by Brian Reid
On April 9, 2017, as I gathered with thousands of other Canadians on Vimy Ridge, I reflected on the moment and the meaning of what we were experiencing. What were we doing there? Were we commemorating the centenary of Canada’s best-known victory of the First World War? Were we honouring the memory of the 60,000 Canadians who fell in the bloody struggle of the first global conflict? Were we, the few who climbed the ridge that day, the surrogates for the millions of our fellow Canadians who were unable to make the trip? I don’t know, but I do know it was the experience of a lifetime and a deeply moving and emotional one at that. Let me share with you the thoughts of an undistinguished Canadian veteran whose grandfather, Private William Reid of the 3rd Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, was there a century past.
How I got there was out of the ordinary. My reputation as an amateur military historian earned me an invitation to act as a guide for the Return to Vimy tour of my regiment, The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery. Despite the title, this was strictly an unoffical venture organized by Fields of Fire Tours of Wolfe Island, Ontario and funded by a combination of regimental non-public funds, the participants and some generous benefactors. This was no junket for senior officers; the tour filled two buses, one of which was made up of retired members and spouses, while the other carried, besides yours truly, serving members drawn from both regular and reserve units across Canada. The tour itself followed the familiar pattern, with visits to Juno Beach and Normandy, then on to Dieppe and then the area around Iser (formally Ypres) and Passchendaele and the Somme. The climax, of course, was Vimy with subsidiary events planned for Givenchy and the re-dedication of the 1919 Canadian Artillery Memorial at Thelus. Both places were on the ridge itself and had been reduced to rubble in the fighting and then rebuilt. In 2017 they were emblazoned with Canadian flags by the hundreds. Everyone was at least a little Canadian!
Finally, the big day, the reason we had travelled so far, April 9, 2017 arrived. The area was alive with Canadians of all ages, including a very large number of exuberant high school students. Regardless of our age, we all congregated in pre-designated assembly areas where we patiently inched our way forward in long lines for hours until we passed through security and then were bussed to near the Canadian memorial on the ridge. Few minded the wait of several hours, and finally at about 4 p.m. the official party arrived – the Prince of Wales with his sons, Princes William and Harry, Governor General David Johnson, the President of France and Prime Minister Trudeau.
What brought us here, to this particular piece of Canadian territory ceded to Canada by France? What made Vimy special? It certainly was not its significance as a battlefield. Vimy may have been the first time all four Canadian divisions fought together and it was a noteworthy tactical victory in its own right. But Vimy was neither the greatest Canadian victory of the Great War or the most difficult. The crossing of and exploitation from the Canal du Nord in September 1918 was probably the greatest Canadian victory of the war, and it all but guaranteed the defeat of Germany in 1918, so a strong argument could have been made for it. As for the most difficult, perhaps Hill 70 in the summer of 1917 qualified in that category. Sir Arthur Currie who commanded the Canadian Corps there considered it our most challenging battle. Perhaps there was a more compelling reason for its choice and that was geography.
Vimy Ridge even without the monument is a striking piece of ground that dominates the surrounding countryside. The twin spires of the memorial catch the eye and draw one’s attention towards the highest point of the crest, itself the last point to fall to Canadian arms. The inspired magnificence of the monument seems crafted to dominate such a place, and the approach to it from all directions seems to lead one on a pilgrimage to honour the memory of the Canadians who fell in the more than three years of carnage on the Western Front.
I am somewhat ambivalent about the claim that Vimy created the notion of Canada. There is evidence that those who captured the ridge were very conscious that they were all Canadians, regardless of birthplace, and that they had succeeded where others had failed. But was it the primary reason for their descendants to gather in their memory, perhaps not? Yet they had helped drive the point home to the world that Canada was not a colony, but a nation in its own right, and that was important.
The Vimy memorial was built to remember those who fell and especially those who have no known grave. To me it reached across the years and across the seas to form a link with the thousand of sincere little memorials all across Canada, like those here in North Grenville; the ones raised by their friends and families and neighbours to honour the memories of those from the local communities who died. Maybe that was why so many of us, and most importantly so many young Canadians, felt the compulsion to come together to try to grasp the meaning of the day and why we had to be on Vimy Ridge.