of Vimy Ridge led to no Allied breakthrough, however, and the war dragged on until Nov. 11, 1918. But soldiers at the time, and historians since, have argued that the victory on Easter Monday, 1917, was the key to making Canada a nation. Currie wrote that those who died in action had “no provincial prejudices and no racial suspicion in their heart. . . there was no Quebec and no Ontario . . . but one great country.” If only it had remained so.

‘You felt you could hear them cheering’

If there is one nation in the world where Canadians are always assured of a warm welcome, it is the Netherlands. The Dutch remember the Second World War, and they remember that the First Canadian Army led the liberation of their country. In May, 1995, when the 50th anniversary of VE-Day was marked, thousands of Canadian veterans marched through the Dutch towns they had freed and, young and old, the Dutch cheered themselves hoarse. Young mothers held up their babies to kiss grizzled vets, tears streaming down their faces, so they could tell their children 10 or 20 years hence that they had touched one of the men who had liberated their country. The Dutch remember, even if Canadians do not.

The war had started badly for Canada and the Allies. Unprepared, Canada needed time to

mobilize, and by the time Canadian servicemen /fi reached Britain in strength, Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe. The first Canadian soldiers landed on the Continent ^ at Dieppe in August, 1942—a raid in strength in which 2,753 of the 4,963 Canadians were killed or taken prisoner.

Dieppe demonstrated how ill-prepared the Allies were to mount an assault on Hitlers “Fortress Europe.” Nonetheless, in July, 1943, the Allies— an infantry division and an armoured brigade of Canadians included—invaded Sicily. The campaign northwards up the Italian boot was costly and long, but Canadian soldiers learned their hard trade at Ortona, the Hitler Line and the Gothic Line.

That experience was needed when D-Day finally came on June 6, 1944. The great invasion of France included a division of Canadian infantry and a battalion of paratroops, as well as units of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy. The lessons learned at Dieppe had been absorbed. The breakout from the Normandy beachhead was followed by the decimation of the Germans at Falaise, a battle in which the Canadians played a key role in trapping entire enemy divisions in a giant pocket. For a heady few weeks in August and September, it looked as if the war might be won quickly. But the vital Scheldt estuary, which provided entry to the great Belgian port of Antwerp, was not cleared when there was a chance to do it, and the massive airborne assault against the Dutch city of Arnhem, an attempt to capture a large bridge spanning the Rhine, was beaten back by the Germans. Without access to Antwerp, without a way across the Rhine, the Allied advance stalled. The war dragged on through another winter.

The Dutch, meanwhile, were starving on rations that provided as little as 320 calories a day. Occupied by the brutal Nazi regime, their men

used as slave labour in the Reich, their lot was desperate. Allied strategy was to bypass the northern Netherlands while pressing into Germany in February, 1945, and it was not until the beginning of April that the armies turned to the liberation of the Dutch.

This task fell to the First Canadian Army under Gen. Harry Crerar. His Second Canadian Corps had the task of dislodging the enemy in the northeast while First Canadian Corps, just arrived from Italy, had the west. There was much hard fighting—the Cape Breton Highlanders reported that they had their most difficult battle of the war on May 1, 1945—with Hitler already a suicide in his Berlin bunker—but there were moments of humanity in the midst of carnage. The Nazi occupiers, now worried about their fate, offered to let the Canadians carry food to the Dutch at the end of April. White-flagged convoys rolled along the roads and bombers dropped rations by parachute. On rooftops, the Dutch painted “Thank you Canadians,” and one pilot recalled that he could see thousands of cheering Dutch from his Lancaster. “You felt you could hear them cheering,” he said, and it was true.

The two large Canadian cemeteries at Groesbeek and Holten hold the thousands of Canadians who died to liberate Holland. The cemeteries are visited regularly by Dutch schoolchildren who put flowers on the graves of the young Canadians who rest so far from home. The Dutch remember that freedom has a price—and they know who paid it for them.

The Halifax

In the winter of 1917, the fourth year of the war in Europe, Canadians were tired. The federal election campaign, revolving around the question of whether to impose conscription to maintain the armies at the front in Flanders, was under way, and the political slanging was even more vicious than usual. Some corporations were getting rich out of the war and, while there was work, inflation seemed to be eating up the wages of workers. Sir Robert Borden, the Halifax lawyer, was prime minister, and while many in the country did not admire his politics, all respected his determination to prosecute the war to victory.

Then in a flash, the concerns of politics and prices disappeared as the war came home. On Dec. 6, the Belgian ship Imo collided with the French munitions vessel Mont Blanc in Halifax harbour. There was panic on the French ship, coming to Halifax to join a convoy bound for Britain, its crew aware that it carried 2,750 tons of picric acid, guncotton and TNT loaded in New York City. The panic was fully justified. The sailors abandoned ship, leaving it in flames, as they rowed to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. Twenty-one minutes after the collision, Mont Blanc erupted in a gigantic fireball that heralded the greatest manmade explosion in history to that point.

Halifax was devastated. The North End all but disappeared, its working-class population bearing the brunt of the casualties as a square mile of the great port city lay in ruins. Houses that withstood the explosion soon were burning, as ovens and furnaces set the ruins alight. Across the harbour, Dartmouth was also hard hit, and vessels in the anchorage were wrecked while small boats were tossed ashore in the blast-induced tidal wave. The noise of the explosion was heard as far away as Prince Edward Island.

The army and navy responded quickly, sending in troops

in training and sailors. Civilian hospitals cleared their floors for casualties, and trainloads of relief workers and supplies arrived from Boston and Eastern Canada. The need was desperate—about 1,600 dead, 9,000 injured and more than 13,500 homes destroyed or badly damaged. Damage was estimated at $35 million in 1917 dollars, perhaps $400 million in todays currency.

Prime Minister Borden, campaigning in P.E.I., headed at once for Halifax, arriving in the midst of what he described “as one of the most terrible blizzards I ever experienced.” He ordered $500,000 in federal emergency relief funds to be provided at once, postponed polling in Halifax, and commiserated with stunned Haligonians, including a boy who was one of two survivors in a family of 11. The snow and cold compounded the misery that Borden described in an interview: “Two miles away from the scene of the explosion, heavy doors were blown from their hinges . . . the heavy gun on the Mont Blanc was hurled two miles into the woods beyond Dartmouth . . . large telephone poles a mile away were snapped off like pipe stems. The railway track was washed away by the tidal wave created by the explosion ... glass was broken in windows at Truro, 60 miles distant.”

Amidst the horror, there were heroes. The old cruiser HMCS Niobe sent seven volunteers to try to scuttle the Mont Blanc; they managed to reach the ship just as it exploded, killing them all. Doctors and nurses, labouring for days without sleep, worked themselves into exhaustion.

The Halifax relief effort, like the explosion, was Canadas greatest. The federal government provided $19 million in all, Britain contributed one million pounds, and provinces, cities and nearby states donated supplies and money. Meanwhile, the war went on, and Halifax now bore its scars.

Peacekeeping was Pearson s legacy

“Like finding a beloved uncle arrested for rape.” That was The Economist's description of the Canadian reaction to the Anglo-French attempt to recapture the Suez Canal from Egypt in October, 1956. Canadians had had enough of “the supermen of Europe,” Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent declared.

It was only 11 years after the war against Hitler had ended. But this time, the unwanted supermen were Britain and France, Canadas two mother countries. The British and the French had owned the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, since the 19th century.

Suez was their lifeline through the Middle East and the source of immense international prestige.

Egypt’s nationalist president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, seized the canal on July 26, 1956, the fourth anniversary of the revolution he had led against King Farouk. The British and French wanted Suez back desperately. Frantic diplomacy failed, and the two countries plotted with Israel to invade Egypt. By secret prearrangement, Israel attacked Egypt on Oct. 29; Britain and France then ordered Israel and Egypt to withdraw from the area around Suez. When Nasser refused, Anglo-French forces intervened directly, beginning to bomb the canal zone.

Britain and France simply assumed the support of Canada and other former colonies. What they got from Ottawa instead was anger—anger that was reinforced by the outrage expressed by Canada’s closest ally, the United States. Still, foreign minister Lester Pearson publicly emphasized conciliation, and he worked to extract the British and French from the hole they had dug for themselves.

Working brilliantly at the United Nations, Pearson forged a consensus behind what he called “a truly international peace and police force” to supervise the cessation of hostilities. The ceasefire came on Nov. 6 and the United Nations Emergency Force was on the ground within days. It was the UN’s first big multinational peace force—and the beginning of modern peacekeeping.

Canadian Maj.-Gen. E. L. M. Burns, a Second World War commander, was named to head UNEF. His nightly appearances on television news quickly turned him into one of the most recognizable Canadian faces. His demeanour was invariably stern and serious. His nickname was “Smiler”—because he never did.

Nasser was none too anxious to let Canadians apart from Burns into the UN force. He saw Canada’s army as an extension of British imperialism, all the more so because the Canadian unit slated for service was the Queen’s Own

Rifles—ever so British-sounding and -looking. Pearson had to shove hard to get Canadians into UNEF. When he did, they were not the glamourous Queens Own but the supply, transport and medical units that became a staple of Canadian peacekeeping.

On Oct. 14, 1957, Parliament opened with a new prime minister at the helm. Conservative John Diefenbaker had reaped the votes cast by Canadians who were upset by Pearsons desertion of Britain in her time of need and who felt certain that Canada had simply tagged along after the Americans. But Dief was upstaged. The same day as the opening of Parliament, it was announced that Lester Pearson had become the first Canadian to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The reaction was pure understatement from the boyish, bow-tied former foreign minister: “Gosh!”

Peacekeeping has been an itch that every Canadian prime minister and foreign minister has had to scratch. Hardly a single peace operation, UN or otherwise, has been mounted without Canadas participation. In more than 30 missions spanning a half-century, more than 100,000 Canadians have served as peacekeepers around the world— in such places as Kashmir, Cyprus, Haiti, El Salvador, Western Sahara, Yemen, Cambodia, Somalia, Kuwait, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

As poll after poll shows, Canadians regard peacekeeping as national property, an activity that suits our personality, skills and place in the world. We insist we are different from other countries—the United States, in particular— and that peacekeeping proves the point. Uncle Sam fights wars, while Johnny Canuck keeps the peace. How ironic it was, then, to find ourselves helping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to wage war against Serbia for the right to send peacekeepers to Kosovo.