Ninety-nine years ago today, Canadian soldiers were finishing a three-day battle that saw them capture a seven-kilometre-long hill in France. The taking of Vimy Ridge was not a particularly significant battle in the overall context of the First World War, but it is an important chapter in Canadian history.
As Canada gears up to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its founding next year, we should also be preparing to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The two events are intertwined. While Canada officially gained nation status in 1867, it was still tied closely to Great Britain. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an important step ahead in the country’s march to independence.
After more than 100,000 French soldiers had been wounded or killed in trying to take Vimy Ridge from the Germans, the Canadians were given the task. Although they were still under British command, it was the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together.
It was a fierce battle that resulted in Canada’s most celebrated military victory.
“Although careful planning and well-executed artillery barrages helped the Canadians seize the ridge, their victory was also the result of personal bravery, and of small groups of soldiers taking the initiative in battle,” says the website Historica.
The cost was high — nearly 3,600 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were wounded. Four Canadians — Pte. William Milne, Lance-Sgt. Ellis Sifton, Capt. Thain MacDowell and Pte. John Pattison — were awarded the Victoria Cross for their courage in the battle:
Brig.-Gen. Alexander Ross, who was a battalion commander at Vimy, said of the battle: “In those few minutes, I witnessed the birth of a nation.”
The battle resulted in Arthur Currie, who spent five years teaching at public schools in Sidney and Victoria, becoming the first Canadian commander of the corps.
It didn’t end the war. Some historians even say it didn’t make much difference to the outcome and that Canadians fought more important battles, such as the 1918 victory at Amiens.
But Vimy Ridge was a turning point, a coming of age for Canada. It should be commemorated. But in those commemorations, we should look at the past with clear eyes. Much is made of soldiers coming home covered in glory, but that is largely myth. In the First World War, they were mostly covered in mud and blood. The struggles in the trenches were miserable and tedious. Disease kill more soldiers than combat injuries.
It was a war sparked and fanned by conflicting nationalistic sentiments. At the war’s end, when the victors set out to remake the map of the world, they did so with a colonial perspective. They sowed the seeds of future bitter conflicts, including the Second World War and today’s struggles in the Middle East.
In remembering Vimy Ridge, we should not glorify that war, but we should honour Canadian soldiers who fought in it for their courage and tenacity, and for their pivotal role in shaping our country.